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Teaching Without Schools: Grief, Then A 'Free-For-All'

Teachers from around the country share their stories with NPR amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
LA Johnson NPR
Teachers from around the country share their stories with NPR amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

They thought they'd have more time, teachers say. Many couldn't even say goodbye.

"Everything happened so quickly," remembers Hannah Klumpe, who teaches seventh grade social studies in Greenville, S.C. "Friday I was at school, talking to my students, and they're like, 'Do you think they're going to close school?' And I was like, 'Oh, not right now!'"

That weekend, South Carolina's governor announced the state's schools would close immediately, including Klumpe's Berea Middle School, and she hasn't seen her students in-person since. Her story is not uncommon.

Talking through tears, Jaime Gordon remembers, "our governor just let us know that we will not be returning to school for the rest of the year, and I'm sorry, I get emotional when I say that. It's really hard to say that out loud." Gordon teaches third grade at St. Edward-Epiphany Catholic School in Richmond, Va. Like Klumpe, she says she was surprised by the move to close schools. "I didn't get to properly say goodbye to them."

America's schools are in crisis. Most of them have closed, according to a tally by Education Week, and nearly all of the nation's 56.6 million school-age children have been sent home. What began as two- to three-week school closures have crept inexorably into April and now seem capable, even likely, to outlast the school year. Already, more than a dozen states — including Virginia, Kansas and Arizona — have shuttered their schools for the rest of the academic year.

Educators are now shouldering an impossible task: to replicate the functions of school for months without an actual school building. And that means millions of teachers, like Hannah Klumpe and Jaime Gordon, now isolated at home, having to harness technologies new and old to reach and teach every student. America's schools have never had to improvise like this.

For Klumpe, the scramble began the Monday after classes were cancelled. It "was just like a free-for-all. We [teachers] all went to school. We created lesson plans in, like, 12 hours. So 10 days of lesson plans in a day, essentially. And we had to be prepared to launch those lesson plans by Wednesday and to start doing full-on e-learning, which our kids had never really done before without us."

In interviews with teachers and school leaders across the country — about how this vast experiment in remote learning is unfolding — a few important patterns emerged.

The digital divide is real. In many districts, the rush to build a remote learning plan began the old-fashioned way, with paper packets — enough to tide kids over while school leaders take stock. Namely, can they provide hardware and Wi-Fi access to every student who needs it?

The answer for many school leaders has been a dispiriting no.

"I would easily say that less than 50% of our students and families have access to either a consistent learning device and/or Internet access," says Nikolai Vitti, the head of Detroit Public Schools Community District. "I think that's our greatest challenge right now."

According to an Associated Press analysis of census data, Detroit is not alone. The AP found "aAn estimated 17% of U.S. students do not have access to computers at home and 18% do not have home access to broadband internet."

"There's a huge disparity in accessing Wi-Fi and students having devices," says Cara Godbe, a third grade teacher at Cottonwood Elementary School in rural Montrose, Colo. Godbe says her district is not requiring that students work online and is providing paper packets for anyone without a device or Internet access.

"I have a couple of students where, due to their life circumstances, being able to log in every day is not the reality," says Katie Benningfield, a sixth grade teacher at the School for the Talented and Gifted in Dallas. She says that doesn't just hurt their ability to connect academically "but also just their ability to contact us and be with us."

Many districts have been handing out as many devices and Wi-Fi hotspots as they can to the students who need them most. Member station WBEZ has reported that Chicago Public Schools is giving out more than 100,000 devices.

In Baltimore, the city's schools have just one device for every four students, says district CEO Sonja Santelises. "I said this to my board and my community, 'You cannot make up a 1-to-4 device-to-student ratio in the matter of a week or two in a pandemic. So we are prioritizing families that have no devices, and we're also, frankly, being creative in the use of our local television stations."

Santelises says, in addition to providing learning resources online for kids who can access them, her district is working with Baltimore's educational cable network to broadcast educational programming.

This tech inequity among students is also widening the opportunity gap, says Paige Dulaney, a first grade teacher at Merino Elementary School in Merino, Colo. "I think it's a gap that we're going to see for a long time," Dulaney says.

Priscila Baldillez teaches English as a second language at Roy Miller High School in Corpus Christi, Texas, and is especially worried about her students losing ground.

"[At school] they go through their entire day at least listening, picking it up and at least having the opportunity to hear English being spoken to them," Baldillez says. "That's not happening right now, and that bothers me."

Teaching remotely can be just as exhausting as teaching in-person, says Gordon, the third grade teacher in Richmond. Her morning starts at 7:00 a.m.; by 8:00, she's sending out the day's assignments via email and Google Classroom.

"While [students are] working on today's assignments," Gordon says, "I am making instructional videos. I've even gone so far as to make some fun Snapchat videos to help them ease their anxiety... Definitely working really hard. And in some ways harder than I ever have before. I just didn't think that was possible."

This is true even for teachers who were already relying on technology. Thu Nguyen, a sixth grade teacher at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., says her classroom had been paperless for two years, with her students using Google Classroom to turn in their work. But Nguyen says teaching exclusively online has presented new challenges, and she's already had to scrap her initial approach.

"Because it was based on me interacting with [students] via writing the same way that I interact with them via face-to-face every day. And I can't respond to 33 kids in writing fast enough," Nguyen says, "I was getting emails — question after question from one particular student — you know, like 10 emails in five minutes. And I was like, 'This is not going to work.' "

Now Nguyen sends out a morning email, like Gordon , "and then I have office hours, usually right after that. And so anyone who wants to get on can chat with me, to ask questions or to say hi."

Providing special education has been an enormous challenge. "Our district overall is implementing Google Classroom, but that doesn't work well for my students, since I have students with more significant needs," explains Ann Hiebert, a special education teacher for the Ferguson-Florissant School District, in the suburbs of St. Louis.

Many of Hiebert's students are non-verbal, and some struggle with writing and typing and can't use technology independently. "So all of these things that are out there aren't really going to be the best option for my kids," she says.

Hiebert has been sending emails with videos of her old morning routine, including familiar songs and pictures of her classroom calendar. "Routine is very important to my students," she says. She also sent packets home but says she's "still trying to figure out ways that I can have meaningful content for them."

An estimated 14% of public school students receive special education services in the U.S. and federal law ensures that those children have a right to a free, appropriate public education whenever and wherever schools are operating. Some advocates argue that benchmark isn't being met right now, and amid the pandemic the U.S. Education Department has offered schools flexibility.

Some special education teachers say technology is helping them provide important services.

"I don't think we would be able to do any of what I'm doing right now without it," says Katie Miller, a speech and language pathologist at Cider Mill School in Wilton, Conn. Of course, nothing can replace being at school with her students, but she says, "We are able to do a lot of what we would be able to do in a normal session." Miller is focusing on things like vocabulary and pronunciation, and using digital games and emojis to encourage students.

Teachers are making connections any way they can. Godbe, in rural Colorado, says she spends roughly two hours each morning reaching out to students and families by phone. She says this outreach is especially important for kids who can't connect online.

"I spend a lot of time with those kids, probably more than their parents do, so I keep calling to check in," Godbe says. "I've hopefully touched base, or tried to touch base, with [each family] throughout the week."

For the children she's still not able to contact, Godbe tries the old-fashioned way.

"I'm sending snail mail letters this week. I'm really trying to target those four or five kids that I've not been able to reach," Godbe says. "I do have Google Classroom as well, but all of these things are so dependent on technology that if they don't have access to that, it would probably be pretty hard to reach me."

"Getting in contact with everybody is definitely tough," says Baldillez in Corpus Christi. When her school extended its spring break, some of Baldillez's students were visiting Mexico and extended their trips.

"We don't have access to all of our students' cell phones," Baldillez says. "We have their parent's number, and a lot of times, their parents don't respond or they're not with their child. We really have to go through means."

That includes asking some of her students for their classmates' phone numbers.

"'Can you give me so-and-so's number? And so-and-so's?,'" Baldillez remembers. "[This student] was just giving me whatever she had, because getting in touch with our students is difficult."

For online classrooms, it's important for teachers to see their students and for kids to feel seen, Nguyen says. By noon each day she requires her students to publish a short, fun video using Flipgrid, an education app. "You know, one of them is like, wear a crazy hat, wear crazy socks, do a dance. And so that's just so that I can see all their faces every day."

Nguyen even posts her own video each day.

"The best part of my day, hands down," says Jaime Gordon, is the daily, 10 o'clock Google Meet she hosts with her students. "And I get to see their faces and we get to chat and I get to speak with them about things that we have been assigned."

Every afternoon, Hannah Klumpe, in Greenville, hosts a Google Hangout for her students "just where they can pop in if I have any questions or if they need help with something... I can read some directions aloud to them, because we do have a special population that needs those directions read aloud instead of just reading it on a computer. Just making sure that my kids are OK during this very crazy time."

Every educator we spoke with said the hardest part of teaching remotely is the loss of regular contact with students.

"Teaching through a computer is not why I became a teacher," Klumpe says. "I became a teacher to build relationships with my students ... and that one-on-one, face-to-face interaction, I think, is what I'm really gonna miss."

Robin Nelson says a first grader in her class at Ortega Elementary School in Jacksonville, Fla., recently surprised her. "She left little love notes and pictures on my doorstep," Nelson recalls through tears. "That's the heartbreaking part. You're not a teacher if you can't be with your kids. Computers are not — they're not your teacher."

And there are some things that just can't be taught online, like how to interact with the world and society. That's a big part of school, says Arnetta Thompson, a fifth grade teacher at Lincoln Elementary School in Oak Park, Ill.

"This component is missing right now," Thompson says. "I think that's something that long-term can have an impact, especially on my introverted students, or my students who have a difficult time just understanding their space or place in a social situation."

Many schools' top concern is not academics, says Santelises, the CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools. Yes, that personal connection educators have with their students helps kids stay focused when it's time to learn, but she says it's more important than that. Many students experience trauma at home — including poverty, food insecurity, abuse and neighborhood violence.

"School is their safe space," says Santelises. "And so when my mind settles there, I go back to the charge that we have given our principals and teachers: that while absolutely, we are committed to a continuity of learning, we are first and foremost committed to having whole young people. And that means checking in. And that means phone calls."

Thompson, in Oak Park, says she worries even more now about students whose households are unstable. "What can my influence be through a computer? ... What if they don't connect at all? And what should I be doing to make sure that they know I am still here to support them, even though it's not the daily check-in, where I can look you in the eye and see how you're doing, or look over your shoulder to see that you're struggling and help you with something."

Klumpe says she attended a meeting recently "where my principal was talking about how maybe we just need to really focus on loving our kids... They might not learn as much as they learned in a classroom, but we still need to make sure that we're meeting as many emotional needs as we can."

"I am a nurse," says third grade teacher Jaime Gordon, "I am a counselor. I'm a cheerleader. I'm building their growth mindset. I am an anxiety-decreaser. I mean, the list goes on. I'm not just teaching them math, science, social studies and all the content. So that is also part of my job that I was hoping I'd be able to do virtually."

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