Editor’s note: This is the first article in a two-part series examining some of the challenges teachers, parents and students are facing amid the coronavirus pandemic and the statewide closure of schools.
Today’s stories feature teachers and administrators. Monday’s story will feature students and parents.
Big Island teachers are adjusting to a new normal, working remotely to engage and educate students as the COVID-19 crisis continues to upend regular routines.
Schools are closed until at least April 30 because of the pandemic and are unlikely to reopen this academic year, according to the state Department of Education, which said schools will only reopen after no new cases of the disease are reported for four weeks.
But the change is challenging for many teachers.
“The best part of working in a school is the connections you build with students, their families and our colleagues,” said Samantha Tomori, one of three academic coaches at Keaau Elementary School. “To be isolated during this time of great stress is really difficult for myself and the teachers I work with, because we don’t get to interact with everyone the way we used to.
“I miss the smiles, hugs and conversations. I miss seeing the impact that we had on our students.”
Lindsey Borg, a middle school special education math teacher at Kalanianaole Elementary and Intermediate School in Papaikou, said even if she wasn’t expected to work, she’d still likely be working on her lessons and reaching out to students and teachers.
“The expectations that we sit at a computer for seven hours, at specific times, is less than ideal, though,” said Borg, who said she is expected to sign in at 8 a.m. and out at 3 p.m. on weekdays.
Prior to the pandemic, Borg tried to limit the amount of time she worked from home.
“I’ll go in early, I’ll stay late, but over the past six years, I have only brought work home on a couple occasions,” she said. “Now, transitioning to only working from home is pretty hard.”
It’s also difficult to go from a job where a majority of time is spent face-to-face with students and “where you’re barely on your computer during the day,” said Borg, to one where she’s expected to use a computer for hours.
The physical environment of working at home also has proven challenging.
Borg said she had to buy a new modem and router to handle constant video conferences and a new headset with a microphone, and there are other environmental distractions to contend with — construction next door, traffic and other noisy disturbances.
“Many of my coworkers also have children that are now home with them — schools and day-cares are closed,” Borg said. “It’s difficult for them to sit at a computer all day when their own kids need attention. We hope our students’ parents are helping the kids with the work we assign, but what about the teachers’ kids? How can the teachers help their own kids do the work and learn if they’re expected to be sitting at a computer all day?”
Jennie Hancock, a fifth-grade teacher at Waikoloa Elementary and Middle School, said teaching during the pandemic has been “pretty crazy,” and that conflicting or unclear messaging from the DOE has made it hard to determine what’s expected of the students and teachers.
Hancock said she’s making the best of the situation, but she had to have surgery on Oahu the day before spring break — and self-quarantining for two weeks after returning as a precaution — which meant she was unable to retrieve materials from her classroom.
Instead, she’s using online materials her students are already familiar with and is “trying to improvise when necessary.”
‘Ainaaloha Ioane, a sixth- to 10th-grade language arts teacher at Ka ‘Umeke Ka‘eo Public Charter School in Keaukaha, said her fellow teachers have been “extraordinary in their individual approaches to this new distance learning environment.”
“One of the many benefits of working in a charter school is the camaraderie between peers and commitment to collaboration,” she said. “When given this task of distance learning, the middle and high school team jumped right into it and began to plan. Luckily, we have smaller numbers. … I couldn’t imagine doing this for hundreds of students.”
Ioane said the school’s eighth- through 10th-grade students will focus on how government and communities have been responding to COVID-19.
She and her students meet on Zoom for 90 minutes three days a week, and 15-20 minute individual and small group meetings are held the other two days.
“I have been enjoying this one-on-one and small group time with my students,” Ioane said. “I’ve been having fruitful conversations with them about their writing, and am actually able to hold their attention while we review their work because there are not the normal classroom distractions (such as each other). I have meetings with the students who need extra support, one-on-one, so that I can hold their attention. All classes are recorded so that students can review them later.”
Teachers at the school also wanted students to create a special project that would be beneficial to families and the community. Students in grades six through 10 can choose a family project led by the kumu and family members, or a class project.
At Keaau Elementary, Tomori said each grade level has created a website of resources, videos and activities linked to the school’s student and parent pages. Teachers are using apps like Class Dojo or Remind to communicate with families, while many teachers have been connecting with students through video conferencing.
Tomori said the biggest challenge is finding a way to make learning accessible to all students.
Access is particularly challenging in a rural community, she said. Students don’t have internet access, or phone numbers for their parents might not be current, so educators are unable to check on every student.
Since she works at a school with a large number of low income students, some students also lack access to devices such as laptops.
“Our admin and tech team have been downloading staff-made enrichment videos and resources to laptops to ensure learning can be addressed without Wi-Fi, and have started distributing devices to our families.”
Students who join in on video conferencing are excited to be there, but participation varies, Tomori said. One teacher had 18 students join, while another had just five.
Borg shared similar sentiments and said many students don’t have access to a computer or internet at home.
“We had to make packets for those students, but I don’t know how much they’re going to get done or even learn without someone … to sit with them and do the work,” she said. “It’s hard to keep students’ attention, even in ideal circumstances, and these circumstances are far from ideal.”
Borg said, too, that there are some students she still hasn’t been able to get in contact with.
Additionally, according to the DOE, students are receiving “enrichment” during the closure, and no grades will be entered for the fourth quarter.
Borg, however, said that not being allowed to grade the work means many students have decided “to just not do it, and there’s nothing we can really do about that. So it’s frustrating that we’re still expected to be churning out all these assignments when very few kids will utilize them.”
Hancock, however, said she has had “really good engagement from my class.”
She has daily check-ins using Google Meet and typically between 13 and 16 of her 23 students have been engaging online.
The check-ins are mostly social-emotional learning type activities, but students also do a bit of academic work, like reading or social studies activities online.
Hancock said the class already has been doing some work online, so it wasn’t a big transition for students, but connectivity has kept some students from participating.
However, 22 of her 23 students either have their own device or borrowed a device from the school.
“Every effort is being made by teachers and administrators to reach all students and families,” DOE spokeswoman Lindsay Chambers said in an email. “This remains a priority to ensure that students stay engaged in learning while at home. This may take time as some families facing hardships may have temporarily relocated.
“Additional effort to distribute enrichment packets to rural areas are being organized and may include pop-up distribution points at remote locations.”
Parents who haven’t been able to receive materials for their child should contact their school to make arrangements.
Teachers say responses from parents to the new teaching changes are mixed.
“Some parents are essential workers, and homeschooling is nearly impossible when finding child care is the main priority,” Tomori said. “Some parents have multiple children and are trying to juggle the needs of a range of ages. The parents I’ve interacted with have a great deal of appreciation and are supportive of what we are trying to do. Everyone is trying to do their best during this time.”
While there is some concern about student falling behind after missing so much in-class instruction, Hancock said because everyone is out of school, there will be a deficit for most or all of the students.
The issue is “statewide, almost nationwide, if not worldwide,” she said. “It’s really profound the impacts this is having on (everything).”
Tomori said she was initially “overwhelmed” by the idea that students would miss so much instructional time.
“We typically see regression over the summer, so I am anticipating there will be a lot to catch up on,” she said. “Unfortunately, this pandemic is beyond our control. These are unprecedented times. I am more concerned about the emotional toll this will have on our students. Our teachers will work tirelessly to catch the students up as soon as we return to school.”
Ioane, however, said if parents are diligent and ensure their children are spending an appropriate amount of time learning, then students should be prepared.
She added that the crisis also provides a “teachable moment” for students.
“I know that if I can get my older students to see this as an opportunity to think about tourism and our need to diversify our economy, then we used this time well,” she said.
“Our conversations now could lead to impactful change now and in the future. The process will help to prepare them for their futures.”
Email Stephanie Salmons at firstname.lastname@example.org.