Keeping Learning Alive
July 20, 2020
July 20, 2020
In times like no one working in our schools has ever confronted, educators are fighting to keep students not only learning, but healthy and safe, too. Here are some of our members’ stories, even as they continue to live them:
After seven years in administration, I made the hard decision to re-enter the classroom last summer. I was determined to get back on the horse and start riding, and began teaching second grade. It was not an easy transition, but after I changed my mindset and reminded myself several times that I was no longer in charge, things began to fall in place.
I had a small class with high needs and drastically varying abilities. We accomplished so much, and I felt like I got my groove back. By the end of January, I was down to 10 students. Shortly after, I was moved to a middle school to teach seventh-grade English Language Learners. It wasn’t easy to leave my second graders, but I knew they were in good hands. My 25-year career in teaching and administration had always been in elementary.
At the middle school, I had 28 newcomers of varying abilities and 11 Level 2 students. The seventh grade team had a system going, so I followed that until I got my footing. I’d been with my students a little over a month when, on March 13th, we were told to have a plan in case schools needed to be closed. Everyone sprang into action, unaware that our students would not be returning.
After schools closed on March 16th, staff at my school alternated working days so that we were not all there at one time. I honestly welcomed a little break after so many changes in my life. We made work packets for our students, and they were distributed when students came to the bus stops to pick up meals. By March 23rd, Governor Northam announced schools would be closed for the rest of the year. I’d always enjoyed snow days, but the thought of students not returning left me with a sinking feeling of dread. I worried whether my students and their families really understood what was going on.
Led by our administrative team, we all got everything ready for instruction, meals, and wellness checks. It happened fast, but it happened—we did what was needed. Internet service was offered and we prepared laptops to be checked out. Our technology people worked countless hours to set us up with Zoom, Moodle, Study Island, and other online sites. We were at the mercy of technology now.
Unfortunately, I soon found out many of my students and their families were having problems with it. The limited technology experience my students had was apparently not enough. Many of my students cared for siblings so their parents could continue to work, and online instruction became stressful for both them and me. The language barrier, as well as lack of experience, proved to be a challenge. With the support of my principal and EL Coordinator, I decided to make differentiated work packets focusing on letter recognition, phonics, reading comprehension and math skills for my newcomers.
As a division, our focus was to make sure that instruction would go on, but more importantly that our students were fed and safe. We were instructed to make weekly contacts and be available for any questions or concerns parents or students had, and to report students we couldn’t contact to our principal and guidance department for follow-up. Everyone worked diligently to keep track of all our students. It became a challenge to communicate with many of my Spanish and Swahili speaking families. High school Spanish taken in the early 80s was not much help. Our interpreters and liaisons were very helpful, but their hands were full as they serve our whole division. Countless hours were spent on the phone trying to contact students. I found it much easier once I downloaded a translator to my phone and started texting with families. I also started a small group on Facebook for my students, although only five have joined. I am learning Spanish online and feel I’m becoming stronger in the language, although my family thinks I speak with an Italian accent.
I make packets up every other week, and parents either picked them up or my supervisor or liaison delivers them with any needed supplies. Our school has a fund for families in need, and there are so many organizations in my area contributing to those who can use some help. I feel like I have connected with my students and families only after being with them for a short time before the closure. I feel responsible for their wellbeing.
This year definitely was one of changes: I never thought I’d give my cell number out or have a student group on Facebook, but they have served as an asset to me. An old dog can learn new tricks. When we return, I’ve decided we’ll begin immediately with some online instruction and the simple task of checking email. Nothing will ever convince me that online instruction will take the place of in-person learning, but we need to be prepared for what comes next. I am sure we’ll have many professional development opportunities when we go back to school.
We did what we did because we had to, not because we were made to, but because of what we are made of. I feel for beginning teachers, whose first year was not at all what they expected. None of us expected this. Teachers caring for their own children or elderly parents are my heroes. No one truly knows the struggles and worries unless they have been in their shoes. Teachers who lost family income, loved ones, and any sense of normalcy carried on daily instruction despite their worries and fears. That is what we do. Procedures will change and we’ll be expected to carry on, and we will because that’s who we are.
Paula J. Beckman, Roanoke Education Association
When schools first closed I reached out to students and families in pretty traditional ways. I emailed families and sent my students postcards. I also posted things to our Google Classroom daily, including videos of me reading picture books. As we moved to online synchronous learning I spent some time texting, talking on the phone, and using Facetime to help families get set up. I met with one student one-on-one on Facetime because we couldn’t get the technology to work. I continued mailing cards to my students throughout and meet online with my whole class daily and with small groups and individually depending on students’ needs.
Weekly, I email each family with plans for the next week and with feedback about their students’ progress. As a result, I have phone conversations fairly often with parents about how to help their children.
Some of my students are from military families, so when I packed up my classroom, I delivered materials to two of them who were moving soon. I’m doing whatever I can to support families, connect with students and support their academic and social-emotional learning, and keep things as close to normal as possible.
Jennifer Orr, Fairfax Education Association
I feel cheated. I was at the height of my career in a new district., about to prepare for SOL review. My kids gave their all in the classroom and I had made some breakthroughs with students who had been labeled “difficult.” Covid-19 took away all of this. My students started strong with online learning, but after a few weeks participation plummeted with assignments not being graded. I still check on my students through weekly Zooms.
I want my normal back, but I know we will not get it back. I miss my kids. I miss teaching.
Keandra Smith, Prince George Education Association
When we closed in March, we were just days away from our first-grade performance for their parents. “These are snow days,” we kept telling ourselves. And then we closed for longer…and longer. Everything was cancelled—the sixth-grade All County Chorus festival, the fifth and sixth grade chorus play, the Sword Dance. I grieved for several weeks, not sleeping well, sad and afraid for all of us.
When teaching finally restarted, we tried office hours for specialists, but that was only supposed to be for questions about the asynchronous lessons we had posted. And then the system crashed. When we restarted again, office hours for specialists were no more. That meant that we would be posting lessons without even a chance to see a child’s face. And that’s the way it has been for the past six weeks. Then classroom teachers started asking us to visit. I nearly cried when I sang our “Hello” song for our self-contained special ed class and the kids broke out in huge smiles!
Personally, this has been incredibly lonely and frustrating. Without seeing the children, without singing together, dancing together, playing games, discovering new things to hear in a piece of music together…well, this just isn’t what teaching is about. But this will get better and we will eventually return to students in classrooms. I will keep the faith.
Pam Wilson, Fairfax Education Association
I am an ESL teacher for ninth grade newcomers. Most don’t have internet access to the internet and receive packets of schoolwork. They’re supposed to complete them, take pictures of their work, and text the pictures to me. As I write this, I have not received any pictures of completed work.
The ones with internet access are expected to complete online work and show mastery, but they’re not proficient in using the technology. I call, text, and email the parents and the students. I have three or four students who do the work regularly. I work hard creating those online activities. Some days I’m in front of the computer for 12 hours. It’s very discouraging.
Aylin Direskeneli, Newport News Education Association
I am a middle school librarian. I had a Google Classroom set up with all the students in the school enrolled, and I’ve been able to reach out and share free online sources for reading, offer virtual book clubs, and fun challenges to add a little fun and socialization into their lives.
Kathy Doren, Chesapeake Education Association
I teach in rural southwest Virginia and the most overwhelming issue for our students is the lack of internet access. This is an issue for me, too, because of my location. I am only five miles from “town,” but we do not have services available through phone, cable or satellite that are sufficient. I use my cell phone as a hot spot and paid for additional high-speed data for two months so that I could Zoom and chat with the students who showed up.
I can only imagine the plight of my students.
I do not have answers, but I do know that a return in the fall is likely to be very similar to what we just experienced. Stress doesn’t begin to cover what this will be like to begin a new school year. I am willing to help in any way possible to gather information and look to options for all of us.
Sonja Seymore, Washington County Education Association
On normal days, I’m in food service during this COVID-19 outbreak, still working and trying to protect the kids and help get food to their families. I’m here so others won’t have to work as we try to un-spread the virus.
Hanaa Abdelmaged, Fairfax Education Association
As classroom colleagues are adjusting from face-to-face to remote instruction, librarians are pondering how to serve our students. With scant online resources and a limited budget, perhaps even more limited as the pandemic eats into county revenue, and without our physical space, how does our library remain relevant? How do we safely collect materials, how long should these items be kept in quarantine and, should it become necessary, how do we establish a curb-side pick-up and return system that protects everyone while still allowing access to library materials?
Like so many educators, I am physically exhausted, exceedingly frustrated, mentally fatigued, and extremely concerned for the well-being of my colleagues and students. As is often the case, the many statements supporting our profession are easily forgotten with a single critical comment or snide remark. Are we working? Seriously? I don’t think any of us have ever worked harder or longer in our lives. We are working without a net and creating as we go, yet we continue to rise to the challenge, which we have always done and will continue to do.
Megan S. Link, Prince William Education Association
After COVID, I found myself working harder than I did during the school year. I have a class of 17 second-graders and I made copies for two weeks at a time and delivered them to 16 of the 17 students. I provided material to do science experiments and everything they needed to complete their work. I got to see firsthand where these children live and I can now understand better some of their behaviors. I was never compensated for my travels. I did it for my students. I have three children at home, one with autism. I feel for the parents who have special needs kids during this time with no support. It needs to be addressed if this happens again.
Ramona Copenhaver, second grade teacher, Wythe County Education Association
The COVID-19 closure has provided an unprecedented opportunity to persevere and collaborate here. School leaders met March 17 to determine local plans based on the guidance from VDOE.
As the division leader for mathematics instruction, I appreciated VDOE’s timely guidance in developing VASOL tracking logs. These documents were completed by all math teacher reps in each of our county schools to determine the unfinished learning as school closures on March 13. That enabled us to create and distribute five math modules. We used the grab-and-go food distribution sites get math and reading modules out each week, and also posted them on the county and school websites. Many teachers also promoted and expanded the math modules with Google slide presentations that included content videos, teacher think aloud, and explanation videos for the practice pages in the modules. Since we are a rural community, we were not able to provide distance learning with equity and consistency.
At the middle and high school level, math teachers provided Google classrooms and office hours, working tirelessly to collect student work, download, print, scan and return it with feedback.
As we close out this school year, the instructional team has created continued learning opportunities in reading and math through the Summer Connect program. This will run for five weeks and will be facilitated by grade level teachers in each content area. We have filled and distributed 1,800 summer learning bags for distribution next week.
Fanya Morton, King George Education Association