New Brunswick

Science teacher gets COVID-blues comfort from hundreds of former students

On Friday, March 13, Lisa Holyoke Walsh wrapped up a busy day of teaching biology at Leo Hayes High School in Fredericton where she also runs the science club. She had no idea she wouldn't be back.  

'I miss my students like crazy,' said Lisa Holyoke Walsh, who found a way to reconnect during the lockdown

Lisa Holyoke Walsh teaches biology at Leo Hayes High School and co-ordinates the science club. (Submitted/Lisa Holyoke Walsh )

On Friday, March 13, Lisa Holyoke Walsh wrapped up a busy day of teaching biology at Leo Hayes High School in Fredericton where she also runs the science club. She had no idea she wouldn't be back.  

That evening, the education minister ordered New Brunswick schools to close on a two-week basis.

Later, as the number of COVID-19 cases started to rise, it was decided that schools would remain closed for the rest of the school year.

As the weeks went by, and the reality sank in, Holyoke found herself pining for the classroom.

"As you can imagine, it's been pretty lonesome, being at home, especially when you're passionate about teaching," she said.

"I was missing my kids like crazy."

Social media call for contact

Hoping to give her sagging morale a little boost, Holyoke put out a call on Facebook, inviting anyone she'd ever taught to let her know how they're doing now.

Hundreds of comments quickly poured in from students from far away and from far back in time.

Holyoke has been teaching for 18 years, including two years in Trinidad.

Students talked about how much she had meant to them. They spoke about hurdles they had faced and obstacles they overcame. Many went on to study and work in science and education.  

Some had spread out across the province and the country. A few were scattered around the world. They spoke of their careers and families of their own.  

"Every post was meaningful," said Holyoke.

"A couple that were really touching were the kids that mentioned that they were the difficult kid or the tough kid or they didn't like school but I gave them hope and made them want to come to school," she said.

"Those were the ones that made me think, 'Wow, I knew you could do it. I always had that hope that you would have a good life and that you would be OK.' And so to see that they are is really special to me."

'She was like the school mother'

Grade 12 student Camilla Drost says it was Holyoke who really turned her on to sciences.  

She plans to start engineering at the University of New Brunswick in September with the help of a $40,000 Beaverbrook Scholarship.

"I would hope every student would have at least one teacher like Ms. Holyoke," said Drost, who also belonged to the science club.

Science teacher Lisa Holyoke Walsh with17-year-old student Camilla Drost took this photo together on Feb. 6, about a month before schools were closed because of COVID-19. Drost was a member of the science club and was just awarded a Beaverbrook Scholarship and plans to go into engineering at UNB in the fall. (Submitted/Camilla Drost)

"We immediately loved her. We saw her like a school mother figure.

"The way she teaches and how she influences people, it really sticks with them for the rest of their lives as you can see from all the comments."

Drost said she'll never forget the day that Holyoke arranged for a reptile handler to come into the library so students could get an up close lesson in alligators, snakes and frogs.  

"You could actually feel them," said Drost. "That was the kind of thing she did. It was very hands-on."

'Our last day and we didn't know it'

Seventeen-year-old Katie Moore said she misses Holyoke and is still processing the shock of losing the end of her senior year.

"I remember it being Friday the 13th, which was pretty ironic," said Moore who had packed up that day for the weekend not knowing that the coronavirus crisis was going to quash all her graduation plans.  

"It was our last day of high school and we didn't even know it."

Katie Moore and Lisa Holyoke Walsh together in a picture Moore took in June 2019 in in the classroom. Moore said Holyoke made everything fun and interesting, including the dissections of baby sharks and worms. (Submitted/Kate Moore)

Moore said Holyoke made a real effort to encourage female students to take an interest in the STEM disciplines — science, technology, engineering and math.

"She makes science so fun. She makes everything so exciting," said Moore.

"I remember we'd be about to do a dissection in biology, something absolutely disgusting, and yet we'd be so excited because she makes everything seem so cool. She's so funny."

Moore is enrolled in the science program at UNB and hopes to follow that with another degree in veterinary medicine.

'The hardest part now is the unknown'

Holyoke said connecting with former students has really "given her a lift" at a difficult time and she has tried to respond to everyone.

For many, she was able to recall a funny story or a shared memory or something quite specific.

"Once I see their face, I can look back and I can usually remember where they sat and some of the quirky things that happened with them in my room," said Holyoke.

The last day of classes at Leo Hayes High School in Fredericton last day of classes was March 13, the day Education Minister Dominic Cardy closed schools because of COVID-19. (CBC)

Making contact through social media and online has been helpful, said Holyoke, but it still bothers her not to be able to see students in person.  

"I have a lot of students who come to me for food or they need a pair of sneakers or they're in an abusive situation," she said.

"I think the hardest part now is the unknown. What is September going to look like? Am I going to be able to hug students when I need to? Am I going to be able to sit with them and have heart-to-hearts or will I have to be ten feet away?"

"I try to stay positive but it's hard not being to connect with my kids on a daily basis."

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