Teachers Talk: COVID-19, Virtual Learning, and Playing Catch-Up

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By Stefanie Jackson – A small group of Pungoteague Elementary School teachers recently demonstrated their dedication to their students in an interview on their classroom experiences throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, spending nearly the entire time discussing their students’ education and well-being and rarely focusing the conversation on themselves.

The Eastern Shore Post visited PES on Jan. 12 and spoke with a panel of four teachers: special education teacher Suzanne Gilbert, kindergarten teacher Alex Simms, and third grade teachers Marissa Blaise and Chloe Harper.

“It’s wonderful to have them back in the building,” Gilbert said of her students. “I feel like we (teachers) did a good job … with the circumstances we were handed last year, but this is just much better.”

Last year, Accomack students participated in either the virtual or hybrid learning program. Virtual students received instruction remotely four days a week, and hybrid students received instruction in person two days a week and remotely two days a week. Accomack schools were closed to students every Friday for deep cleaning, and teachers used this time for planning, grading, and contacting parents.

This year, the majority of students attend school in person five days a week; those who learn from home are in the Virtual Virginia program, which is not based locally.

All the teachers interviewed were glad to have their students back in class but acknowledged that virtual learning prompted some positive changes in their teaching methods.

They became better equipped to incorporate more technology in their lessons through programs like Canvas, Kami, and Nearpod, which allow teachers to create and organize online lessons, activities, and assessments, including interactive videos and more.

Harper said virtual learning prompted “thinking outside the box.” The challenge of teaching children through live video conferencing led her to develop hand signals that her students still use now that they’re back in school in person.

For example, students give thumbs up or thumbs down to indicate whether or not they have finished their work, and they hold up two crossed fingers to signal the need to use the restroom.

The teachers had little preparation for virtual learning, but they figured it out together. They also used social media like YouTube and Facebook to connect with teachers in other states, who shared online teaching materials and tips.

What the teachers miss most about virtual learning is having every Friday for planning, which was invaluable for several reasons:

  • Every teacher was available at the same time, allowing for team planning and co-teaching. This is not possible during a regular school year, when most teachers have different planning periods.
  • With a designated school day for planning, grading, and making parent contacts, teachers had less work to take home in the evenings.
  • Teachers could meet with parents anytime during the school day without needing to find coverage for their classrooms. Gilbert held all her IEP (individualized education plan) meetings on Fridays last school year.

The elementary school teachers especially appreciated the planning days because normally they get only a 45-minute planning period every day, whereas middle and high school teachers normally get 90 minutes daily for planning.

A reporter asked the teachers if they would approve of a longer school day or school year if it meant the return of their weekly planning days.

“I think I’d rather keep my summer,” Simms remarked, and Harper agreed. But none of the teachers completely dismissed the idea of a longer or modified school year – especially if it meant more planning days.

Harper would not like a longer school day because children have shorter attention spans than adults and “the kids can only take so much in one day,” but she would consider a longer school year.

Blaise noted a longer school year would bring backlash from teachers who rely on summer vacation to regroup or for other reasons. For example, teachers who are parents of young children don’t have to worry about paying for daycare over the summer, she pointed out.

However, she wouldn’t mind if the school year lasted through the end of June, Blaise said.

Harper added that the students would probably retain more of their learning with a shorter summer break.

Other countries have successfully implemented year-round school; for example, in France, students attend school 10 weeks, have a two-week break, and repeat that pattern until summer, when schools have a six-week break, Simms said.

As much as teachers enjoy having students back in school, returning to in-person learning during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic brings new challenges.

When children weren’t in classrooms for a year, they suffered losses both in learning and social-emotional development.

“We’re trying to make up two years’ worth of growth, and we have to make sure these kids are ready to take the state test at the end of the year,” Blaise said.

“We can’t create that time,” Gilbert said. “We’ll never make up that March to May time” in 2020 when schools were closed at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some students “skated through” virtual learning last school year because “their brains are very well-adapted for online learning. They’re very independent,” but other students “really missed an entire year, because for them, that virtual learning just didn’t work,” Gilbert said.

This school year, with students back in the classroom, Blaise is using more hands-on activities and visual elements in her math lessons, and reading lessons incorporate more handwriting than typing, she said.

Pacing also is a challenge this year because teachers must simultaneously help their students “get those foundational skills built again” and learn new material. Lesson plans change daily, Blaise said.

Gilbert added that the Virginia Department of Education’s expectations are higher than they were last year when most schools were practicing virtual or hybrid learning. “We have not been allowed to drop our grade-level standards,” she noted.

Because students haven’t been physically present in school to build their academic and social skills, “in third grade it feels like we’re still teaching first graders, basically,” Harper said.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic adds even more challenges to in-person learning.

In addition to wearing face masks throughout the school day, students must stay at least three feet apart at all times, and that makes small group work difficult – the classroom gets loud as the masked and socially distanced students raise their voices so they can hear each other, Gilbert explained.

Social distancing prevents students from helping out with tasks such as passing out food at lunchtime, Simms said, and telling students that “sharing is caring” is no longer acceptable, Harper added.

The teachers admitted that sometimes when a child needs a hug, the social distancing guidelines go “out the window.”

But no one spoke against the COVID-19 mitigation practices or the additional learning interventions being implemented to help students who have fallen behind.

Instead, the teachers accepted the ongoing situation with COVID-19 as a “new normal” with new challenges.

“I think, as a teacher, you’re used to having curve balls. This was just a bigger curve ball than we’ve ever been thrown before,” Gilbert said.

Early in a teacher’s career, “you learn really quickly … that your perfectly planned lesson is never going to go perfectly,” she said.

The upside of completing more than a year of teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic is that “I have more confidence than I ever had before,” Gilbert said.

“Last year, overall, as a school … we were definitely a team,” Blaise said.

Harper agreed. “The team effort was A-1.”

“It’s made us stronger,” Simms said.

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