Parents, Teachers Make Education Work During Pandemic

Missouri schools are closed until at least April 24, but remote learning has started with online classes — much like colleges are doing — learning packets available online or by mail, and phone calls from teachers.

by Mara Rose Williams and Sarah Ritter, The Kansas City Star / March 31, 2020
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(TNS) — Tiffany Price made the announcement to her children at 7:30 a.m. last Monday: “OK, everybody, spring break is over and now it is time to get down to business.”

Her kids, ages 2, 6, 10 and 16, wanted to know if business meant they would be heading out to school.

“I told them this is school for now,” said Price, who was already juggling a part-time job and evening classes at Metropolitan Community College-Longview.

Her morning announcement meant everyone, including Mom, would need to pull out their school work — books, study sheets, laptops and iPads — and get started studying at their Kansas City home.

With schools closed to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, Price said, “this is going to be our new normal.”

Schools on the Missouri side are closed until at least April 24, but remote learning started up last week with online group classes — much like area colleges have started doing — learning packets available either online or by mail, and phone calls from teachers.

Kansas side schools, which are closed for the rest of the academic year, start remote learning on Monday.

Teachers and parents are starting on a learning curve.

Education officials in both states have said they aren’t expecting full days of school at home. They have dispensed with state standardized tests. But they are hoping children will be ready to move up to the next grade by fall.

Parents now have the responsibility of making sure their kids continue their education at home. Some are improvising with little worry, while many others are finding the task daunting, wondering how they are going to work from home a full eight hours and find time to help teach English, math and science to their children. Many also are worried that their children are not going cooperate.

“I have been avoiding it,” said Jumesha Wade, who has three children at a Kansas City charter school and two others in preschool. ”It seems like too much and it’s overwhelming. I just don’t know if I can do it. And I’m hearing some parents say they just don’t know where to start.”

And this is coming from a woman who works in early childhood education and has a doctorate in education psychology and research.

She’s been talking to other parents who are stressed and “worried their child may be left behind because they didn’t do a enough to facilitate their learning.”

Schools, internet providers and a plethora of how-to guides for home schooling have stepped up to help. Missouri teachers, building off of software platforms they’ve always used, spent a week training on creative ways to connect with students virtually. Kansas City and Hickman Mills districts, for example, prepared hundreds of packets of paper materials that were mailed to families so that those without access to good internet don’t get left out.

Olathe announced it would provide school counselors, social workers, psychologists and student wellness advocates for remote counseling.

The Kansas Department of Education’s Continuous Learning Task Force, a group made up of dozens of teachers and advisers throughout the state, crafted guidelines for districts. And last week, school districts across Kansas worked with teachers on strategies before students start classes on Monday.

“Anybody who tries to predict how things will turn out is probably on a fool’s errand,” said Marcus Baltzell, with the Kansas National Education Association. “You can’t predict this. No one has ever been through this before.”

Parents step up

Missouri parents, teachers and students made it through their first week of school at home.

Price, with children at Brookside Charter School and Hogan Preparatory Academy High School, went online and made a list of study guides and virtual tours that would take her children on trips to the zoo or museums without leaving their house.

She works part time processing applications for Kansas City’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and is also studying for an associate’s degree in social work.

To juggle it all, she jotted down a loose schedule for herself and the kids: Start the day at 7:30 a.m., work for 30 minutes, then take a break.

“That’s when we take the baby to day care and sing songs on the way,” she said. “When we get home we’ll have a breakfast snack and then back to work by 9:30 a.m.”

All along, Price had been using some of the schools’ online tools and phone apps to keep up with where her children are in their class work. She knows, she said, that her children in elementary school are working on counting up to 100, writing those numbers and reading.

She has worksheets that came from school and thought about using a do-it-yourself kit to turn part of a wall in her house into a white board so she can post a study schedule and her children can practice their number writing where she can see it.

Wade says she’s been talking online with other parents, getting and giving emotional support. They also are sharing resources, she said, for “parenting during a pandemic.”

She is the director of education and family engagement for Start at Zero, a nonprofit early childhood program affiliated with Parents as Teachers. When she saw that teachers plan to grade online work they send to students, “my heart dropped,” Wade said. “I definitely want to keep their brains engaged, but didn’t want to do a school day schedule.”

So she’s mixing things up.

“I have been thinking we might do some fun things and relax a little on school,” said Wade, whose children are ages 4 to 9. “I figured this might be a time to do fun things with them and teach them things like gardening and sewing. And we would figure out what the school day is going to look like. I don’t want to spend more than 2 1/2 hours a day on the formal part.”

Kristin Brubach Goodfriend is the mother of two boys ages 11 and 15 in the Spring Hill School District. In more rural areas of Kansas, including the outer reaches of Johnson County, parents are struggling to home-school with sluggish, unreliable internet. A lot of families in urban areas also don’t have good internet or none at all. In some districts, as many as 30% of students don’t have adequate internet access.

“My husband and I are working from home and you want to add two more kids on computers to the mix? This will prove to be more than interesting,” said Goodfriend.

As Spring Hill waits for a citywide project to bring fiber internet to each home, families often rely on the Wi-Fi at the library to finish homework. But libraries now are also closed because of coronavirus. Several parents said they can’t stream movies at home, let alone stream lesson plans and video chat.

Zarinah Poindexter, who lives in Grandview, is also struggling with computer issues. She is a nursing aide at St. Luke’s Hospital of Kansas City, an essential worker who puts in 12-hour shifts. Making sure her three children, ages 2, 10 and 12, are keeping up with their school work “is a lot,” said Poindexter, who is a single parent.

“They are not used to staying at home, and I don’t have all the equipment I need to help them,” she said. An electronic virus shut down her laptop, her desktop computer is in repair and one of the children broke her tablet. Even when the desktop is fixed, Poindexter said, they will have to share it.

“The kids are frustrated and don’t know what to do.”

Poindexter said with the computers down she plans to have her children reading at least an hour a day and then ask them to write about it. “We can make up math problems and we can do some science too. I’m going to do what I can do using the tools that I have.”

She’s concerned that students might not return to in-person classes at all this school year. “If they don’t go back to school I will have to pay for a tutor or quit my job.”

Aimee Ramirez, who has a high school son in the Shawnee Mission district, was gearing up for the return to school on Monday.

“My junior son and I are doing a few things on our own to prepare for an unusual semester of learning,” she said. “We are reading a nonfiction book together so we can have dinnertime discussions about something other than coronavirus.”

Teachers adapting

District officials said they know their parents may be nervous and feeling as though too much is expected, so they are prepared to help.

By 9:40 a.m. every day this past week, Brandon Roper’s home office was filled with the sounds of a ninth grade classroom in full swing, with students coming in and greeting one another and catching up on what they did the night before. The students weren’t actually in the room, but rather they gathered virtually on Zoom for Roper’s lesson in ancient world history.

Roper, who teaches at Ruskin High School in the Hickman Mills School District, can see anyone who has a camera on a laptop. They can all see him. After a few minutes, Roper mutes the students and starts his lecture.

Roper had sent out a class email, “telling them, hey we are going at this time.” Under ordinary circumstances Roper teaches three 90-minute classes a day with about 23 to 24 students in each. He has about 120 students in all. Classes meet every other day. On Zoom, about 27 students logged in. “But that’s OK,” Roper said. “I record the lecture. Some students will log in at 10 a.m. Some others will go in at 11 p.m. and get the same lecture.”

He uses another platform called Pear Deck to add interactive slides to his lecture, giving students supplemental materials. For example, last week he taught about the rise of Islam. Students could click on a prompt asking them to find Mecca and a map showing much of the Middle East would pop up.

He uses Google Hangouts so students can communicate not just with him but with one another. “I want them to be able to ask each other questions.”

Students have to use their real names when they sign in, Roper said. “I told them I don’t have time to try and figure out who Ladylove24 is,” Roper said, then laughed. “These are high school students. And students are like steam, they will go in any direction you allow them, so you have to put the rails up.”

They get assignments and are expected to get them in by the end of the week. So far, Roper said, his students have been engaged. And he likes the way his virtual classes are going. “If I had to do it this way the rest of the year I absolutely would.”

Kansas City Public Schools provides packets as well as a district website with calendars of school work and activities that “meet the essential standards, those things students need to know for their next grade level and beyond,” said Marla Sheppard, deputy superintendent.

Calendars are arranged by grade level, giving students math, reading and writing assignments to do each day. An eighth-grade student might need to read a passage from the online packet and answer a list of questions.

Even if parents don’t have computers at home, they can access this information on their phone screen.

“We are asking parents not to try and create a whole school experience in one day. Grow into this gradually,” Sheppard said. “Start with 30 minutes of work a day for each subject and work your way up.”

At school, upper grade-level students are used to two hours of English, 90 minutes of math and 60 minutes of science a week, Sheppard said. “We are not mandating any particular amount of time. This is different for students and difficult for parents. To expect them to jump into a full school day routine is a bit unrealistic.”

Middle and high school teachers said most of their students have the technology — either personal or school-issued laptops and hotspot devices — to gain access to virtual lessons. And most students, teachers said, are finding distance learning easy to navigate.

“My students are the digital natives. They’ve already got this down,” said Heather Mayfield, an eighth grade English teacher at Trailridge Middle School in the Shawnee Mission district. “It’s just going to force the rest of us to really lean into some online learning opportunities and push us out of our comfort zones.”

Teachers are learning what online platforms will best deliver lesson plans, how to collect homework, how to keep students engaged and how much work students can be expected to complete under these circumstances.

“We might end up with some bumps and bruises along the way, but I believe this will end up being a powerful experience for all of us as we are forced to find a new way to connect beyond the classroom setting,” Mayfield said.

“We’re all antsy because this is really uncharted territory,” said Mayfield.

The expectation from district leaders, said Shawnee Mission Superintendent Mike Fulton, is that “lesson plans will differ depending on grade, subject matter, access to technology and other factors. Parents will learn what their students’ online fourth quarter should look like by the end of this week.”

Alexis Burdick, a visual art teacher at Shawnee Mission North High School, has been posting Facebook live videos with her three daughters, each with a new drawing lesson. So far, she has taught hundreds of viewers how to draw a leprechaun for St. Patrick’s Day and a frog sitting on a lily pad — while learning how to stream videos for the first time.

“You can see me fidgeting with the camera. You can hear me even though I’m not on screen,” she said. “It’s really funny and I’m sure people laughed their way through it with us, which is half the intent, to be a little entertaining for folks in these times.”

Park Hill writing teacher Ashley Elizabeth Packard and her co-teacher Anna Haddad, who teaches reading, have had to figure out the best way to juggle teaching time with one-on-one time with students.

Their 105 seventh-grade students are used to the two of them teaching simultaneously and answering questions on the spot. They’ve used Zoom and a platform called Schoology to teach together in a virtual classroom.

“What we are really focused on is feedback,” Packard said. They use the chat rail in Zoom to answer students’ questions during class. They use Google Docs for assignments so the two of them can look at a student’s work at the same timet.

“And if a student is missing assignments or not showing up, we will reach out,” Packard said. “But mostly we are trying to operate from a position of grace for everyone, and no one is looking for perfection.”

Teachers also worry about students whose lives have been drastically changed. Tony Budetti, a government teacher at Shawnee Mission South High School, said some of his students are taking on new jobs because their parents have lost paychecks.

“I went to Home Depot and saw one of my students who said she was going to work there full time to help her family out. I can’t tell her to stay home and do my homework,” Budetti said. “It’s the reality that kids are facing inside of their houses, and we as teachers need to respect that. I’m concerned we might be trying to push a whole bunch of stuff on students when the reality of their lives could be completely changing.”

Tips for school at home

Parents have to keep in mind that the attention span of children varies depending on their age, said GG Weisenfeld, an assistant research professor at the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers Graduate School of Education in New Jersey.

“Younger children have attention spans of 10 to 15 minutes when working on tasks and benefit from breaks,” Weisenfeld said. She suggests that some parents will do better teaching them through ordinary household tasks, allowing children to help bake a cake, measuring out the ingredients. They can help with the laundry and sort their clothing by color, counting the pieces in each pile and writing down the number.

©2020 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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