Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf last week ordered schools closed for the rest of the academic year, meaning that digital learning between teachers and students will have to continue from now until the summer.
(TNS) — Kylee Saez and Hiraya Magno are much farther apart than they would like to be, but their connection remains strong.
Instead of being together in a third-grade classroom at the Erie, Pa., School District's Harding Elementary School, Saez, the teacher, and 8-year-old Hiraya, one of her 16 students, are miles from each other.
Saez is at her home in Edinboro.
Hiraya is at home with his family at their house on Shenley Drive, several blocks from Harding, at West Eighth Street and Lincoln Avenue.
The involuntary separation started March 13 when Gov. Tom Wolf first closed schools statewide due to COVID-19. The separation got extended for the rest of the academic year on Thursday, when Wolf ordered schools closed for the rest of 2019-20.
The time away from the classroom has left Saez longing for the liveliness and camaraderie of the classroom. Even still, she and Hiraya and the other students have remained close virtually, through the Erie School District's fledgling online instruction program.
Their key links, so far, have been text messages and ClassDojo, a free online texting app that allows Saez and parents to share files, videos and other materials.
"It is a big adjustment for everyone, that's for sure," said Saez, a teacher for four years. "This is new for everyone."
Hiraya's mother, Cristina Magno, appreciates how Saez is constantly reaching out to her son, including sending him messages of encouragement and support.
"They call. They email," Magno said of Saez and the teachers for her other two children, Papuri, 11, a sixth-grader at Strong Vincent Middle School, and Oyayi, 6, a first-grader at Harding. "It is working out OK. It is really a challenge as a parent. You need to keep them busy."
The need for students to stay busy with their online schoolwork will increase in the Erie School District on April 20. The district will shift from optional enrichment and review courses to mandatory online classes that will feature a streamlined grading system: complete-incomplete.
All teachers will use Google Classroom, a platform that is free for schools, to download assignments. Students can share assignments with the teachers via Google Classroom as well, though the Erie teachers will not be teaching students "live" via Zoom or other platforms. Saez said the plan is to assign work to students at the start of each week and help them complete the tasks.
Some of the other 13 school districts in Erie County are also moving toward mandatory online distance learning after taking the first several weeks of the shutdown to develop plans under unexpected circumstances and address challenges such as lack of computers and internet access at home for many students.
The state Department of Education is pushing all school districts and other public schools, such as charters, to implement continuity of education plans during the school shutdown.
The 6,500-student Millcreek Township School District, the second-largest school district in Erie County after the 11,000-student Erie School District, starts its mandatory online courses on Monday, the start of the district's fourth quarter.
Four other school districts — Fairview, General McLane, Harbor Creek and North East — already set up mandatory programs, and the other districts are developing plans based on their resources and student demographics, particularly access to the internet. Private and parochial schools have plans as well.
The main lesson so far, according to Saez and other teachers, is to stay in contact with students as much as possible and be open to experimentation.
"The district is really emphasizing that we reach out and contact students as much as we can," Saez said of the Erie School District. "I think our district is really working hard in a time of uncertainty. I think they are doing a really nice job, because this is a crazy, bizarre time."
In Millcreek, teachers worked together to rewrite curriculum on the fly and brainstorm which online platforms best suit their needs and the needs of their students, said Ryan Bickel, who teaches American government classes at McDowell High School.
"Many of us feel as if we are starting a new job," he said.
And starting it with plenty of distractions.
"We have teachers at home who have young children of their own, spouses working from home, college students who are home and learning, along with a host of other obstacles and challenges," Bickel said.
Teachers are rising to those challenges, he said.
"As with everything in life, change can be a little uneasy and a little difficult at first," Bickel said. "Being made aware of new technologies and being proficient with new technologies are two very different things. Teachers are navigating this new challenge to the best of their abilities on a very tight timeline, trying their very best to give students the best experience they can."
Teachers recognize that students and families are also working through new realities and are working beyond the school day to connect with them, said Girard schools Superintendent Donna Miller.
"Some families have three or four children and both parents at home trying to use one device," Miller said, and that not everyone can use it during the traditional school or work day.
"Teachers responded by saying, 'Yeah, we'll modify our schedule to connect with kids evenings and weekends, whatever it takes,'" Miller said. "It's extremely gratifying to see everybody stepping up to make this a shining moment rather than saying 'there's nothing I can do.'"
The Girard School District has been able to obtain 100 additional Chromebook laptops to distribute to students who need them, Miller said. Girard teachers have been offering both online and paper instruction, depending on students' needs. The Erie School Distict is among the other districts that have been distributing loaner Chromebooks.
Tami Pulice, a second-grade teacher at Millcreek's Grandview Elementary School, credits school administrators and parents with helping teachers to find their "new normal" in remote instruction.
The administration has "been wonderful in supporting their teachers with multiple in-service opportunities as well as administrative support to help teachers navigate this new normal," Pulice said. "It is such a new way of teaching. Even after 23 years in the business, I fell like this is a first year for me."
Parents, she said, have taken a strong interest in helping to support their child's education.
"They may not feel comfortable with all of the new changes, but they are doing them anyway to support their child's learning," Pulice said.
Parents are the true "superheroes" of the new online instruction, she said.
There's been no time to mourn face-to-face interactions with students, Pulice said, but they are missed.
"What I miss most is my students' chatter, their energy and most of all the smiles and interaction throughout the day," she said. "I personally can't wait to stand close to them again."
Kylee Saez appreciates the need for face-to-face interaction with her students.
"The hardest part for me is not getting to see the progress and how they are doing," she said.
Cristina Magno said one of her most difficult tasks is balancing all that is going on at home. While her children are studying, Magno is taking nursing classes online through Gannon University. Her husband, Chris, an associate professor of criminal justice and environmental science and engineering at Gannon, is also at home, teaching classes online.
"I went back to school after they were all at school," Cristina Magno said of her children. "Now they are all back."
But having everyone home all time, with no one able to go out, has also been fun, she said.
"A time for family bonding," she said.
Not physically present in the Magno household, though a presence nonetheless, are teachers like Saez, with their online lessons crafted during a pandemic.
"It is taking it day by day, week by week," Saez said. "Hopefully we can do the best we can for our students."
©2020 the Erie Times-News (Erie, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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