Julie Welch gives a virtual math lesson to her sixth grade students from her home in West Salem, Wis., on Feb. 8, 2021. Bella, a Landseer Newfoundland dog, sits behind her. Health reasons pushed Welch, 54, to apply to teach for the Coulee Region Virtual Academy, which the School District of La Crosse offered this year as an alternative to in-person classes. Credit: Angela Major / WPR
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Outbreak Wisconsin chronicles people’s journeys through the coronavirus crisis, exposes failing systems and explores solutions.

https://wisconsinwatch.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/nws210310-HK-OBWJULIE.mp3
Listen to Julie Welch’s first audio diary, produced by Hope Kirwan for WPR.

Julie Welch has taught middle school for 30 years. But she never dreamed of instructing 23 sixth graders over Zoom from the basement of her home in West Salem, Wisconsin.

“I sort of have a love-hate relationship with (technology) truthfully, in the fact that I like some of the things it can do, but I’ve always been pretty vocal about wanting kids to be off the screen,” Welch said.

Welch, 54, said health reasons pushed her to apply to teach for the Coulee Region Virtual Academy, which the School District of La Crosse offered this year as an alternative to in-person classes. Had she not shifted to the new position, the risks of coronavirus exposure from in-person teaching would have forced her to take a leave of absence from work, she said.

“I’m close to retirement, but I’m not quite there yet. So I still want to teach, I’m still able to teach, but I just needed to be able to do it safely,” Welch said.

After honing her online skills last summer, Welch said she started the school year by meeting one-on-one with each of her students and their families on Zoom.

“I was very upfront and very honest and said, ‘Hey I’m going to do the very best I can, and I’ll expect you to do the very best you can. But we’re going to have to help each other,’ ” Welch said.

Learning the new mode of teaching proved difficult, Welch said. But her expectations of a  “boring and isolating” school year didn’t pan out. The transition instead rekindled her love of teaching.

“I am amazed how much I love online teaching. What I find is that I’m spending my days laughing and teaching and working with kids,” Welch said. “I’m spending the whole day teaching, and I’m not spending a lot of time doing a lot of other tasks that often regular teachers in the school day are pulled to do. I’m not doing bus duty and recess duty and hallway duty.”

Welch said she is also surprised by how well her students are learning through online classes. While some kids struggled and had to switch back to in-person learning during winter break, she said most students can work independently and reach out for one-on-one help when they need it.

Welch said her story is unique among teachers during the pandemic. Her colleagues have faced constant challenges throughout the school year as changing community infection counts and evolving safety guidelines from health officials force them to adapt. 

“Stress is the number one thing that I’m hearing from my coworkers because they’ve been having to change and adjust on a sometimes weekly basis,” Welch said. “It’s not anyone’s fault, it’s because of this situation we’re in and because our school district is trying to be responsive to what parents need, what students need, what the (federal Centers for Disease Control) says is safe, and those things have changed and they’re constantly changing.”

Welch said teachers are being asked to do even more during the pandemic, from cleaning surfaces around their room to making sure students keep a safe distance from each other. 

Teachers are willing to take on the extra load because they care about their students, Welch said, adding that worrying about students’ safety throughout the day escalates stress that she hasn’t had to take on while teaching from her basement. 

“I really, really feel for my coworkers that are in-person. They’re doing it, they’re not complaining, they’re not quitting,” Welch said. “But they are exhausted, and they need all of the support we can give them.” 

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Hope Kirwan / Wisconsin Public Radio

Hope Kirwan is a reporter for Wisconsin Public Radio based in La Crosse. She covers agriculture and southwestern Wisconsin.