One year ago today, everything changed – our beloved Berlin schools closed, much of society went remote, restaurants and movie theatres went dark, sports came to a halt, and we began living a new reality from which we are hopefully beginning to emerge. There has been no part of society that has remained untouched, yet we adapted and found new ways to learn and educate, to be safe, to carry on, and to be a community. One year later, we emerge stronger, sharper, more organized and determined, and also, more caring.

With the promise of springtime, longer days and warmer weather, also comes new hope due to decreasing COVID-19 positivity rates as well as the slow reopening of certain parts of society. Still, despite widespread vaccination, large segments of the population are yet to be vaccinated. We must remain vigilant and do our part in order to keep positivity rates down and continue to protect our community, most especially, our students.

As Carolina Testa, guidance counselor at Berlin Middle/High School, has noted “Movement is Medicine.” It is important to take care of ourselves – exercise, get plenty of rest, stay connected, appreciate the little things, and do something fun or rewarding (especially as it starts to get warmer again). After all, our mental health is just as important as our physical health. It is also important to be sensitive to the mental health needs of our students and children. According to new analysis by FAIR Health, the demand for teenage mental health care doubled last year amid the pandemic. Moreover, a report from the nonprofit Save the Children ranked the states where kids have been faring the best and worst during the pandemic.

Kasey Hannigan, kindergarten teacher at Berlin Elementary School, reflected not only on how the past year has affected students, but teachers as well. “Who knew that one year ago we would be living through a pandemic that would soon make it into our children’s history lessons?  The overwhelming feelings of disbelief, uncertainty and frustration were often eased by the sweet smiles and countless hellos of Kindergartners through the screen. Little did they know their giggles and toothless smiles helped their teacher trudge through countless hours of research on how to be an effective virtual teacher or conduct out of the box teaching.  Those very students have feverishly worked to catch up on all that they have missed, not only their regular grade level curriculum, but also, the social and emotional skills needed to be a good friend, believe in themselves, and live through these unprecedented times.”

Fred Hutchinson, director of CIA/CIO, said the team used the phrase, “Nothing about this is perfect except the effort” as a guiding mantra. “In these last 12 months, Berlin showed me the strength that comes when you bring together all the stakeholders on an important singular focus. Teachers gave time and energy way beyond what anyone could have expected or asked for, the administrative team proved just how smart, collaborative, and professional we could be, the Board showed such a genuine interest in and concern for students and staff alike that their co-commitment became inspiring, and the kids illustrated a resilience that completely earned them the moniker of Mountaineers.  In retrospect, I don’t know that I’ve ever been more proud to be a part of something in my professional life.”

Jodi Sullivan, principal at Berlin Middle/High School, echoed those sentiments, “It’s easy to see why everyone talks about what a great school community it is here at Berlin.  Every single member has put their best foot forward every day.  Drivers, custodians, food service workers, monitors, teaching assistants, teachers, support staff, families, students, administrators, board members, and community members have done nothing but help pull in the right direction for students.  What impresses me most is how each person has been able to find that little bit extra to give, even when we were worn down.”

It remains clear that throughout the pandemic, every part of the Berlin CSD community has stepped up to give more than what was expected. According to Tammy Whitman of Food Services, 15,323 breakfast and 15,305 lunches were provided between March and June of 2020. From September of 2020 to mid-March of 2021, another 14,144 breakfasts and 15,329 lunches were provided. The transportation department, likewise, was a lifeline and an essential community connection between the district and its students. They greeted the children day-to-day and decorated their buses to raise spirits.

As the district’s COVID coordinator, Michele Corsey, school nurse, was the heartbeat of Berlin CSD’s COVID response. Among the tasks she has – and continues to – carry out, she has co-facilitated the health and safety task force committee for re-opening plans, developed and wrote health and safety protocols according to NYSDOH and NYSED guidelines, facilitated the creation of a  testing plan to meet Micro cluster testing guidelines, coordinated COVID testing of athletes in high risk sports, worked closely with Rensselaer County DOH on contact tracing, and worked closely with the superintendent, athletic director and transportation offices to report, implement and maintain safety protocols.

Corsey noted, “This school year has been like no other, given the many challenges the COVID pandemic has presented. I am so proud of how the entire Berlin School District staff and families went way above and beyond, working together to keep our staff and families safe and healthy.”

Another crucial area that stepped up to help Berlin CSD adjust to the challenges of the past year is the IT Department, helmed by Patricia Weber and Tammy Dunlop. They distributed approximately 600 devices to students and staff for instructional/academic purposes, 5 hotspots as well as special headphones with built-in microphones to students and staff, while continuing to issue devices to new students, repair and troubleshoot any reported issues, and assist students who are fully remote with any technical issues.

Tracy Kent, principal of Berlin Elementary School, commented on the connectedness the district has been able to maintain throughout the pandemic. “Despite the challenges of the past year, the teachers and staff of Berlin Elementary have amazed me with their continued commitment to our students. They have learned new technologies, teaching methods, and ways of connecting to ensure that every student has continued to learn and felt a connection to the school community. Berlin is a special place because of the dedication of the teachers, staff, students and families who call it home.”

Joseph Dhara, school superintendent, observed, “The Berlin school district is an amazing place filled with dedicated and hardworking staff and an engaged community. In just a brief time here, I have realized the level of support, compassion, helpfulness, and hard work that employees consistently put in for our students and each other. This has made it possible for Berlin to stay strong through the pandemic and continue to do what is best for our students and staff. There is still a ways to go before this is behind us, but we have learned and grown from this experience, both individually and collectively.

“The creativity of our teachers has been exemplary, from creating remote lessons to juggling between students who are in-person or remote, while conducting engaging lessons. The dedication of our support staff in safely transporting our students, keeping our buildings sanitized, ensuring meals are healthy and ready, and taking care of our student’s social-emotional needs, has been nothing short of outstanding. The hard work and flexibility of our administrative team in adapting to rapidly changing situations while continuing to support an academic environment speaks to their dedication to our district. The support and flexibility our community has demonstrated as we change protocols based on guidelines, is truly appreciated.

“We have truly learned a lot and we are going to carry this learning with us into the future. This applies not only to the aspects of using technology and creative student engagement in classrooms, but also to our commitment to the overall wellbeing of our students. Berlin CSD is strong, and we have a bright future filled with possibilities for our students, staff and community.”