“Nobody expected anybody to be working a full time job and acting as a full time teacher at home,” said Sarah Curtin, digital learning specialist at Moharimet Elementary School, describing the role of parents during remote learning at the elementary school level.
Due to COVID-19 prompting a school closure until the end of the year, ORCSD’s Mast Way and Moharimet elementary schools have been hit especially hard, compared to other grade levels. With kids ages five to ten, many students are in need of parental support in order to access, complete, and submit assignments. Mast Way and Moharimet teachers and parents are continuing to adapt and adjust, with their sights set on the end of the school year, working hard to keep their students engaged until then.
How Elementary School Teachers Have Responded to Remote Learning
Like the whole ORCSD, Mast Way and Moharimet have been utilizing Schoology for posting assignments and lessons, and using Microsoft Teams for live meetings. “For the elementary schools, Schoology was going to be a much slower roll out than it was for the middle and high school, and now we have just dove in with both feet. It has been a ton of work and a lot of training,” said Mast Way Principal Misty Lowe.
Many students and staff at the elementary level had not used Schoology until now, so most teachers and parents had to learn a new program. Teachers had some training last summer, but many were not expecting to have to use Schoology this year. “All of our assignments are posted on Schoology, which was pretty new. I had a Schoology account, but I had not really used it at all and the parents had not either,” said Mast Way kindergarten teacher Mary Ellen Webb.
Kristy Bird, a Mast Way parent with kids in first and third grade, explained that her kids had never used Schoology before now. “Overall, the transition has been positive,” she said. “The beginning was definitely a big learning curve for the teachers, parents, students, all of us, because we had no idea what we were doing.”
In addition to relying on virtual resources, many teachers have chosen to send home GoLearn bags to students. A GoLearn bag is physical materials that can be sent home via the district’s transportation system. They can contain various items such as math books, worksheets, crayons, pencils, and rulers.
Along with those kinds of things for students, Webb also includes materials for the parents to have. “We put together a bunch of things that we thought would be helpful for parents to have such as a whiteboard, markers, erasers, so we knew that everybody would have at least that much stuff,” said Webb. Some teachers chose to send one GoLearn bag home at the start of remote learning, and other teachers are continuing to send materials home as needed.
At this point, many teachers are relying on these GoLearn bags and Schoology to get content out, and less on Microsoft Teams meetings.
“There’s some of that happening and some small group teaching that’s happening live. But, I think with elementary school students, when there’s twenty-two kids on a Teams call, it’s not fantastic, so I think teachers have found that small groups, like three to four kids at a time work. They’re running math groups or reading groups or even just a show and tell or birthday reads, just to keep that community connection happening,” said Curtin.
With teachers doing their best to provide all families with the same materials, Lowe has seen the inequality between different students during remote learning. “I think what’s the most difficult is just concern that, because of the disparity between homes and access to education, there is worry about those kids who are not as successful remotely as they would be in a classroom,” she explained.
Lowe went on to say, “teachers have the ability to sort of level the playing field when you have kids in a classroom to be sure everyone has equal access and equal materials and equal support. We can’t control what’s happening in people’s homes, so we are planning to make sure there is plenty of support in place, whether it’s through summer programming or how we roll out when we do return in the fall to make sure those kids have the support they need.”
Mast Way and Moharimet Have Adjusted to the Technology Piece of Remote Learning
With the school year coming to an end, many Mast Way and Moharimet staff members and families are finding themselves out of the initial transition phase. “I think we found a flow. I do think we are worried that our kids are beginning to disengage a little bit as time goes on. We’re trying to brainstorm creative ways to keep kids engaged for this last month of school,” said Lowe.
Ginnie Swift, a third/fourth grade teacher at Moharimet, Curtin, and Webb have found that any previous technology struggles are almost no longer an issue for the majority of students and their families. “Now, I think it’s more that we have the tools under our belt and now how do we maximize the tools to deliver content and connection for kids,” said Curtin.
With the technology struggles mostly out of the way, Webb sees that her students are almost fully out of that transition phase. “I feel like the kids have definitely settled into the assignments, not quite 100%, but, very high up there with the assignments that I can see. They’ve settled into that groove but I think the kids especially, and the teachers too and the parents too, are still mourning the fact that we’re not going back. We had such high hopes about all the things we were going to do, things that I’ve done for years,” said Webb.
Swift has been amazed with her students’ work during this time and explained her class’ current situation. “We’ve totally found the flow. That first, I would say, week and a half was traumatic for all of us. It was traumatic for the kids, for many reasons, the whole shock of not being able to go to school every day, all of a sudden they have this platform they’ve never seen before, they had never even gone into it before,” said Swift.
Like Swift, Bird feels that her family has found their flow, but are now running into different problems. “I think we’ve definitely found our flow, and just as we are finding our flow is that their motivation is kind of going down, but luckily we only have a few weeks left so we’re almost there.”
What the Role of Parents Looks Like for Elementary Aged Children
While the role of parents is crucial at Mast Way and Moharimet, Lowe said, “the expectation of parents is to really know that we’re available and to know that we want to help and support as much as we can. We offer some input that we think might be helpful, but it’s just such a different experience depending on what’s happening in kids’ homes. There’s no strict expectations because we understand that people are doing the very best they can and it’s a really stressful time.” As Lowe explained, teachers and administrators are helping parents by giving suggestions as to how to complete the weekly work, but parents are expected to help with their child’s work on a schedule that works for their family.
With this in mind, Webb explained the role of parents in her classroom. “With kindergarten, parents have to do everything. They have to make the schedule, they have to help them figure out computers, they have to remember the websites, they have to remember the passwords, they have to help them navigate the website.”
She continued on to say, “parents also have to remember when assignments are due and when we’re going to do that assignment, and then they have to communicate with the teacher, and then they have to motivate their kid. I feel like it’s a ton of extra work besides their parental responsibilities that they have to be doing, so it’s a lot. They seemed to have handled it with grace. Nobody is complaining.”
Bird explained some of her family’s struggles. “The other biggest struggle is that I’ve realized that homeschooling is not for us. To have your parents there to be the one to kind of discipline or point out a mistake, they don’t take that very well even if we say it as nice as possible,” said Bird. She went on to say, “for my daughter, learning the way they teach math is a little different, like when I do multiplication I do it a different way. We still get the same answer, but it’s hard for me to help her with how they teach.”
While parents have played a huge role in remote learning, many, including Bird and Curtin, have found that the teachers are doing their best to make the workload mostly independent. Bird said, “the teachers do a pretty good job of making a lot of it independent for them. Unfortunately, the way we are structured at home, we are not able to sit with them constantly the whole time, but both our kids are pretty good to do what they can independently, and then we work with them with the pieces they need help with. I think that overall they are doing a good amount of it on their own.”
Other teachers, like Swift, are finding that older students are able to be much more independent and that she is having to rely less on communication through the parents. “On the whole, I know a lot of parents are saying they’re having to give a lot of guidance, but most of them, from parent feedback, once they are scheduled, they’re doing it on their own. They’re kind of blowing me away with how well they are doing. The skills they are developing are amazing, budgeting their time, organizing themselves. Some of them have a schedule that they follow every day. To develop these skills is going to help them become better students down the line,” said Swift.
While the feedback that Lowe has received has been “overwhelmingly positive,” she has been met with some struggle and concern from parents. “There have been a couple parents who have shared feedback about their personal experiences and challenges and that’s where we just try to troubleshoot and offer more support and try to help the best we can,” Lowe said.
A Typical Day For an Elementary School Family
As far as how a typical day goes, Curtin explained, “at the elementary level, there’s great variation, but I think most teachers are giving a full week of planned out lessons.”
Instead of having live full class meetings at certain times during the day, many elementary school teachers have been giving assignments all at once at the beginning of the week that are to be completed by the end of the week on a schedule that works with a family’s day. “Different teachers have rolled out a variety of schedules for their classes. It’s really suggestions for families on how to structure the distance learning throughout the day to keep kids on track,” said Lowe.
At the beginning of school closure and remote learning, Webb spoke with the other kindergarten teachers from Mast Way and Moharimet to develop a schedule for families during the day. “We came up with a schedule that we thought would be good. In the mornings we were going to do some outside time and then an hour of academics, an hour of choice. In the afternoon, we were going to do an hour of quiet time, another hour of academics, and then more outside time,” said Webb.
Bird, who is an essential worker at a hospital, has found that, for her family, their day is not that structured, and is more about what is going to work for them on a daily basis. “We don’t have a set, structured day, we’ve just kind of been winging it day to day just based on if I’m at work or my husband is on conference calls. So, for our family we haven’t been doing a set amount of time, but we try to get the work done as early in the day as we can. That way they have the rest of the afternoon to do the fun things.”
Based on feedback, like the situation Bird’s family is in, Webb has found that many parents have not been able to follow that exact schedule, and has now left it up to individuals to figure out what works best for their family. “Parents have to make their own schedule, so now it’s not on my Schoology page anymore. Now, I have the assignments and I feel like people have come up with their own plans and it’s really evolved,” said Webb.
Similar to Webb, Swift has planned weekly assignments so students are completing “about an hour of math, about an hour of literacy, and then a half hour of science/social studies. I have an enrichment folder with oodles of things for them to do as well,” said Swift.
Lowe went on to explain the importance of this flexibility in the day for many families. “It’s not real scripted, it’s suggestions. Sometimes the parents follow the suggestions and it works well because the parents are able to be home and help guide that, but if parents are working outside of the home, they may need to give their child help with academics in the evenings, so it’s just a suggestion,” said Lowe.
Webb has found that the flexibility is helpful, but now, one of the biggest challenges is making sure the content is manageable and engaging. “[The hardest part is] knowing how much is enough and not too much. I don’t want to overwork the parents, and in kindergarten the parents are everything, so I want them to feel like the work is challenging for each student, but also I don’t want it to be overwhelming for them,” said Webb. “Kindergarten is supposed to be play based and I want them to be playing, so I’m trying to make what I’m doing play based.” To do this, Webb has made sure that her students are not on the screen all day.
Webb and Swift are working to make sure students aren’t on their screens all day doing work, as they know they will likely be looking at screens anyway, to text their friends or to play video games. Webb explained some of the activities that she is doing without screens. “We made a choice board, one for reading and one for math that the kids wouldn’t have to have a computer for. They could make some different choices during the week and our idea was that they were going to pick five choices, one for each day.”
To help counterbalance that struggle of being on the screen all day, Lowe explained the importance of unified arts classes, like art, music, and gym during the day for students. “At Mast Way, we have really passionate unified arts teachers that push coursework out. I think families are trying to balance the focus on academics and then the focus on art sometimes takes a back seat. I know our teachers are very passionate that the arts are very critical and important,” said Lowe.
Through the challenges of remote learning, Curtin recommends, “making the right decision from your family. Maybe one day is not going to be the perfect learning day and you’re only going to get one thing done, that’s okay. I think giving your permission to do that is okay, because it’s hard.”
Through this change and the many challenges that come with it, Bird has found the teachers to be very understanding and accommodating to individual situations. “I will say, both of their teachers from the very beginning when we let them know our situation that we didn’t have specific times where we could sit down, they were both really flexible with whatever schedule works with your family is what to do,” said Bird.
Traditional Classroom Aspects Teachers are Keeping and What Has Changed
During this time, teachers are working to keep many traditional classroom aspects to keep their students as engaged as possible. “Every morning we always had a morning meeting, so I still do a morning meeting on Schoology, and sometimes it’s a video or a message that I send them. Every morning I also do a book that I read out loud to them,” said Webb.
In addition to academics, teachers like Webb are making sure to keep the fun parts of the traditional classroom. “We always do show and tell on Fridays, so now we do that on Flipgrid. That was a new thing we added after a couple weeks. It took awhile to get everyone on board with that because it was new and one more thing that they had to do,” said Webb.
Swift has also found new ways to keep her students’ favorite parts of the day. “We share our writing, because in school, we always get on the rug and we might share our first paragraph or different things and kids will react to the writing, ask questions, say what they like, maybe suggestions, and we always go on the rug and do that in school, so we kind of have the fake rug and share our writing,” said Swift.
In addition to focusing on traditional classroom aspects, many teachers are utilizing quarantine and the current situation to help develop new projects relevant to this time period. “This week we did a COVID-19 journal where the kids can journal in many different ways. I had films, I had a PowerPoint, I had illustrations, I had poetry, I didn’t care what the kids did,” said Swift.
However, teachers like Webb are not focusing as much on COVID-19 and quarantine, but more so the bigger picture of bringing people together during this time of crisis. “Mostly we have just focused on kindness and doing things for other people. We talked about writing a letter to your postman, we’ve talked about doing things in your neighborhood,” said Webb.
Working to Keep Students Engaged and Motivated is Proving to be One of the Biggest Challenges
As the weeks go on, teachers, parents, and administrators are now working on keeping students engaged and not bored for the last few weeks. “We are really trying to focus on student engagement. We are not really taking attendance per say, or setting specific expectations for how many hours a day you work. We are really trying to make sure that students are engaged and monitor the various platforms,” said Lowe.
Webb is continuing to work on student engagement as well. “I think the kids are also, this is just a guess, but starting to get a little bored not having their friends around. They need their friends sometimes to challenge them, to motivate them, just to have fun with.”
She went on to explain how she is motivating her students during this time. “I have talked about that in the morning message that if you’re starting to get bored, that sometimes that’s good for our brains and that you get bored and you push yourself to find something that you want to learn to do or just have fun doing,” said Webb.
To help with this lack of motivation that Bird has seen with her kids, she has found it helpful to let her children pick the order that they complete their daily tasks. “There’s not a specific time or a specific order, which is nice because it gives them some choice in the matter. In the beginning, we started off a little more excited and the last week or two it’s been more of a struggle to try to get them to do the work, by giving them a choice what to do first and last has been really helpful.”
Teacher and Student Well Being
While many staff members are setting their sights on finishing up this year, they still want to focus on emotional well being for all students and families. “It’s really quite moving to think of the amount of hours that have been put into not only their typical instruction and pushing out academics but the amount of hours spent just checking on kids and families to be sure that they are well and do have access to technology,” said Lowe.
Lowe explained what she is doing on a weekly basis to make sure students’ emotional needs are being met. “I am also meeting weekly with our school psychologist and our school counselor to ensure that we have a handle on any students of concern or families of concern. Not as much about their academics, but just their wellness and being sure that we are meeting their needs as well,” said Lowe.
Looking to the end of the year, Curtin said, “end of the year, we are trying to make sure that we are honoring the students and we’re coming to the end of the year and closing that out appropriately. I think making sure the social emotional piece is really considered and how do we say goodbye to this year, so that when we come back in the fall we’re ready to begin a new year. I think that’s really important,” said Curtin.
While it is necessary to focus on student well being during this time, it is important that teacher well being is also being considered. “Our last staff meeting was really focused on self care for teachers to ensure that they were able to balance whatever worry that they might be experiencing. The teachers work so hard and they are constantly reflecting on, am I doing enough? Am I doing too much? Am I available?” said Lowe.
One individual struggle for Lowe has been being a new principal during this unprecedented time. “I was in an interim role when I started the school year this year and then was appointed the Mast Way principal at an emergency school board meeting to close schools, so for me, personally, it has been a very strange first year principal experience,” said Lowe.
Lowe has worked in ORCSD for six years as the assistant special education director at the high school prior to this year. “Although I am an experienced administrator, I’m a new principal. To become a principal during a time like this for me has been a great challenge,” she said.
While being a new principal is specific to Lowe, Swift explained her biggest struggle, one likely shared by many educators, “I would rather be in the classroom. I can look around my classroom at any moment of the day and see exactly who’s confused and I make time for that kid and I don’t have that opportunity to do that. I like having a connection with my children. I truly enjoy that whole interaction with them and watching them grow.”
She went on to say, “I honestly think it’s the only job I’ve ever had, and I’ve had a lot of jobs, where I don’t look at a clock except to get the kids to the gym on time. I thoroughly enjoy my whole day with them and my interactions. I love surprises and those moments that you can’t plan for and they just happen and you just have to go with the flow. Good and bad flow, I still get a kick out of it. I think that’s the hardest thing for me, to sit at home and just be at this computer. Not having that person to person interaction, that’s the hardest thing for me,” said Swift.
In order to keep those connections with students, Swift said, “I do a full class meeting every Friday at two which the kids really look forward to. One of the downsides of this is that the kids miss each other so much,” said Swift.
Swift also explained how, along with the teachers, kids really do just miss school. “I think the social aspect and losing that whole aspect of going to school. Believe it or not, they actually do really love school. They might say they hate school, but now that they don’t have it, you’re always fond of something you don’t have anymore,” said Swift.
A positive that has come out of this, for Lowe, is that she has grown closer to her staff during these times, able to see their homes, families, and pets on Microsoft Teams calls. “We have had some full staff meetings which have been really great. We’ve tried to stay connected as a staff and to encourage one another because it’s been such an unprecedented time. This is something that none of us have ever experienced or have ever imagined experiencing in our careers.”
Above all, Lowe is working to keep those emotional, human connections with people, along with the academics. “We’ve tried to stay connected, to encourage one another, and to try to have fun. For Mast Way, our staff meetings virtually have had some themes. One staff meeting we all wore hats, another one we all wore different lights, whether it was necklaces or earrings. We were just trying to be a little human and a little silly.”
The Next Steps
Looking forward, Webb is excited about her own first full class meeting that will take place during the last week of school. “The last week we’re going to have an all class meeting, which I’m a little bit nervous about because kindergarten is so hard to get them to listen to each other, but it’ll still be fun. I still want it to feel like a special time. We’ll still say goodbye and happy summer,” said Webb.
As for Swift, looking to the end of the year, her goal is: “summing it up and trying to find things that are worthwhile for the next three or four weeks, without starting something that can’t be accomplished.” She explained that, as much as her students would love to start another novel or big project, they would not be able to finish it before the end of the year. So, Swift’s goal is to continue to find meaningful things that are able to be completed.
At this point, Lowe is starting to work out more logistical things and what those will look like. “As a principal, I am meeting weekly with grade level teams to make sure that we are on the same page with the variety of things we have to consider now that school is closed for the remainder of the year. That is becoming more and more challenging, to think about how to pack up your classrooms, how to finish instruction until June 5th, what is summer school going to look like, what is the transition in the fall going to look like,” explained Lowe.
She added on to that saying, “the next challenging undertaking I think, now that we are in a little bit of that groove, is to really just keep kids engaged and to see this through. Now we are diving into other conversations like placement, cleaning out classrooms, summer programming, hiring, there are all sorts of things that we have to start shifting our attention to,” said Lowe.
While these logistics are important, Webb said, “right now we’re starting to think about placement for next year, ordering for next year, a lot of things about next year, but I want to keep remembering that I have to reach out to parents, just finding out how they’re doing and how I can help. We still have a few weeks left and I don’t want anyone to feel like they’re ready to just throw in the towel,” said Webb.
Webb concluded with her immense appreciation for parents during these times. “It’s been very positive for me, not to say I’m not sick of it, I really wish that we were going back, but now I feel like it has got me more focused on learning instead of teaching. I feel like I’m thinking more about what’s really essential, like what are the things I want to make sure they really hear in kindergarten,” said Webb. “It’s also given teachers and parents a bigger appreciation of each other. I get a lot of emails from parents just saying thank you, but my appreciation for parents is just out the door. They just have done so much and do it so positively. They give you the credit but they’re the ones who are really doing the work, so I can’t say how much I admire what parents are doing.”
Artwork by Aaron Hoag