Eighty Greenville Public Schools employees stayed after school Monday for a much-awaited shot in the arm.

As they rolled up their sleeves and received the COVID-19 vaccine, smiles and laughter filled the Spectrum Health United Hospital conference room. Hope filled their hearts.

“I’m excited and grateful for this opportunity,” said high school science teacher Tami Braginton. “I know it’s important to get our kids back in school and I feel this a huge step toward that goal.”

Braginton and her colleagues were the first essential workers in Phase 1b to receive the vaccine in Greenville as Spectrum Health begins vaccinating community members this week throughout West Michigan. The Mid-Michigan District Health Department asked Spectrum Health to hold the vaccine clinic for Greenville Public Schools employees.

With 3,600 students and 460 employees, the school district has used a combination of remote and in-person learning since the COVID-19 outbreak.

Coincidently, Monday marked the first day for in-person classes since mid-November.

“This is truly a great day for GPS and we are thrilled this day is finally here,” said Greenville Public Schools superintendent Linda VanHouten. “We are so excited to be able to have our teachers receive the vaccine as it is the catalyst for us to be able to provide stability for our students with in-person learning.”

Educators agreed there is no comparison between in-person and virtual learning.

“Trying to engage kids through a computer every day, for multiple hours a day, is near impossible,” VanHouten said. “Our teachers have risen to the challenge, they have been creative, innovative and resilient—they haven’t given up. They are there for the kids. They know the kids need them.”

Braginton shared how the normal high school experience has been disrupted and her hopes for the future.

“I am looking forward to getting back to normal so that students can experience high school activities and sports and things that come with that,” she said. “Being in person is much better than distance learning.”

The normalcy educators crave includes more than academics.

Last year’s Greenville High School graduation ceremony had to be hosted in the high school parking lot. Families stayed in their cars as names were read over a large speaker.

Prom and homecoming were canceled.

Most sports have been canceled.

Band, choir, drama or orchestra performances had to be put on hold.

Students are not gathering after school for club meetings.

VanHouten said students have suffered.

“Mental health has become the priority,” VanHouten said. “It might be a safety call after hours. It might be a check in. It might be contacting those kids individually or talking to their friends or connecting them with resources of social workers and counsellors.”

“I can tell you many of the teachers will say they spend more time on that than they do on actually teaching,” she said. “We’ve always made building positive relationships with kids a priority, but never has it had to be to this extent.”

For Braginton, just being able to see her students is good for her own mental health.

“I miss my students and seeing their faces,” she said. “The whole face-to-face interaction is definitely a bonus in this job and being able to read body language.”

It has also affected what she can teach.

“Hands-on labs have been on the back burner,” she said. “To try and teach science labs online has been a learning curve to say the least.”

Middle school science teacher Joe Conley also received the vaccine Monday. He agreed it’s important to get back to in-person learning.

“Middle school-aged kids struggle with not having a social aspect to learning,” he said. “They should be learning together with other students. That’s where they can really excel. Group work is important and that’s hard to do online. Very hard.”

Colleague Kathy Cavendish, a special education paraprofessional, received the vaccine so she can protect the people she cares about.

“I was undecided, but I feel it’s helping family, friends and coworkers,” she said. “I’m just going to have my faith and hope it’s what I need to do.”

Kim Bell, dean of students at the district’s alternative education program, received the vaccine at her doctor’s urging.

“I was a little hesitant because it’s new… but I checked with my doctor and he said I should get it, so I did,” Bell said. “My doctor had COVID and had a lot of problems with it.”

Jon Ashford, Chief Operating Officer for Spectrum Health United and Kelsey Hospitals, said it was a big day in the community.

“This has been an exciting process for us to rollout our Phase 1b to our essential workers, and in particular Greenville Public Schools,” Ashford said. “We will continue to roll out our vaccine in the community as we receive more doses.”

VanHouten felt humbled and pleased school district personnel received the vaccine in the early phases of the rollout.

“I’m just so grateful,” she said. “We know that everybody wants the vaccine. We are just thrilled that we are able to be some of the first ones to get them, and we are looking forward to when our whole community can feel safe and hopeful and moving to normalcy.”