SIERRA VISTA — The 2019-2020 academic year has presented multiple difficulties and hardships for our educators, students, and their families. One of the most notable challenges being the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the mass closure of schools enacted by the state legislature in mid-March of this year, our educators have risen to the challenge of distance-learning in addition to making lesson plans, attending board meetings, while facilitating the education of the youth in Cochise County.

With the additional complications from the pandemic, their roles have only been further highlighted in their dedication and perseverance in pioneering new teaching methods across multiple mediums.

Annually, the Cochise Education Foundation (CEF) and Cochise County School Superintendent Jacqui Clay host the Cochise County Teacher Of the Year award banquet, an event that recognizes teachers from elementary, middle and high schools around Cochise County for their exemplary work. Members from each school district and from the community nominate a teacher for each category.

“This is one of the activities in our county where everyone is relevant, everyone is validated,” said Clay. However, hosting this year’s Teacher Of The Year celebration was challenging in the wake of the pandemic. While considering the Centers for Disease Control’s guidelines for social-distancing, the Cochise Education Foundation and Superintendent Clay decided to modify the award ceremony into a socially-distanced drive-through celebration, to both accommodate the guidelines and recognize the teachers who have surpassed the obstacles of this exceptional academic year.

The event began Saturday morning with a welcome from Clay, followed by Eric Petermann, the Cochise Education Foundation Board President, addressing the procession and acknowledging the difficulty the pandemic placed on the shoulders of our educators.

Master of Ceremonies, Peter Hooper, representing the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, then announced the listings of sponsors, Cochise Education Foundation board members, then proceeded to accolade the winners for new teachers of the year.

Hooper then began introducing this year’s winner of the Special Project category, which honors a teacher’s work on developing, implementing, and executing a project that makes a positive contribution to their students’ experiences at their school. This year, the award for best Special Project was given to Benson Primary School’s Principal, Jomel Jansson.

Jansson’s project “Java with Jansson,” was initiated under the need to include more parental and community involvement within the school. Once a month, Jansson invites the parents and community members of Benson Unified School District and Benson Primary School to a breakfast meeting, allowing them to discuss new information and concerns pertaining to the school.

Jansson described her program as, “An opportunity to bring parents together for coffee and breakfast to learn, laugh, and grow together.”

After receiving her award, Jansson said, “This recognition is important for Benson Primary School, Benson Unified School District, and the Benson community. This recognition belongs to all of us because we are team in making a positive difference in the lives of our children and their future.”

The next category to be announced was the Elementary School Teacher Of The Year. Hooper announced the names of all the nominees, while they subsequently drove to the stage to receive their gift bags.

To announce the finalists and winner of the Elementary School Teacher Of The Year was Sean Lawley of Lawley Automotive Group. Lawley greeted the attendees and introduced the top three finalists for the elementary category: Paul Fenn from Pomerene Elementary, Christine Guinane of Bowie Elementary, and Julie DeCuir of Town & Country Elementary. After each finalist was introduced, Lawley announced this year’s winner of Elementary School Teacher Of The Year, which was awarded to Julie DeCuir of Town & Country Elementary.

Following the applause, Hooper returned to the stage to announce the nominees for the next category, Middle School Teacher Of The Year.

The top three finalists for Middle School Teacher Of The Year were announced by JD Wallace from G&T Arizona Cooperative. Wallace greeted the procession and announced that Lauren Merkwan of Colonel Smith Middle School, Kirsten Zamora of Joyce Clark Middle School, and Leslie Nogales from Joyce Clark Middle School had all made it to the top three finalist rankings.

After introducing each finalist, Wallace announced the winner, Leslie Nogales, as the Middle School Teacher Of The Year. Nogales said that she felt “pure joy” upon receiving her award.

After photos and applause, Hooper announced the nominees for High School Teacher Of The Year, Brian Cooley of Bisbee High School and Bianca Hernandez of Douglas High School.

As the nominees took their spin by the stage, Lucas Clinkingbeard from Grad Solutions proceeded to announce the top three finalists: Tara Floss from Buena High School, Tierney Parker from Buena High School, and Thomas Gross from Tombstone High School.

After all three were acknowledged, Clinkingbeard announced that Thomas Gross had won the title of High School Teacher Of The Year. Gross mentioned that he was surprised at his nomination, as it came from members outside of Tombstone Unified School District. After being announced as the winner, Gross said that, “It was humbling. I know all the other finalists are exceptional.”

The final category of the event, was 2020 Teacher Of The Year. Hooper welcomed Superintendent Clay and Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels to the stage to announce this year’s winner.

With much anticipation from the crowd, Dannels announced that Leslie Nogales had won the highly acclaimed title of Cochise County Teacher Of The Year award.

Nogales said upon receiving her award that it, “Feels so good to have been nominated and to go through this experience. The stages of this nomination allowed me to reflect upon my own growth in my profession and to really see the impact I have made in the lives of my students, and most importantly, the impact they all have made on mine. Truly an unforgettable feeling and moment in time!”

The winners of each category all mentioned how the pandemic has affected how they facilitate student learning. Particularly, the decisions for planning and implementing the new changes to the curricula.

“The decisions from setting a date to open while considering criteria for closure, implementing proper safety protocols, determining the proper curriculum for At-Home Learners, for A/B scheduled learners, and In Person Learners were all challenges. The safety of our children, our staff, and our community was paramount in our decision making process,” said Jansson.

Nogales also highlighted the difficulty of managing a digital learning environment saying that one of the,“challenges of starting school during this pandemic were not being able to control the learning environment at home.”

Gross also mentioned that balancing his instruction between his online, hybrid, and in-person students has also been challenging, especially with the variance of students attending each format week to week. “It doesn’t matter what method we teaching through, it’s about giving them the instruction they need. The parents can choose, hybrid, online, or full-time so that’s three different curriculum to plan.”

Arizona G&T Cooperatives, CoBank, GradSolutions, Indochine, Lawley Automotive Group, Staples, The Mall at Sierra Vista, Texas Roadhouse, Tumbleweed Times, Sulphur Springs Valley Electric Cooperative (SSVEC), in addition to over a dozen individual sponsors all provided the means for gift bags for all the nominees, each including meal coupons, reusable water bottles, cloth face masks, Bluetooth speakers, and $50 cash.

“I thought they did a very good job keeping us socially distanced. They went into some detail about each nominee. It was different, but it was handled with great care and people got to have their moment,” Gross said after the event.

Jansson also added that, “The county team really stepped up to make each nominee feel like a winner. They were creative with the drive through award process and made each educator feel important ... I have tremendous appreciation for the hard work of Jacqui Clay and her team. This ceremony was an energetic and fun experience.”

Clay described the event as, “A virtual group hug to our educators and the community. We have tried to make this celebration as safe as possible, and as meaningful as possible.”