Jo Ann Woods’ kindergarten classroom looks a little different this year, but even in this pandemic school year, she’s tried to make sure her students are taken care of.
She sent home Christmas presents and called each of them on Christmas Day — an easier feat this year when she only has 12 students. Presents were under a small tree in the corner of her room for students who mastered their sight words.
Woods, a teacher at Nathanael Greene Primary School, doesn’t have children and said she treats her students like her own.
“These kids are my life,” she said.
Undaunted by a life-threatening May hospitalization for COVID-19, Woods returned to Nathanael Greene for her 37th year in teaching. Before, she was a self-described “go machine,” but now she’s a little more tired and short of breath at school, exhausted by the end of the day. But, she never thought of retiring.
“I just love what I do,” Woods said. “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be here, because it would have been easier to go ahead and retire and walk away than come back. But this is what I want to do. … Am I ever going to want to retire? Yes, I’m going to want to retire but not leave the students. It’s bittersweet. I can’t imagine myself not being here.”
Greene County Public Schools started in-person classes Sept. 8, and elementary students had the option to go to school five days a week. Woods said she was apprehensive about teaching in-person, but ultimately, it was the right thing to do in a rural county where internet access isn’t available everywhere.
During her hospital stay, when doctors didn’t think she would survive, Woods said her students helped boost her spirits and she thought about how she would get them to wear a mask. She even wrote them a song on the small sticky notes she had in her purse about wearing masks and social distancing.
“When I was laying in that hospital and I was just like, if I could just make a difference one more time,” she said.
At school, she’s worked to make sure her students understand the new COVID precautions and protocols. She taught the students the song, which they learned in one day, and later sang for the staff at Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital who helped her recover and at other hospitals.
“ABC, 123/We wear our masks/to be COVID-free,” opens the song.
Danielle Alicea, principal at Nathanael Greene, said that Woods’ experience with COVID is a good reminder to the school community about why the mitigation measures are important.
“This is no joke; she’s been through it,” Alicea said. “She’s a living example of what it was like to go through it, so she’s a good reminder to say, ‘hey, they don’t put these practices in place just to be difficult. They’re doing it to keep us safe.’”
Alicea said Woods is often the first person to offer to step up and help with whatever is needed, from making a delivery to helping another teacher set up their classroom.
“She’s always putting others before herself,” she said.
Woods has gone public with her story of surviving COVID-19 because she wants to help keep her community safe and to raise awareness about the pandemic.
“I wanted to get back in here and try to make a difference,” she said.
Woods wants people to understand that the pandemic is real, encouraging everyone to wear a mask and social distance.
“It is truly a serious issue,” she said. “It doesn’t matter who or what, you can get it.”
Woods doesn’t know how she contracted COVID-19. According to state data, when she went to the hospital May 24, 22 people in Greene County had tested positive for COVID-19, three were hospitalized and one person had died.
She went to the doctor May 15 and May 22. Because her symptoms weren’t typical for COVID-19, she was sent home to rest. At home, she said was in and out of consciousness and thought she would die. Former students, one of whom is a nurse, visited her and ended up taking her to the hospital.
During her hospital stay, several staff members who took care of her were former students, including one who administered the COVID test, which Woods described as a bad experience.
“I thought they were touching the skull,” she said, adding that she’s “not a wimp.”
She feels fortunate that she didn’t need a ventilator. She said the Martha Jefferson staff did the best they could for her, and after five days, she didn’t want to leave the hospital.
“But I’m telling you, you’re so sick,” she said. “… I was scared, and I knew that they were equipped to take care of me. They had done an amazing job, but I also know that I was the lucky one, and I thank my Heavenly Father.”
Woods said her favorite part of working with kindergartners is teaching them how to tie their shoes and read.
“You work so hard with them on their alphabet, and seeing them learn their letters and sounds,” she said. “But finally, when they put those sounds to use, and put them together and form words, and then they’re reading, and when they look at you and they’re actually reading — the excitement that’s on their face.”
When schools closed in March, Woods volunteered to help make learning packets that were sent home weekly. Alicea said that when Woods got sick, Woods apologized because she couldn’t help anymore. She told Woods to take care of herself.
Alicea said Woods always wants to make sure everyone has everything they need. When setting up her socially distant classroom, she went a “couple miles extra” to get tubs and containers for her students, so they would have supplies, books and games at their desks.
Having someone with three decades of experience on the kindergarten team is helpful to the rest of the staff, Alicea said.
“I keep telling her that when you do plan to retire, you have to prep us, give us some time,” she said.
Over the years, Woods said she’s tried to do what’s best for her students from beginning to end.
“All those parents allowed me all those years to teach their children, and they made a difference in my life,” she said. “And I hope that I’ve made a difference in theirs in some way— in a positive way for sure.”