When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States in March 2020, Audra Richardson, like so many others, feared for her life.

A high school English teacher at Barnum, Richardson underwent surgery in 2019 to remove two sections of her right lung and was still fighting her battle with lung cancer when COVID-19 arrived.

“I think I spent my spring break … curled up on a couch, because it was one of the scariest things — to think of this pandemic,” she said.

Despite surgery, Richardson still experiences the chronic cough she has endured for the past 15 years, and her lungs are covered in scar tissue and small tumors. She knew she was at high risk for COVID-19.

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Audra Richardson
Audra Richardson

So, when students were able to return to classrooms in the fall, Richardson had to decide whether to go to school to teach her students in person.

She had a letter from her doctor at the Mayo Clinic advising her against it. Her husband and her children tried to tell her not to go. But, in the end, she said she thought about what her parents would do, and she knew what she had to do.

“It just really wasn’t a big question,” Richardson said. “I knew I had to come in.”

Distance learning hadn’t felt like teaching to her, and Richardson saw many students struggle. She didn’t want to start the year off not meeting her students face-to-face.

Her husband, Jason, said that while he was disappointed Richardson chose to return to the classroom, he wasn’t surprised.

“That’s how she does things,” he said. “She’s feisty and doesn't back down to anything.”

Jason Richardson is also a high school English teacher, who works in the Cloquet School District. The pair have helped each other with their teaching throughout the pandemic, and Jason Richardson said it is a privilege to learn from his wife.

Audra Richardson works with one of her homeroom students. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Audra Richardson works with one of her homeroom students. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Students connect to Richardson's teaching style, as well.

Even though Kyson Landwehr, a seventh grade Barnum student, said he doesn't enjoy the subject of English, he appreciates how well Richardson teaches it.

“She’s a good teacher,” Landwehr said.

Richardson helped all the students catch up on their work when they returned to the classrooms after distance learning.

“She makes sure we get our work done,” Ryder Haggard, a seventh grade student at Barnum said.

Richardson emphasized that every teacher is facing the same challenges in the pandemic, and everyone is having to make difficult decisions. She has worked in person at the school nearly every day since the start of the academic year, along with the rest of Barnum’s teachers.

“Everyone of us was going back, and there isn’t anyone who is more valuable than anybody else, it’s just some people are more vulnerable,” she said.

Even when Barnum transitioned to distance learning halfway through the fall semester, Richardson and others remained at the school to teach select students in person for designated learning sessions.

Social studies teacher Rich Newman has worked with her since she started at Barnum High School in 1998. The two teachers often combine efforts and create shared projects for the students.

“She’s a hell of a teacher,” he said.

The biggest challenge Richardson identified during the pandemic has been reaching students through distance learning and keeping everyone on track. She has learned to anticipate student needs and has been more actively engaged with parents.

Richardson feels as though the pandemic has exposed a major gap between the school and home, and that teachers may no longer be viewed as the heroes that they were in the spring.

Since her lung cancer diagnosis, Richardson has taken great care to maintain her health and follow her doctor’s instructions. She exercises on a regular basis and takes vitamins. She and her husband often exercise together while they watch television. Right now, they are in the middle of bingeing the TV series “Yellowstone” and aren’t allowed to watch it unless they’re exercising.

Richardson is aware of the risk she is taking, but said she's learned to put her worries on a shelf.

“Some things, it’s not worth worrying about,” she said. “I worried about contracting that virus in March. I worried about what it would do to my lungs. I worried about stupid things like, you know, ‘I’m not going to make it to retirement’ or ‘What about my kids?’ … It immediately became about just me, and then the longer it stays with us, it really does become more about all of us, and I think that’s a good thing.”