The end of the school year is bittersweet for teacher Kate Whittier

LIFE LESSONS: A.C. Reynolds Middle School math teacher Kate Whittier, center, with husband Andy and daughter Nela, found that virtual learning, while challenging, also afforded new opportunities for bonding with students. Photo by Margaret Graton

Most Western North Carolina students and educators have left behind a disrupted and oddly challenging academic year to shift into summer vacation mode. But for A.C. Reynolds Middle School sixth-grade math teacher Kate Whittier, that normally welcome transition is a tough one.

“This was the hardest end to a school year that I’ve ever had,” she says. “I feel like our relationships got a lot deeper, because we were holding Zoom meetings in our living rooms. We got to see a different side of [the students]. I mean, our pets came to our meetings. We were all just vulnerable and going through all of this together.”

She credits Buncombe County Schools with facilitating a smooth and agile switch from classroom teaching to virtual learning platforms when the state suddenly closed schools in March. The BCS Digital Learning Initiative had already supplied each student with a digital device, and the county provided hot spots for those without internet access. “So we were already prepared, and we were teaching on day three,” Whittier says. “I was just blown away by it.”

But figuring out how to design meaningful, high-impact math lessons for online platforms that students could navigate with minimal parental oversight was a tricky problem to solve. And with child care facilities closed due to COVID-19, she and her husband were also caring for their 3-year-old daughter while trying to work at home.

She acknowledges that preparing virtual lessons and hosting her daily classroom Zoom meetings was extremely labor-intensive. “It was so much harder, too, mentally, because we were all struggling, and I had my daughter here, too,” Whittier says. “Sometimes she was in my lap during the Zoom meetings because that’s all I could do.”

Despite the intensity of the past few months, she’s finding it hard to relax into a vacation mindset. “There are so many unknowns going into next year,” says Whittier. “It’s good, though, that I can focus on my daughter and not feel like I’m pulled in two directions.”

This article is part of COVID Conversations, a series of short features based on interviews with members of our community during the coronavirus pandemic in Western North Carolina. If you or someone you know has a unique story you think should be featured in a future issue of Xpress, please let us know at


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