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Teachers adjust to educating online

Photo by Michael Kelly Phillips Elementary School first-grade teacher Cindy Burton reads to her students while sitting in her car. The closure of school buildings to prevent spread of COVID-19 has required teachers to deliver instruction remotely, and Burton said the cellphone holder in her Toyota makes it a convenient studio.

A big mitt full of digital technology and old-fashioned determination is getting students and teachers by in the COVID-19 isolation era, but the teachers miss that personal contact.

John and Pam Bostic are husband-and-wife teachers in the Fort Frye Local Schools district. John teaches high school social studies, and Pam is a kindergarten teacher at Lowell Elementary School. Both are 30-year-plus classroom veterans, and they’ve never seen anything like the COVID-19 building shutdown.

“When we first got the news about three weeks ago, (superintendent) Stephanie Starcher and the administration were really good about helping us. We’re all sort of flying by the seat of our pants. We prepared three weeks of lessons to send out,” John said. “Not all these kids have Chromebooks (electronic study tablets that connect to the internet). We sent the lessons home with them March 13, expecting to come back this Monday (April 6).”

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has extended the school building closure until at least May 1, and it is widely believed that school in classrooms will not resume at all for the remainder of the school year.

“After three weeks, we’re just sort of getting into the groove of this. About 70 or 75 percent of the students have turned something in,” said John Bostic. “It’s a learning curve for them, too, and they need that face-to-face help.”

Students without internet connections, he said, are being sent their lesson packets through the district’s food distribution system or, failing that, having their packets delivered to their homes, he said.

“Some in the rural areas don’t have that connectivity, but they’re getting it done somehow,” he said.

For Pam Bostic, the challenge is different.

“I prepared paper packets for them, instructions on how to log in to iReady and the Scholastic reading program,” she said. “I communicate with parents, I have a Facebook group for the class, and I see them posting pictures there,” she said. Parents and students can contact her through private message and text if they like.

“I’m mostly just being flexible, I check at least once a week with every child, making sure they’re not losing contact with the school,” she said.

The situation has put the burden of education more than ever on parents.

“Many of them have stepped up and taken a huge role and responsibility, taking ownerships of their kids’ education,” she said. “They know the kids are missing a lot, and I’m really impressed with what they’re doing.”

Jordan Caldwell, who teaches fifth grade at Putnam Elementary School, said the parents of her children are shouldering the burden well so far.

“They’re doing the best they possibly can, and I’m in contact with a lot of them every day, trying to provide tutorials for them, but for most parents it’s a whole new ball game, being responsible for their kids’ education and, for a lot of them, their own workload,” she said. “We’re very fortunate to have these fifth-grade families. They’re sharing things with us, we’ve always had a good connection but this has made us even stronger.”

Caldwell, like other teachers, using a variety of methods to keep her students and their families connected with education.

The days have an unfamiliar feel, right from the beginning, she said.

“I get out of bed and go to the table, when I normally would be getting ready to go to the classroom,” she said. “I check on Google Classroom to see how everyone’s doing, see if there are any questions I can answer. Using Google Hangouts, I can video chat with students. I have about four sessions a day, three or four days a week, not lessons, just contact, asking how their pets are doing, what games they’re playing.”

At first, she said, the students viewed the situation as just time off.

“In the beginning, they were kind of excited about it, like an extended spring break, but now they’re missing that structure and routine,” she said.

And the teachers miss being among the kids.

“It’s tough to tell when kids are getting things. It’s sad to miss that light in their eyes when they get something,” Caldwell said.

Cindy Burton, following the example of most other teachers, has set up a Facebook group page for her Phillips Elementary School first graders. She checks messages in the morning and throughout the day,

“I posted the nine-week high-frequency words, 50 of them, on the Facebook page, broken down into groups of six or seven to make it easier for parents,” she said. “Teachers have been posting tips and links to services like Scholastic and ABC Mouse for reading and language arts.”

Her young students don’t have the same background of experience to draw on as their older counterparts, she said.

“At the early levels, it’s brand new stuff, not something they can fall back on and review, and you can’t expect parents to know exactly how to do this,” she said. “They do the best they can, but it’s a challenge. Phonics sounds, for example – each year layers on the previous one.”

The situation also bring home the idea that school is more than academics.

“This is the kids’ first year of inclusion in society, they’re sent to a place with their peers and other children of different ages, it’s not always positive, and they’re exposed to some things they’re protected from at home, but they learn to handle all those differences,” she said.

Burton said one part of her daily routine she’s intent on preserving is reading after recess, when the children are happy, relaxed and a bit tired. She took an unusual measure for that – she reads to the class on a Facebook live broadcast from her car.

“It happened by accident. I had to pick up my son at Otterbein College when they evacuated the dorms, so I stopped in a McDonald’s parking lot on the way and read from the car,” she said. “I’ve got a phone mount in my car, and that just made it a lot easier.”

She reads a chapter a day of Barbara Park’s Junie B. Jones books from the driver’s seat of her Prius, often parked on Fourth Street in front of her parents’ home.

“I’ve taught first grade for 29 years, and this is all very odd,” she said.

Kim DePue teaches seniors at Marietta High School, handling career education, the community health worker program and community college health courses. Many of her students, she said, are facing challenges unique to older students.

“High school kids at home are often taking charge of their younger siblings. Some are picking up dayshift hours of work, they just have a lot more responsibility,” she said.

“A lot of my students are texting me, they’re feeling overwhelmed, they miss seeing their peers,” she said. “Teaching online is very different, you’re not getting the body language, that one-on-one contact, it’s a huge adjustment. The kids didn’t ask for this.”

DePue is worried about what might be coming next.

“I fear when the coronavirus does hit our area, we’ll be dealing with situations where the kids will have to help sick family members. There will be a whole other layer of complications,” she said. “As teachers, we haven’t even begun to think about what it will look like when we go back. Every family is going to be hit in some way by this, there is a whole emotional and mental health piece.”

DePue said teachers want to be there when their kids need them.

“We love our kids, we’re going to go the extra mile,” she said. “It’s tough. School offers so much more than education for them.”

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