Education in the Pandemic – by Katie Schwartz

One School’s Experience

Imagine  that literally overnight, everyone in your profession all over the world was told that your work would have to be done very differently, totally online, starting the next day. No-one had preparation, many of the recipients of your work did not have devices, and many were traumatized by the change.  In addition, many of the professionals, who were to be working from home, also were trying to deal with their family’s needs.

Welcome to the world of education today, where teachers, support personnel and administrators are creatively trying in new ways to meet the needs of so many.

Let’s focus on what is happening in one elementary school in Durham, NC, in the USA.  The school is a year-round school, which means the faculty and students are there for 9 weeks and then on vacation for 3-4 weeks, four times a year.  The school has a global focus, and each grade in K-5 learns about a different continent, all year long.  Every teacher interacting with that grade, including the classroom teacher,  and teachers in art, music, library, English as a Second Language and even speech therapy, tries to include information about that continent in their lessons. Some of the faculty and staff are from other countries, and share information about their countries with the children.

The school serves 700 students in pre-kindergarten through 5th grade. One third of the students are learning English as a Second Language.  Fifty-six percent are native Spanish speakers.  Students speak ten native languages or dialects. The school also has three classrooms of students with special needs, such as autism, and many more students with milder disabilities in regular classrooms.  Before the pandemic, 80% percentage of the students fell under the Federal poverty levels. They receive free or reduced price breakfasts, lunches and snacks at school.

Educators in many subject areas see the challenges and also the benefits of being  teachers in this pandemic.

First, they are concerned about their students’ basic needs, such as access to food.  The English as a Second Language team at the school has developed a webpage on where to find free meals and food pantries, and updates it regularly.  They work hard to help their students’ families get food, but also continue their English lessons online.

This time of uncertainty and social distancing is a stressful time for everyone. Parents and teachers are concerned about how the children are coping when their routine has been changed so much. Parents may have been furloughed so finances may be a problem, or are trying hard to manage working from home without childcare while also educating their children. Of course, everyone is anxious about staying healthy.

The digital divide is a major worry. Students who do not have devices, or internet access, receive paper learning packets that they are to work on at home.  Students are asked to complete assignments in the written packets. Some of the parents are unable to help them due to their lack of English, limited parental education levels or the parents’ work schedules. Many students need the structure of a teacher and class to do their work.

Teachers were each given the choice to teach synchronously (with live classes online), asynchronously (with recorded classes and links to other materials), or a combination of methods. They were told how many minutes each topic was to be covered.  Each member of the entire faculty has quickly developed ways to teach virtually, a new experience for most.  The state of NC has indicated that the course material for this period of time this spring is review material only, not the new material that would have normally been covered.

Classroom educators try to keep in touch with families, and are aware of each family’s situation in regards to use of devices. Their calls to the home bring a familiar voice and name to the child and parents, and show the family that the school cares about the child.

Half of the students in this school are taught Spanish and half are taught Mandarin by four busy World Language teachers, who are native speakers of their languages. It is common for a child who speaks Spanish as his native language to be learning Spanish at home, English in class and in his English as a Second Language class, and Mandarin in his or her World Languages class. The children will learn either Spanish or Mandarin from grade K – 5, with daily lessons.  Educator Suyen Chen, one of the Mandarin teachers, reports, “My students are young so it is quite difficult at this age for them to learn virtually.  There are connectivity issues in some households. The students are at home and require supervision; otherwise no learning will take place. The benefit is that the students can learn at their own pace.” As no parents in the school speak Mandarin as a native language, and many do not speak English, it is hard for them to supervise the Mandarin lessons of their children.    

The Exceptional Children Team is also concerned about the needs of their students. Various members of the team have developed web-pages for their classes and teach students in real time in groups on Zoom, as well as do pre-recorded lessons on Google Classroom or have web-pages with links. They also call some families. Special educator Cristy Davis reports, “Remote Learning has given me some peace in knowing that I have the opportunity to teach some of my students.   My only struggle throughout this whole pandemic is not being able to teach and see all of my students.” 

One of the Exceptional Education team members is trying several methods of helping parents learn to coach their children and reach students directly. She is asking parents for feedback as to which method is most helpful in supporting each student’s learning. The methods include weekly check-ins by telephone or Zoom, a webpage with games of language skills to play and virtual field trips that correlate with the curriculum. She also has a Google Classroom with her giving recorded mini-lessons, so the students can see her. This team member appreciates the chance to coach some of her students’ parents in how to help their children. The parents find it helpful to see how she teaches their children, so they can reinforce the lessons.

Specials teachers, who teach classes in music, art, physical education, library, science, and computers, are teaching online, with 40 minutes per class per week. Music teacher Enoch Robbins says, “Using technology with the students who are learning at home has returned some interesting data and is allowing me to take a much closer look at my students than I usually get the chance to do. “ He plans to offer more online resources to his students when they return to school.

Ms. Donya Jones, the school’s principal, comments, “This new normal of virtual learning is challenging and rewarding at the same time.  It’s amazing watching teachers be teachers using their instinctive creativity to duplicate lessons online and support students individually using instructional packets. The immediate challenge lies in technology because not all students have access to a device or WiFi, but the teachers are still supporting instruction in the form of instructional packets through conference calls or emails. Our students are resilient and will bounce back without a doubt. We miss our students and can’t wait to physically see them and interact with them soon.”

John D Rockefeller commented that we should see “opportunity in every disaster”. This pandemic, as difficult as it has been, is an opportunity for educators to learn how to reach their students in a new way.

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