This is the first of a two-part series looking at how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting classroom teaching across the area. Part 2 will appear next week.
ERMA - With social media churning out memes touting how parents are struggling with home-schooling, local teachers contacted about the new way of learning think things are “going as well as can be expected” but long for the day when they can personally interact with their students again.
Several teachers contacted from Lower Cape May Regional Schools (LCMR) said that when the COVID-19 panedemic is over, they will remember how the teaching community came together to share ideas.
They acknowledge “many” people are pitching in to make online learning work, hoping that once the pandemic is over, people will have a different view on things that are “really important.”
While most have used online teaching methods previously, it’s the first time they are teaching completely online. All of them said they are working more hours, preparing lessons, teaching and being available to help their students and parents. Those not familiar with online tools are learning on the fly.
No ‘Face to Face’ Hard
Lori Schulte, a seventh-grade life science teacher at Richard M. Teitelman Middle School, has been a teacher for 22 years. LCMR teachers were told March 12 that they needed to prepare for online schooling and fortunately, an in-service day had already been scheduled for the following day.
Workshops planned for that day were canceled so departments could get together and get materials ready, especially for those without Internet access at home.
“The biggest difference for me is not being able to talk to them every day,” said Schulte. “I am realizing that there is so much that I say each day that I now am typing and the students are reading. Knowing that students get tired of reading, I figured out how to insert audio clips into my Google slides presentations. That way, I can still say all the extra things that go along with notes and assignments, and they don’t have to read everything.”
“We are taking it hard not being face to face with our students,” added Kevin Hildebrandt, a LCMR high school special education math teacher. “Not only are we their teachers, but we are also mentors, counselors and a ‘shoulder to cry on’ when needed. At this time of the year, we really know what our students are going through outside of the school setting and it is hard not knowing when or if we will see them again.”
Available Equipment Makes It Easier
Hildebrandt, a teacher for 17 years, said he has been available to interact with students and parents in the morning and afternoon through live video chats to answer any curriculum questions. He also has contacted students individually to “give encouragement, teach lessons and to make sure to stay in touch with my students. Every school day, I am available through remind texts and emails to keep the continuity of the classroom.”
At LCMR, all students in grades 7-12 have Chromebooks to do work from home. “This has made it easier to teach lessons knowing students have access to the book from their computer,” added Hildebrandt.
Lessons Call for Creativity
Gina Bronson polled her TV media and desktop publishing/graphic design high schoolers to make sure they had the internet at home and what model cell phone they use.
She made lessons based around that information, noting “Creativity is the name of the game when the programs we use in class are not available on their Chromebooks or phone. I found some free programs to use.
“My classes are very hands-on,” she explained. “We have a daily morning show every day for morning announcements and the pledge, then a weekly magazine-style show with student-created segments. The students interview, film and edit their pieces and run the TV studio so virtual classrooms are making this a challenge. I’m having students send in segments via Google Classroom and we are going to try and create a show using what they send me.”
Bronson said her special ed students are encouraged to try the assignments but do not have to complete all the parts. The Intro TV Media students just finished a Letter Photography assignment where they looked at their surroundings and found letters in everyday objects, and spelled out their name using these objects. For example, she said, “I found the letter G from the top of a rollerblade and the letter N from books sitting on a bookshelf.”
Teachers Zoom to Stay in Touch
“I’ve had a Zoom meeting with each of my classes each week,” Schulte said. “It’s good to see their faces. Today’s Zoom meetings with my students also included Heather Shagren, the InClass Support teacher that I am teamed with, the students’ guidance counselor, Tara Samaniego, and also members of our Child Study Team, Myra Belasco and Lynda Fraizer. Last week, Greg Lasher, our principal, joined in on a meeting.”
Zoom is a web-based video conferencing tool that allows users to meet online, with or without video.
“The students enjoy the Zoom meetings, they never want to hang up,” she added. She hasn’t set a specific time for her classes, requiring her students to log on some point during the day and finish the daily assignment by midnight. Any lab assignments can be done using things students have access to at home.
Coming Together to Make It Work
“All of the things we are doing would not be possible if it weren’t for our Tech Team at LCMR,” Schulte said. “They have set up a hotline for students that may be having technical issues at home. Our Media Center specialist, Mrs. Utsch, has set up a Google Classroom to help us with passwords for a lot of different online tools and she’s working to find new things for us everyday. A lot of companies are offering free subscriptions right now for teachers. So many people are pitching in to make this work.”
Teachers also are finding new ways to convey their materials. “The thing I will remember most from all this is how the teaching community came together,” Schulte said. “An LCMR Teachers Covid-19 Online Teaching Facebook group formed where we help each other, also many group texts, Zoom and Google meetings are going on where we share ideas.
“I’ve been in contact with teachers from Middle, Ocean City, Wildwood and Dennis Township,” she added. “Friends from college who teach in other states are reaching out to me to offer suggestions. My sister-in-law in Western New York is the person who gave a lesson on using Zoom. It’s like teachers everywhere are all a part of one district right now and we are all there for each other offering what we can. It’s nice to get ideas from others and to know we are not in this alone.”
Educators Want Students to Succeed
“Our students are doing pretty well getting stuff done for us,” Hildebrandt said. “They have an understanding that we want them to keep learning even though we aren’t physically in the school. The challenges we are facing the most are that not all students have full access to the Internet. Not having that full-size whiteboard in front of us to write on is also a challenge. For example, trying to explain how a linear equation would look like on a graph has been difficult with not having a big coordinate plane to draw on.”
As educators, Hildebrandt said, they have a passion to see students succeed. “We take it personally,” Hildebrandt said. “A lot of time outside of the normal school day hours are spent making lesson plans and devising new and exciting ways to present instruction. What I hope parents see is that we really care about their children’s lives from the minute school starts till the minute they walk back in the door at the end of the day.”
Bronson, who spent 12 years in LCMR’s Information Technology department, 10 years running the middle school’s TV program and 4 years in her current position, is also juggling parental duties. “As a parent and a teacher, it is hard to keep going at both sides,” she admitted. “My child is in elementary school and doesn’t really want to do the work, so I have to sit with him to get everything done. It’s a constant juggle to meet my son’s needs and my students.
“Teachers want to get back to the classrooms as much as the students do; we miss them,” she added.
Snow Days to School Days
The trio also see the possibility of using online teaching more often, perhaps making those “snow days” into school days. “I do see this as being used more often in situations like this,” Hildebrandt said, “even as a new way to make those snow days become school days.”
“I think we could use virtual teaching as an alternative to snow days but I do not think it would be used often,” Bronson countered. “The students miss being physically in class, making that connection with people.”
An Opportunity, Greater Appreciation?
“I see this as an opportunity for all of us to learn new things that we can incorporate permanently into our curriculums,” Schulte said. “Technology can be scary for teachers, especially if they are unfamiliar with it. But by the time this is all over, we will all be experts!”
Schulte is also hoping when “we all get through this that we all have a greater appreciation for each other and our normal everyday lives and maybe a different view on the things that are really important in our daily schedules.
“Also, I hope the students know that this is not what any of us want,” she pointed out. “We miss them and not seeing them every day is very hard for us. Also, our own son is a senior at Middle Township High School right now. I think educators everywhere feel the worst for the seniors. This is not how it’s supposed to be for them. Hopefully, we will be able to salvage the fourth marking period and give them a proper send-off!”