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School through a screen: Cherokee immersion teacher navigates pandemic

Katlin Roberts masks up for teaching. Donated photo Katlin Roberts masks up for teaching. Donated photo

Katlin Roberts was making coronavirus contingency plans before most people in the United States had even really heard of COVID-19. By February, she’d grown concerned enough to walk into her principal’s office and ask what would happen if the disease spread to Cherokee. They’d take precautions, she was told, but certainly wouldn’t send students home. 

“Less than a month later in March was when the decision was made to close the school,” said Roberts. “I don’t think anybody could have predicted when we started having cases in the United States and even in the South that this level of school closure and business closure would occur. It felt a little surreal for me personally.”

The plight of teachers and students in America’s K-12 schools has been one of the most told and most compelling of the pandemic. But Roberts’ story is unique in that, in addition to teaching a roomful of second graders how to do math and science, Roberts is also responsible for passing along the increasingly endangered Cherokee language. She teaches an immersion classroom at New Kituwah Academy, and she delivers all her lessons in Cherokee.

Roberts, 27, is an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians who grew up in Cherokee’s Painttown community, but she didn’t start learning the Cherokee language until beginning her undergraduate studies at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. 

“I knew that I wanted to come back to my community and give back to them, and so that was when I became interested in teaching because it felt like that was a really in-the-trenches kind of career,” she said. 

That desire — to dive more deeply into her culture and give back to her community — brought her to New Kituwah, where she’s been an immersion classroom teacher for the last three of her six years there. When school went online, Roberts found that teaching academic subjects in Cherokee is especially challenging when the students are no longer surrounded by the language all day, as they are at New Kituwah. 

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“Even as an adult, it’s hard when I go home at the end of the day to switch back to English, and they’re kids,” she said. “Adults comparatively have more coping skills, so I imagine it’s very challenging for students to do that.”

Add in difficulties related to internet access — many students don’t have access, and even Roberts dealt with network outages that sometimes forced her to cancel class at the last minute — and Roberts was glad when New Kituwah returned to in-person instruction Feb. 16, albeit with a different structure and schedule than in the pre-pandemic days. Going from “seeing people that are like a second family to me” every day — including students, teachers and the fluent speakers who aid instruction at New Kituwah — to not seeing them at all was extremely difficult, she said. 

In addition to her role as a teacher, last year Roberts was a student as well, enrolled in an online graduate program through Western Carolina University. When school went remote, she found herself working for eight hours in front of the computer screen only to spend another four hours on homework, in front of that same computer, while at home with her boyfriend and three dogs. 

“That was pretty exhausting,” she said. “You get eye strain. I had to get glasses.”

Roberts graduated in August, but when fall arrived so did a new challenge. Her boyfriend, who has asthma, contracted the coronavirus in October and became extremely sick. Roberts was an attentive nurse, checking his oxygen levels every two hours — including overnight — and constantly worrying that he was about to take a turn for the worse. 

“The first five days his symptoms were very bad,” she said. “He said he felt like he was drowning.”

It took him two months to fully recover. Meanwhile Roberts, who slept beside him every night, even when he was at his sickest, never contracted the virus. 

Now cases are lower, and vaccines are rolling out, and Roberts is starting to think about what the future might look like. Long-term, she believes, her students’ language attainment and retention won’t suffer much due to the last year’s interruptions, but she’s glad to be back in-person. With vaccination rates increasing — especially on the Qualla Boundary — she’s “really hopeful” for the rest of 2021. 

But there is one thing from the COVID era she hopes to see continue. 

“I’ve been really impressed by how our community has come together and looked out for each other,” she said, “and I hope that’s something we can hold onto as we move forward.” 

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