CC Magazine welcomes your Class Notes submissions. Please include your name, class year, email, and physical address for verification purposes. Please note that CC Magazine reserves the right to edit for space and clarity. Thank you.
Primary- and secondary-school educators discuss the challenges of teaching during a pandemic.
By Amy Martin
y youngest daughter’s first day of kindergarten was just 13 minutes long. She sat in our dining room and watched a three-minute, prerecorded video of her teacher, whom she’d yet to meet, and completed a 10-minute activity on one of what seemed like countless apps she’d be required to learn.
We decided it didn’t really count. We didn’t take the customary first-day-of-school pictures until two days later, her first day of in-person school under our district’s hybrid system. She stood on the sidewalk against the backdrop of the empty playground, looking adorable—and utterly terrified. “Kindergarten?” asked the principal, whose kind smile was completely hidden behind her black face mask. I nodded, and she gently led Lila toward the school’s back entrance.
I waited until my little girl was completely out of sight before I burst into tears. I had cried a little when each of my older two had gone off to kindergarten. It’s a milestone, as all parents know. But this? This was different.
She did love her first day of in-person kindergarten. Wearing a mask all day wasn’t quite as bad as she’d thought it would be, and she made a few friends, although she didn’t remember any of their names.
On day five, her school’s vice principal was diagnosed with COVID-19. A few days later, the principal who helped Lila into the building on the first day tested positive; so did a third staff member.
Just 10 days into the new school year, Lila’s school canceled all in-person classes.
DAVID HOWES ’93 M’00 will never forget March 13, 2020. In his more than two decades as an educator and school administrator, he had never experienced anything as disruptive as a sudden closure amid fears of a global pandemic.
“We just looked at each other and said, ‘We’ll be back in school in a couple of weeks.’ Then a couple of weeks became a month, and then another month, and then it became clear that we just weren’t going back,” said Howes, principal of two schools in the EASTCONN regional education organization, and a former principal and executive director at New London’s Interdistrict School for Arts and Communication.
Almost overnight, teachers had to completely rethink their approach to education and transition from live, hands-on, collaborative teaching models to a virtual model rife with technical difficulties and inequitable access.
“The mantra became ‘Do no harm,’ especially in terms of grades and attendance,” Howes said. “It wasn’t fair to punish kids because they didn’t have technology or internet access. The spring was really about just making it through.”
Lindsay Paiva ’12, a third-grade teacher at Webster Avenue Elementary School in Providence, Rhode Island, was given just one hour’s notice that her school was closing.
“We had barely enough time to get the kids their Chromebooks and get them home. After that, we were flying by the seat of our pants,” she said.
Paiva teaches students who are learning English as their second language, and many of them recently immigrated to the United States. The main challenge in March was to get internet access for families who couldn’t afford it, Paiva said.
“I was calling Cox Communications and yelling at them every day, trying to get the promised free service for my families. I had kids who were off the internet for eight weeks.”
ADMINISTRATORS AND TEACHERS spent the summer of 2020 trying to determine how to safely open this fall, attempting to balance the emotional, social and educational needs of the students with the health and safety of their entire communities. State and federal guidelines changed weekly, if not daily.
Largely, it was up to individual districts to decide whether to go fully remote, hybrid or all in-person. Those decisions have heavily impacted the daily lives of educators, students and families, while exposing and exacerbating the inequities in the American education system.
The Gordon School, a coeducational private independent Pre-K–8 school in East Providence, Rhode Island, where Carly Allard ’09 serves as the director of health and wellness, welcomed students back five days a week this fall, although some opted for remote learning. Founded in 1910 as an open-air school, Gordon sits on 12 acres and promotes a progressive, multicultural curriculum for its approximately 350 students.
To prepare for the fall, Gordon increased its number of outdoor classrooms, even erecting large wedding tents to use for meals and instruction. Sensors were installed in indoor classrooms for air quality, students were divided into small cohorts of about 15, walkways were made unidirectional, and a safety app was implemented to monitor the health of students and staff daily. Everyone is required to wear a mask, and the youngest students also wear face shields while eating.
“For us, it is about having layers of protection,” Allard said. “With the small size of our student body and our large campus, we are able to practice social distancing fairly easily. But as happy as we are to be able to do this, we realize we are privileged, and it does feel inequitable.”
Just seven miles away, things are different at Paiva’s public school, where students are also attending five days a week in person.
“I have 20 students in my class who are here every day. I can’t fit them. They aren’t six feet apart; they aren’t even three feet apart,” she said.
Webster Avenue Elementary School is housed in a 115-year-old building that has no HVAC system, so the only ventilation in Paiva’s classroom is a dollar-store box fan that someone bolted into a now permanently open window with the air blowing outside. (It was just 45 degrees in the room when students arrived on one mid-September morning.) There is no electrical outlet on that wall, so the fan’s cord stretches clear across one whole corner of the room, where students have cubbies and boxes for supplies.
“It’s hard to watch the kids come into a space that you know isn’t safe,” said Paiva, who, as a founding member of the Providence Teachers Union’s racial justice committee, protested the unsafe conditions on several occasions. One protest included setting up a scaled classroom on the lawn of the Rhode Island State House to show legislators just how close students would be sitting.
“The virus has illuminated so many of the glaringly obvious inequalities,” Paiva said at another protest outside the Rhode Island Department of Education in mid-September.
“It was already so inequitable, but now it is literally a matter of life and death.”
SAFETY ISN'T the only thing educators are worried about.
Liz Gonzalez Quiñones ’00 is a bilingual fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at New London’s Regional Multicultural Magnet School (RMMS). Her students are on a hybrid schedule: on Mondays and Tuesdays, she has six students in her classroom, while the other students learn at home; on Thursdays and Fridays, she has just three students.
“Kids need socialization, and this is not normal,” Gonzalez Quiñones says. “No class has ever had just three students. No kids have ever come to school for just two days.”
In the classrooms, collaborative tables have been replaced with old-school-style single desks that all face forward. Teachers are discouraged from getting too close to students, and students are largely kept apart, even at recess. Lunch tables at RMMS that used to seat 10 now seat only two.
“Instead of ‘Let’s work together,’ we are teaching them not to socialize, not to share, not to build together. This is a very cold environment for kids, and it breaks my heart,” she said.
Gonzalez Quiñones likens following all of the protocols—from frequent handwashing and sanitizing to enforcing social distancing in hallways to making sure kids don’t sing or get too excited at recess—to “orchestrating a circus of moving parts.”
“We are mentally fatigued,” she said of teachers. “And then, we can’t get sick. I have to project my voice through a mask, so I get a tickle in my throat. But I don’t want to cough, because then I’ll scare the kids.”
At Paiva’s school, there is only one girls’ and one boys’ restroom for more than 300 students. Each class is assigned a six-minute time slot, after which a janitor has just two minutes to clean both. If a child has an emergency, the teacher has to call the office to have someone sent to the class to escort the child to the restroom. That, Paiva says, works about as well as anyone can imagine.
“You can’t schedule children—you can’t tell a kindergartener when to pee. They have to go all day long! I refuse to tell children they can’t go to the bathroom,” she said, pointing out that this is just one example of how COVID-19 has completely transformed the learning environment.
“All of the kids wanted to be back, because school is great, but this is not school—this is some weird alien version of what school used to be.”
Associate Professor of Human Development Loren Marulis, a former elementary teacher who specializes in early cognitive development and educational psychology, worries about the long-term impacts, especially for students who already struggled to connect.
“Learning is inherently social. This is going to affect all areas of learning—academic learning, social and emotional learning, conversation, self-regulation,” Marulis said.
For students on hybrid or all-virtual models, the disconnect is even greater because no matter how teachers decorate virtual learning, or how interactive they make it, the human connection is missing. Therefore, most educators believe student success, especially at the elementary level, will largely depend on how much support students have at home.
“When and if schools get back to normal, there will be a big discrepancy. Kids with supportive families and funds will be okay, but the kids who are already behind will get even further behind. And it will be that much harder for them to catch up,” Marulis said.
Even in the best-case scenario, three to five days of virtual learning just doesn’t compare to five days of in-person learning. Looking forward, however, Marulis emphasizes that kids are resilient, and highly adaptable.
“Going through this painful period we all grow, and we may all become more adaptable.”
Having worked most of his career with high-risk populations, Principal Howes worries about the exacerbation of the achievement gap, but he does hope the disruption of the status quo might help move K-12 education to a more personalized, competency-based model, as well as decrease the emphasis on high-stakes standardized testing.
“In the short term, COVID has exposed these glaring gaps, but in the long run, maybe it will push everyone in a way no policy ever could,” he said.
Gonzalez Quiñones says that despite the hardships, she has tried to remain focused on the tenacity and resilience of her students.
“I’m looking forward to when we can all be back together again. That’s what keeps me going—it has to get better,” she said.