Kolter ES teachers adjust to teaching in new school without students

When walking into Jennifer Heemer’s fifth grade classroom at Kolter Elementary School, it’s hard not to get excited about learning.

The walls are adorned with colorful decorations, including a poster reminding her students to “think outside the box” and class photos from her 21 years of teaching. Natural light from a wall of large windows fills the room and illuminates the two rows of perfectly-arranged desks.

There’s only one thing missing. Students.

“The best word to describe it is overwhelming,” Heemer said Tuesday, the first day of school in the Houston Independent School District. “What I want the most is to have students in my classroom, reading books, watching me get animated when I read the stories.”

The Houston Independent School District opted for a online-only first six weeks of school, postponing in-person learning until Oct. 19 due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

For Heemer and her fellow Kolter teachers, this time is especially bittersweet. The start of the 2020-2021 school year was supposed to mark the Kolter school community’s triumphant return to a campus they’d been forced to flee in the wake of Hurricane Harvey three years.

Torn down and rebuilt, the school would have opened it’s doors to students in time for the start of the 2020-2021 school year were it not for the ongoing pandemic that postponed in-person learning.

Heemer said she and her fellow teachers are making the most of the virtual learning period, but they eagerly await their in-person return.

“Like most educators, we signed up for this for the kids, so we’ll do whatever it takes to make sure what we give them on the screen is as good as what we would do in the classroom,” she said.

On the first day of school, Heemer sat at one of the student desks, using the district’s online learning platform to tell her students through a computer screen how much she missed seeing them face-to-face. Smiling and waving at their eager faces, she gave them a quick break to stretch before transitioning to their first social studies lesson of the year.

Though the first day moved quickly, Heemer said still couldn’t help but think of her students and how excited they are to get back into the new school.

“Hang on. Start a countdown calendar. Six weeks is not that long,” she said, offering a bit of advice for her anxious school community. “The school is here, and it’s ready. Our rooms are set up and you’ll be here soon. Six weeks will fly by.”