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Fourth grader Jacy Jones, left, and sixth grader Kali Jones share a work area in their home designated for logging into their online classes at Mills Lawn Elementary School. According to their mother, Gina Jones, the girls, and their older sister Evie, a seventh grader who signs into McKinney Middle School classes from her room, approach remote learning much like having a job. (Submitted Photo)

Remote learning challenges families

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This is the second of two stories asking how remote learning is going in the Yellow Springs Schools. Last week, the News looked at teacher and staff experiences inside the schools. This week, we explore the perspectives of students and families.

For many Yellow Springs students, the emotional toll of being physically separated from friends and teachers stands out as one of the most difficult effects of the district’s current distance-learning model, set in place at the beginning of the new school year amid health and safety concerns related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“I can’t see my friends like I normally would,” Mills Lawn sixth grader Sylvie Peirson said in a recent phone interview. “And I was definitely looking forward to enjoying all the teachers at Mills Lawn for the last time,” she added, referring to moving up to the middle school next year.

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She said she’s had to wrestle with the disappointment of not being able to start her last year in elementary school as she’d envisioned, including being part of the school choir.

Looking at small squares of faces lined up on a computer screen during shared class time doesn’t replicate the experience of being in a classroom together. “You see everybody in a different [place],” and you see yourself, “like a mirror,” Sylvie said of the online conferencing platforms being used.

“It just feels weird,” she added.

Sylvie’s mother, Hilary Peirson, says the separation has been rough for all three of her children, including Shae, a third grader, and Seth, who’s in kindergarten.

“It is heartbreaking to watch them school without an in-person social component we have long taken for granted,” she wrote in an email further detailing her family’s experiences.

Hilary noted that while her eldest “mourns the loss of what she expected … I mourn what I expected of my son’s first days of kindergarten.” And her third grader misses the in-person interactions.

“It is a hard time,” the mother said. “Even so, I think our healthiest option right now is remote learning.”

Going remote

While the 2020–21 school year has been in session for over a month, most students have yet to set foot in the buildings except to pick up technology and other materials supplied by the schools, participate in middle and high school athletics, take part in the limited Safe Centers for Online Learning program or complete one-on-one assessments.

The district’s remote-learning plan, with teachers conducting classes online from their individual classrooms, was initially set to take students through the first 10-week quarter of the academic year, with plans to decide, before the quarter ends Oct. 31, whether to continue remotely or return to in-person instruction in November. Superintendent Terri Holden said in a recent phone call that she hopes to have a recommendation to take to the school board at its next regular meeting, Thursday, Oct. 8.

According to information provided by the district, Yellow Springs was one of 11 school districts among 47 total in Greene and its contiguous counties that opted to begin the year fully online. The local decision was supported by the Yellow Springs teachers and staff employees unions. As of Sept. 24, nine other area school districts, in addition to Yellow Springs, are following a fully remote-instructional model. Yellow Springs is the only district in Greene County to be fully online.

To help inform the district’s plans for moving forward, Holden sent out a survey to families on Monday, Sept. 28, asking that they share their preference from three possible learning options by 5 p.m. Friday, Oct. 2. The choices given are between a partial return, organized either by particular days of the week, time of day or grade level; a continuation of virtual learning with local teachers; or going to an online format provided through the Greene County Online Learning Collaborative.

Holden wrote in an email introducing the survey that the district’s plans are contingent also on the county’s state-assigned color-alert level for the prevalence of COVID-19. Greene County currently has an orange classification. Should the alert level rise to red or purple, then the district would conduct classes 100% online, Holden wrote. If the county moved into the yellow range, then the district would go 100% in-person.

Making it work

In the meantime, a majority of students and families seem to be settling into a certain rhythm, despite individual challenges.

“It’s going pretty good now,” Erin Borger, a parent of five ranging in age from eighth grade to kindergarten, said in a recent telephone interview. “The first couple of weeks were kind of rough, but we’ve got a good routine now.”

Borger said she and her husband get the kids up, have breakfast, and then get them each logged into their individual computers. The kindergartener and first grader are set up in the kitchen, the second grader is in the living room and the fourth and eighth graders are in their respective bedrooms.

“The older three can pretty much follow the teachers’ instructions and do their own thing,” Borger said. “I pretty much sit in the room with the younger ones.” She has a computer set up as well where she does her own online work.

The biggest challenge for the family has been technological, she said. With so many people in the house using computers at the same time, their router couldn’t handle the load. The school district, however, has provided some hot-spot assistance to ease the family’s online access.

She said that all in all, the children have adjusted to the unusual circumstances, though “they do all want to be back in school, to be with their friends and teachers.”

Borger said she hopes a return is possible soon. “But I don’t want them to do so before it’s safe,” she added.

High school senior Ian Sherk said being online can be challenging, but he has reservations about returning to in-person classes while COVID conditions remain as they are today.

Remote learning is “crazy, but it’s not really the end of the world,” Sherk said in a phone interview this week.

“The teachers are really trying their best, and they’re being as flexible and accommodating as they can be,” he said.

Sherk said that while he knows that some of his peers are struggling with feelings of isolation, he hasn’t felt that. He’s been able to spend time with individual friends — “responsibly and within reason” — and stays in touch with others through group texts.

The biggest challenges for Sherk have been the differences he’s experienced between in-person and online classes.

“It’s harder to have a class discussion online,” he said. And he’s noticed that some students seem to be shyer about speaking up in the virtual format. He’s also become aware that he has a tendency to zone out more and feel less engaged when he’s online. He said he focuses better when he has the stimulus of in-person classes. He’s also uncomfortable seeing himself in the video conference calls, though he’s not sure why, and prefers to keep his camera turned off if allowed.

“Being self-directed” can also be a challenge, Sherk said. One strategy he’s adopted is to set an alarm on his phone to ring at the end and beginning of each of his classes, “since there aren’t any bells.”

As a senior, Sherk said he’s sad about not being in the school building for all the traditions. And the college application process, which typically takes place in the fall of senior year, is even more stressful without the in-person support of school staff, he said, adding that counselor David Smith, however, has been helpful remotely.

For the Peirson family, which also includes father Ryan, “We wake early, go through the morning routine with breakfast and so on, and head to our respective work spaces by 8 a.m. when school starts,” Hilary reports.

“The kids attend Google Meet with their teachers and classmates, do some asynchronous work, take frequent breaks — including a much longer one for lunch — play outside, and attend special subjects like life skills, music, art, library and P.E., as well as small groups with fewer students and more individual attention. The older kids sometimes have work to finish after school before the next day. The kids sometimes FaceTime friends and family, or visit loved ones outside with masks.”

The biggest challenge for Peirson as a parent “is trying to facilitate effective school learning and development for kids in three different age groups online, and [Ryan working] a full-time job in a shared space that happens to be our home,” Peirson said.

“Keeping kids quiet while others are working, finding creative ways for kids to be socially and physically active, and responding to increased stress are all part of remote learning for us,” the mother said.

Eldest daughter Sylvie said that her siblings’ presence can be distracting. And she’s had a mixed reaction to overhearing her little brother interacting online with his kindergarten class. At first she felt annoyed that rather than being with peers her own age doing the same level of work, she was with someone still learning their alphabet. But then she came to appreciate how much knowledge she’s acquired since her own kindergarten days. And after a while she was charmed by the little ones in Seth’s class.

“They’re so darned cute,” she said.

Her mother said she feels fortunate that she’s able to be home with her children to facilitate their day, and she recognizes that other families have a variety of different circumstances to contend with that make the situation more difficult.

Gina Jones, a mother of three, works the night shift as a nurse at Miami Valley Hospital. The daytime, school time, is when she normally sleeps. In a recent phone interview, she said she doesn’t know what she would do if her daughters, who are in fourth, sixth and seventh grades, weren’t able to navigate their online work mostly independent of her and her fiance, who works outside the home.

“I can’t imagine if I had a kindergartener or first grader who needed more support,” she said.

She said that after she gets the girls up each morning about 7:15 a.m., they have breakfast and she looks “over what everyone has to do for the day.”

She tries to sleep once they’ve signed on to their classes — the younger two at 8 a.m. and the eldest at 8:30. “They also know they can wake me,” she said, noting that when they do get her it’s usually food- rather than school-related.

She said that the girls look at their school time not unlike a work day, with specific tasks to be completed that aren’t necessarily fun.

“None of them is happy with the situation,” Jones said.

Their experience is also complicated by the fact that this is the first year for the family in Yellow Springs Schools.

“They went to a private school before,” their mother said.

Not knowing anyone in their classes has been a challenge and contributed to the girls’ feelings of isolation, Jones said.

The eldest, whom Jones described as an extrovert, is especially struggling with the absence of peers. “She needs people besides her family,” the mother said.

Another ongoing challenge is in navigating screen time, Jone said. With so much of her girls’ day spent on computers for school, Jones said she’s inclined to limit their use of electronic devices during their free time.

But it’s hard, “when you have kids who like to play on their electronics after school, when that’s their way of winding down,” she said.

She said her girls will be upset if the district continues with online instruction after the first quarter, “and I would be upset for them,” but she also understands the reasons not to return to the classroom until the pandemic is more under control.

The schools’ efforts

For the most part, families spoke favorably of the district’s efforts to keep students engaged and learning.

One parent who wanted to remain anonymous said they’d encountered some educational challenges, but didn’t want to describe them while still working with the schools on solutions.

Hilary Peirson said she’s been “very impressed with the schools’ efforts so far.”

“Our teachers are invested, effective, supportive, patient and well organized,” she said. “They work hard to hold the attention of our kids and teach them in spite of myriad challenges.”

She also lauded the administration for being “easily accessible and responsive.”

“I feel very lucky to have my kids enrolled in Yellow Springs schools,” she said.

Her daughter Sylvie echoed her sentiments. She said her two sixth-grade teachers, Jody Pettiford and Ryan Montross, and all her “specials” — music, art, gym, orchestra — have been “really good.”

“I feel like I’m actually learning,” she said.

Senior Ian Sherk said he thinks his learning has been “somewhat diminished,” but he appreciates not only how hard teachers are working, but also the support they give students around their mental health.

“Eli Hurwitz, for one, always takes time to ask how everyone is doing,” Sherk said.

Erin Borger and Gina Jones feel that teachers are doing as well as they can. Borger said she didn’t see much difference in quality of instruction among the five grades in her household.

Hilary Peirson said she wants to encourage the entire school community “to have compassion for ourselves and each other.”

In an email she concluded: “The Magic 8 Ball didn’t tell us a pandemic was coming. It will be weird sometimes. It will be hard sometimes. We will make mistakes — teachers, parents, and students — and challenges will arise. It can’t be everything we want, so let’s make the best of what it is. I wish us peace and resilience — especially when the computer stops working, we run out of coffee, and the kids forget to use their inside voices. Vent to each other, breathe, and try again.”

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