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Fulton educator opens up about first month of school year, teaching during pandemic

This is the first story of the 11Alive school special. We will follow Ms. Kelsey Drews throughout the school year.

ATLANTA — Each month, 11Alive is checking in with Fulton County Schools’ Teacher of the Year Ms. Kelsey Drews, to see how the school year is going for educators. Her students, like many others across the state, went back to the classroom August 9.

Since then, COVID-19 cases have climbed, even in children. As of Friday, her school, Heritage Elementary, had six kids with the virus. Drews hasn't had a confirmed case in her classroom yet, and is working hard to keep it that way.

"I do feel like a lot of the burden is on me for making sure my students are safe – whether that’s knowing how to do CPR or the Heimlich on a child if they choke on a grape in my room," she said. "I don’t feel ill equipped but I do feel a lot more stress. Should I be wiping down all the books every day? Should I be wiping down my crayons?” 

For Drews, the "new normal" is that there isn't quite anything normal anymore. Instead, the pandemic is forcing teachers to adapt and change.

"That is a lot of work and it's very stressful. I've had a lot more absences this year but I think there’s a lot more caution. Last year I felt really secure in the knowledge that I only had ten kids and it was so easy to spread out in the room," she added. "Teachers always have way more on our plates than our job description. That’s a given."

While her students are in the classroom and learning in-person, a lot looks different this year. First of all, masks are required in the district, which requires the use of them when cases go above 100 per 100,000 people.

RELATED: Fulton's Teacher of the Year prepares to teach students in class during pandemic

This comes during a time when COVID-19 cases are on the rise in schools across the country.

"Now with all the students across the country getting sick and hearing about students really close to us getting sick and getting really, really sick --  that’s scary," she said.

Drews said her students are already comfortable wearing the masks and are in a routine when it comes to washing their hands. 

However, on the second week of classes, she said there were about four of her students who had to stay home because of a possible exposure to the virus.

"This month has been definitely different than the rest of the years in my career. I wouldn’t call it unprecedented," she said. "Throughout this month, I’ve had several students out for two weeks so that’s different adjusting for those absences and knowing that’s also now part of our routine."

That's why keeping kids healthy in the classroom has become a responsibility she feels in her heart, but also her pocket.

"I made sure to buy a 12-pack of hand sanitizers and a 20-pack of tissues," she said. "I wish that I had more provided, that would’ve been great, but I think I probably spent maybe around $100 so far but its only been one month."

Drews credits mask-wearing for the reason why many of her students last school year did not get sick, despite the pandemic.

"I've been so fortunate because last year I felt like wearing the mask and washing our hands, we didn’t see kids getting sick – not pink eye, not flu, not the common cold -- because the masks prevents more things than just COVID," she said.

Credit: Kelsey Drews

The year also feels different for another reason.

“I don’t think I’ve had a class of mostly girls ever. A lot more talking. A lot more interactions.”

This year, her class is made up of 13 girls and 8 boys.

“They’re keeping me on my toes, that’s for sure," she added with a smile.

11Alive will be constantly checking in with Ms. Drews throughout the school year. For the first story on her, click here.

If you have any questions you'd like to ask her, e-mail 11Alive reporter Paola Suro at psuro@11alive.com.