As the novel coronavirus slowly started to tighten its grip, schools everywhere began to shutter their doors, thrusting parents nationwide into a role they hadn’t anticipated: teacher. Kitchens and dining room tables were suddenly transformed into school desks and learning centers. And underneath it all was an unspoken sense of panic.
“They’re going to be out of school for how long?!” many parents questioned, as the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District robocall came in at the end of day on March 20, as school bells were ringing at 3:15 p.m. The plan, said Superintendent Dr. Robert Leri that day, was for schools to resume April 6, with spring break the following week still in place. But as parents around the district began to navigate their new roles, the next call came proclaiming school would be out through April, possibly longer, with the final blow coming April 3 when Leri announced distance learning would be in effect for the remainder of the school year.
“I am normally a very level, non-anxious type of person,” said Jennifer Gregory of Russell Valley to Moonshine Ink. “I have homeschooled my kids in the past and continue to do so now, and I have always worked from home. So, most people are like, ‘Oh, you’re fine. It’s other people who are being affected.’ This is not the case. I have had so much anxiety that I feel literally crippled.”
Like many people who are facing these abrupt changes, Gregory’s anxiety doesn’t stem solely from having to educate her children. We’re all suddenly dealing with challenges that weren’t there just weeks ago: Many face job insecurity, loss of income, existing health issues that put some people at higher risk, or the struggle of balancing working from home with being a stay-at-home homeschooling parent.
“I haven’t been sleeping well and lay awake most nights worrying that my mom (who has end-stage COPD) is going to die alone in [the] hospital,” said Gregory, who is barred from seeing her mother on account of safety mandates. “I can’t seem to shake it. I know I shouldn’t worry, but it is hard not to when I know if she gets this, it will kill her. My girls are also feeling very anxious and have asked me if Grandma is going to be okay. They are having nightmares and waking up, when they wouldn’t otherwise.”
The reality is that every one of us is facing our own unique challenges and hurdles during this time of crisis, and the added responsibility of being a new teacher doesn’t make matters any easier.
Wendy McKechnie is a third-grade teacher at Glenshire Elementary in Truckee. She’s also got two kids of her own who are now to be homeschooled like their peers, which gives her the unique experience of getting to see both sides of the coin as an educator and mother.
“The real struggle for me has been juggling the online distance teaching of my students with helping my own two boys with their online learning,” she shared. “I’m a mother first and foremost. Seeing my own kids struggle with this and trying to understand what’s going on in the world has kept me up at night.”
McKechnie said it has been an adjustment for both her family and her students, and she is trying to do what she can to keep that connection with her class. Having their school-issued Chromebooks helps with that, allowing her to greet students each day with a video in Google Classroom and having Google Meet hangouts at lunchtime during which kids can ask questions, show off their pets, tell the class about a book they’re reading, or anything else they’d like to share. She’s even had daily themes, like “crazy hair” and “silly socks” days.
“I miss my classroom,” McKechine said. “I miss the kids and their smiles and their hugs and the look of excitement when they learn something new.”
While becoming a homeschool teacher practically overnight would be an adjustment for anyone, for those with special needs children, the situation presents another level of challenges. Kara Fox knows this firsthand — her son Julian, 12, is nonverbal and operates on the level of a toddler. At school, he has a team of about a dozen individuals working with him throughout the week in very specific areas.
“He’s working on kindergarten [level] skills, even though he’s in sixth grade,” Fox said of Julian, who has a disorder that causes him to have seizures on a daily basis along with the cognitive issues. “… He has a very regimented schedule at school and it’s hard to emulate that at home.”
On any given school day, he’d be working one-on-one with any of five different specialists in therapeutic areas like occupations, physical, visual, speech, and adaptive physical education. The entire team follows a daily spreadsheet that helps everyone to be on the same page. Fox said TTUSD and Julian’s therapists from North Tahoe Middle School have been nothing short of “awesome,” and that she has received a tremendous amount of resources and support.
“Not having that interaction [with peers] is definitely a detriment,” said Fox, whose main area of concern is that her son will lose all the progress he has made in basic skills areas. Technology has helped ease the transition for Julian, who is able to stay connected to his team with emails and video chats. As with any school child, socialization is a big part of learning for those with disabilities.
For younger kids, it is even more so, and Glenshire Elementary transitional kindergarten teacher Margie LaPoint is grateful that technology has become a more integral part of education than it was only just a few years ago. Although kids in lower grades do not have school-issued Chromebooks, most have access to various electronics that enable them to stay connected to their classes. On any regular school day, LaPoint has 12 iPads in her classroom. When the distance learning order came down, she loaned out every one of them to students in her class.
“The social/emotional piece we talk about a lot,” LaPoint said. In her classroom, she follows the Second Steps program, a social-emotional learning curriculum that helps kids navigate emotions, manage strong feelings, build better relationships, and make sound decisions. Just this week, in fact, Second Steps released a series of videos for parents to use to help continue these lessons at home.
In an effort to maintain some semblance of normalcy, she has taken to going into her classroom for a live feed version of her class’ community circle. In the classroom, her students would gather in a circle and pass around a sock monkey, taking turns listening and speaking to one another, the stuffed critter gripped in the hand of a tiny speaker. Now LaPoint sits solo in C-1, the youngsters seeing her and their classmates via a Zoom video conference. The sock monkey has been replaced by a thumbs-up when someone wants to speak, LaPoint in control of a mute button to allow them to share.
She is thankful that distance learning came so late in the school year, as most of the classroom norms are established early on. “If it had been in the beginning of the year, it would’ve been much harder,” LaPoint said. “We’re trying to keep the curriculum as much like the classroom as possible.”
In that vein, she has been preparing lessons and, with the help of a class mother, has been delivering materials right to her students’ doorsteps. Online communication and educational platforms such as SeeSaw, Lexia, and Razz Kids have proven to be helpful resources.
For Mary Berelson, technology comes naturally, but, as the tech teacher at Alder Creek Middle School, her distancing learning experience has been quite varied from that of her fellow educators.
“What’s the new normal? Life doesn’t go backwards,” she said. “A lot of teachers are not tech savvy, yet we’re demanding these skills out of our kids.”
In an effort to help everyone get on the same page, Berelson finds that a flipped learning model has worked out well as it makes learning easier for those with different levels and learning styles. And to help those teachers who aren’t quite as technologically inclined as herself, she offers recorded clips with various tech tips.
Despite her technological know-how, Berelson has also had to adjust to the concept of distance learning, joking that she’s used to being in the classroom and looking over her students’ shoulders as they do their work. Like other educators, she doesn’t want to lose the connection she has with her pupils.
“A teacher without any students is like a tree falling in the woods,” she said. “Does anybody hear it?”
Missed connections for students aren’t just about the teacher/student relationship. Of course kids are missing seeing their friends on a regular basis; it’s just not the same seeing them on a screen. But it goes beyond that. They’re also missing out on making memories with those friends, memories that only come in school and on adventures like class trips.
“My fifth-grader … misses his friends and is crushed by the fact that there will be no Pigeon Point field trip, fifth/sixth-grade dance, teacher versus fifth-graders tennis racket baseball game, talent show, and more,” McKechnie shared. “It’s like everything he’s been looking forward to throughout elementary school is gone, just like that.”
Kids, she reminded, are quite resilient and will come out of this just fine. And for the adults in their lives, there is much to be learned from the youths.
“I am trying to be the best homeschool teacher for my students and their parents, as well as for my own boys, but this has not been easy. Many tears have been shed. Mostly mine, but my boys, too,” McKechnie said. “It’s overwhelming and scary and nobody knows when we’ll be able to get back to normal or what that normal will even look like anymore. So for now, I put on a smile and give it my all every day because that’s really all we can do right now. We’re all in this together and everyone is doing the very best that they can. And that is enough!”