Photo Gallery — Scenes from the COVID Years: 24 Months of Lockdown and Resilience in One Mississippi School District

By Meghan Gallagher | February 10, 2022

When the social media accounts of school districts across the country went dark during the pandemic, the tiny district of Tupelo, Mississippi, doubled down on its commitment to share what was going on in their classrooms.

Over the past 700 days, as the pandemic swept the globe disrupting education for millions of children, the district of just 14 schools and 7,109 children regularly provided parents and the community with photos and videos on its social media feeds — determined to capture a range of moments, from the anxiety of those first few days at school to the joy of being with friends and supportive educators.

Tupelo has an “open campus policy,” said district marketing and communications director Gregg Ellis, with parents once freely walking through the schools, showing up to have lunch with their children or meet with teachers. 

Once COVID hit all that changed. Parents were barred from school buildings. Determined to provide parents with some access, Ellis and his team got to work.

“We didn’t want our parents to not know what’s going on at the schools. We still wanted them to get a feel for what was happening,” Ellis said. “We felt we had to amp up our game so that while they were not able to go into the schools … they could still see what their children were doing.

Photos by Ryan Coon / Tupelo School District

Sometimes that included photos that portrayed anxiety and uncertainty in children. “We didn’t purposely capture them, but there were some tense moments,” said Ellis, “because of the unknown … My philosophy has just been to capture everyday life in the moment of children and teachers interacting.”

Prospective families, and parents with children newly enrolled in Tupelo schools were particularly disadvantaged, unable to attend in-person tours or back-to-school nights.

“Some parents were never inside our buildings for the first two years … They had no idea what their child’s [class]room looks like, what the gyms look like … the music halls, so we wanted them to see and experience that,” Ellis explained.

The city of Tupelo likes to tout itself as the birthplace of Elvis Presley. Fair enough. But the Tupelo school district has had its share of recognition: Finalsite named Tupelo the best-in-class for photography and web design among school districts in 2020.

“Each high-quality image is full of life and school pride and ensures that the colors in the photos compliment that of the website,” wrote Finalsite’s Mia Major.

During the pandemic, the qualities Finalsite recognized in how Tupelo portrayed school life became a necessity. Soon the district’s social media accounts were filled with posts and photos of school life going on despite the challenges, of tentative students welcomed back by comforting teachers, and unique graduations.

“We decided early on we weren’t going to hide that we’re going to go in and capture kids still engaged, still learning, to show parents who were relying on these images more than ever,” said a Tupelo district’s photographer, Ryan Coon.

New school year begins — With some changes and challenges  

At the start of the 2021-22 school year, with parents barred from entering schools, teachers met their young students outside, taking on the role of comforting first-day nerves.

Parents learn to say goodbye outside schools. 

“I just didn’t want the parents to lose complete sight of what our schools are like,” Gregg said. 

Preparing to go back to class

On the first day of school, teachers from a Tupelo elementary school wore T-shirts that read “Dedicated teacher even from a distance.” “They were so positive and uplifting,” said Ellis. 

Teachers were trained to take temperatures with handheld thermometers and social-distance reminders were posted around school buildings. 

“I tell people all the time: The two safest places in Tupelo were the hospital and our school district,” Ellis said. “Because, one, we required masks. We required social distancing. We were cleaning and spraying and fogging after every class.”

To avoid big groups from gathering in the cafeteria, free breakfast was served outside to each student at Milam Elementary School.

Life and learning continues through COVID

Once inside, learning commenced with the addition of a few modifications that took some getting used to.

Even behind masks, body language and eyes can say a lot about the “tense moments … because of the unknown” Ellis referred to.

In the past, Coon said he mainly aimed his camera toward students with big, bright smiles. He said beaming faces were “an obvious statement to the community that said ‘hey, we’re happy, we love it at school.’”

Soon, he realized the importance of zooming in on students’ eyes to capture “Smize” — smiling with eyes. He also relied way more on a classic thumbs-up.

While making his rounds snapping shots of masked-up learners, Coon never heard students complain about wearing them. Other than not seeing their smiles, it was as if they “weren’t even wearing them.”

“I was in classrooms on a daily basis. I never heard kids arguing about masks or upset by them. They just did it” as evident in this photo of two young boys peacefully reading, Coon said.

On picture day, the high school’s therapy dog, Wavely, showed off his protective school spiritwear.

“Wavely has been there to provide an extra boost and extra love for students and staff,” Coon said. “She was training to become [a therapy dog] before COVID … but has been such an added part of helping some students with the anxiety of such a different couple of years.”

During the two years of the pandemic, there were times when it was just teachers in the classroom working remotely. 

Even outside the classroom, school life went on

Although COVID didn’t allow for some of years’ past celebrations, Coon continued to capture other aspects of school life outside of the classroom, from spelling bees to band practice, football games, pre-exam parades, homecoming of a military dad, Halloween, recess and more.

Rather than always telling students to pose for a shot, Coon preferred capturing them engaged with their surroundings.

“It’s just telling a story, and capturing the moments that are happening. I like to show parents photos of their students engaged,” said Coon.

Out with a bang, and a mask

For the class of 2020, graduation was split into four different locations and families were brought in one at a time “basically to have their moment with their child, and then had to leave for the next family and student to come in,” Coon said.

“And then we had a big firework show downtown that could drive by afterwards,” he added.

Ellis recalled receiving many grateful responses from parents for how the district handled graduation for a class that missed out on many other senior year experiences. “They said, ‘hey, this is not what we wanted, but you gave my child something special.’”

One mom joked with Ellis about how “cool it was to get that close to the stage and get great pictures.” She couldn’t do that at her older children’s graduation. 

A year later, the Class of 2021 graduated together in one space, with a new addition to the cap and gown outfit — royal blue Tupelo High School masks.

Despite a challenging year, Coon said he was determined to “show people how much goes on in the building and all that the staff and teachers do for these kids.”

Photos by Ryan Coon / Tupelo School District

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