Learning curve: Parents grapple with realities of remote schooling

Esosa Iriowen sits with his son, Osawerene, as he completes his remote learning work. Osawerene is a kindergarten student at the Academy of Dover. Submitted photos

School — and what it will look like in the fall — will be the topic of discussion throughout June, as the state rolls out its three working groups centered on reopening school buildings. For some parents who have become the mediators of their children’s academics, though, the last few months have been challenging.

Schools closed their doors and learning went remote in mid-March, and parent Ebony Newton hopes that it doesn’t continue into next year.

“I just don’t feel like it’s going to be any type of benefit to the students at all,” she said of remote learning. “I don’t feel like they’ll benefit at all from this.”

Of Mrs. Newton’s seven children, six are enrolled in schools in Woodbridge — spanning from pre-K through middle school. Between them, they have Mrs. Newton’s phone and an Xbox to access their remote learning materials.

“It has been a challenge all the way around,” she said. “It’s been a challenge and very overwhelming because, for one, I feel like they did not think of the parents with multiple children in multiple grades when it came to the planning.”

While she’s always had an interest in homeschooling her children, the schedule of the different materials and lessons they’re all meant to partake in is difficult to keep up with, she said.

Mrs. Newton’s family is one of many that are still navigating the remote learning system. It’s not just about academics, however, when it comes to schooling at home.

For the Mackie family, it took a month to get remote learning to work for Karen’s son, Jacob, who is a student in Caesar Rodney School District. Jacob, 18, has autism.

“I’ve pretty much turned into the teacher, trying to teach him to listen and pay attention to his teacher,” Mrs. Mackie said. “We’ve just now started speech again for my son; he’s completely nonverbal, and he’s been without speech therapy since March. … He’s been without speech [intervention] for a while.”

While his speech pathologist has “popped in every once in a while,” Mrs. Mackie said, “It’s not anything like therapy should be.” (The speech pathologist began working with Jacob via telehealth the week of May 18.)

When Mozella Richardson Kamara, a parent whose son has autism, spoke during public comment at Capital School District’s school board meeting, she wanted to know: Now that children aren’t going back to school for the rest of the year, what’s the plan for those with individual education programs, or IEPs?

“Because, as smart as [her son, Zayn] is — I call it like the little absent-minded professor — you have that academic intellect, but all the other common sense stuff just isn’t the same,” she said later. “And so, for him, up until [mid-May], I had received no contact from his IEP team. None.”

Just because certain aspects of school had gone away, she said, that didn’t mean that his need for help with “organizing, prioritizing, planning his work, completing complex tasks,” went away when classes went remote.

She was told that it was her responsibility to tell the teachers what wasn’t working for her son, she said.

Osawerene Iriowen, a kindergarten student at Academy of Dover, completes some of his work as part of the remote learning curriculum.

“Even though it was their responsibility to know he has an IEP, and for his spec ed teacher to make some contact when they receive the direction to do so. But that’s not how they see it,” she said. “I really feel sympathetic or empathetic — because many of these families have it harder than I do — to families dealing at home with children with IEPs.”

Autism Delaware has family navigators and support providers across the state that work one-on-one with families, said Annalisa Ekbladh, director of family services. Staff helps families to communicate with schools about what is and isn’t working during remote learning.

“The needs are different right now for families and remote learning is working well for some families and it’s a struggle for some, so our role is really to talk to families to help families advocate for what can best work,” she said.

First State Community Action Agency has likewise tried to advocate for families with needs emphasized by coronavirus.

“One of our biggest things is, because everything has gone to technology, we really recognize the digital divide, especially with our students and our senior citizens,” said Sandi Hagans-Morris, director of youth programs at First State. “So we’re trying to look at things to that nature in terms of making sure there’s connectivity.”

She noted the difficulty with internet connectivity in Sussex County, as well as the population of parents who might have trouble understanding their children’s assignments due to the language barrier.

“One of our biggest struggles, also, not that they have connectivity, but the parents understanding the homework, understanding that process,” she said. “Trying to be able to make sure that they are not left behind has been something that we’ve just tried to stay ahead of.”

‘I miss school’

Amid the struggles, there have been successes. Parent Esosa Iriowen commended the Academy of Dover’s switch to remote learning. As the parent representative, he said he’s heard feedback from the parents, which has been positive, and the administration has moved swiftly to address concerns.

His son, Osawerene, a kindergartener, said remote learning has been fun, though it’s not quite the same.

“I miss school. I’m so worried about this coronavirus,” he said, adding that he misses his teachers “because they’re the best.”

“I know more about this whole thing, when the child is getting enough or not getting enough,” Dr. Iriowen said. “I tell you, he is getting more than enough. I really appreciate his school [and] all the teachers there.”

Osawerene said school is a bit harder at home, but he watches the videos his teachers post to learn the materials.

“So that way, I could know how to do it,” he said. “But my daddy will always be beside me, so that way, he can help because he’s smart.”

Parent Beautiful White said that the Academy of Dover has been accommodating, but it’s difficult to be a parent, working from home, with a child who needs to learn.

“We’ve been trying to work through it,” she said. “Her teacher has pretty much been very accessible, which is really, really good and nice. So as soon as I email her about anything she gets right back for me.”

Journey, a first-grader, said that she misses her teachers.

The transition to Zoom, though, hasn’t been too hard on her. “It’s like being in class with other students,” she said.

In her work with the Division of Family Services, Mrs. White interacts with plenty of school districts. She has seen excellent models of remote learning in some, while others have room for improvement, she said.

“I just have concerns about what it’s going to look like once we go back to school,” she said. “And what, like, because of the remote learning, how this is going to affect our kids. So that’s my major concern.”

Mrs. Newton echoed those sentiments.

“I don’t like that we’re just focusing on a bunch of review, stuff that they already did. So they’re not moving forward, so even though they’re going to the next grade, I guess they’re going to pick up from whatever they did in the grade before, which I don’t like,” she said. “I think if you’re going to give us work they should be moving forward, teaching them forward, instead of being stuck in that same situation. They’re not moving forward; they’re not learning anything more.”

Her third-grader is a straight-A student, she said, and “it’s overwhelming for him because he’s always been an overachiever so at school he was always doing work ahead of the class anyway. … It’s frustrating to him because he’s like, ‘Mom, I already know this.’”

Mrs. Kamara’s two children, Zayn Richardson and Amina Kamara, attend school in different school districts. Amina, a third-grader in Caesar Rodney, is part of the Chinese immersion program, along with Mrs. Kamara’s granddaughter, Ayana Richardson, who is in fourth grade.

Amina said she prefers regular school.

“I just don’t really like…I don’t really like being on a screen like far away; I like being with people and stuff,” she said. “I don’t like being alone.”

She said the lessons have felt easier and it hasn’t been hard to concentrate on her work.

That said, though, “I want to go back to school,” she added.

And Amina was looking forward to standardized testing. The students were let out right before she and her classmates were set to take the exams, she said.

“It just seems like the new experience and I just want to check it out,” she said.

Mrs. Kamara noted that she has concerns about the children’s progress during this time, though, specifically socially. She described her youngest as shy, but had learned to come out of her shell. When courses went remote, that progress was eroded at first.

“For a while, she was completely withdrawn. She sat in front of the Zoom with the teachers but wouldn’t raise her hand to participate, like they have a way they can click and raise their hand,” she said.

Journey White, a first-grader at Academy of Dover, completes her remote learning work.

Mrs. Kamara contacted her teachers to ask them to do something to encourage her to participate more actively.

“This is like putting her back in a box. Those are real concerns and academically, because in March all new curriculum ended,” she said. “They are just beginning literally over like the last week or so [mid-May] to now introduce more material to these students, so they lost about two months of the planned curriculum of school. So how are they going to go into the next grade? That’s kind of going backwards instead of forward.”

Zayn, a seventh-grader in Capital School District, enjoyed the independence of the remote atmosphere.

“I like being homeschooled. I wake up, I eat. Then I do my work,” he said. “It’s a little bit easier.”

He said that some of the lessons have been difficult, but others have been easier. Art has been harder, he said. But he’s enjoyed doing math, because “the work is easier to access and I can get it done quickly.”

He added that it’s easier to talk with his teachers this way, rather than in person.

“I feel like it’s harder on the parents and all,” he continued. “Because it seems like Mom is stressed out. And she bothers everyone in the house way more often.” (To this, Mrs. Kamara laughed).

Mrs. Kamara noted the work was beginning to ramp up at the end of May, with new material being taught to a level she’d expected and desired when schools first closed in mid-March.

Social ties disrupted

More than just academics go into school, however. For the past three months, children’s social ties have also completely changed.

Mrs. Kamara said that her son has difficulty understanding nonverbals and reading social cues, and trouble with making genuine connections. Last year, he developed friendships and built up relationships with his team of teachers and students. But, with remote learning, things felt more hands off, she said.

“So I am worried that we could lose a lot of progress because if he starts to become uncomfortable again with [being in school],” she said. “He may develop some new habits and things that he can’t take to school. … He also doesn’t adapt very easily to change. That is a concern of: what is that going to look like? Is he going to want to be there? Is he going to become more withdrawn?”

Mrs. Mackie likewise has concerns about Jacob’s regression. She explained that there was difficult separation anxiety when Jacob would leave for vocational services, but eventually that subsided.

“He wouldn’t even say goodbye to me. He’d be gone; see ya,” she said. “Now, we just brought the [Registered Behavior Technician] back into the house last week and he wanted me; he would not stand for anybody but me. So we went through aggressions and meltdowns and behaviors that we haven’t seen in over a year, because I was put back into the picture.”

“Everything he’s learned at the [through vocational services], everything that he’s been doing — if they don’t use it, they lose it,” she said. “That’s autism.”

Jacob’s IEP deals with transitional goals — soft skills about job behavior, being out in the community, volunteering. He hasn’t had vocational services since March, Mrs. Mackie said.

“Jacob’s 18, he’ll be 19 in the summer. So our big thing is he’s got three more years of school before he’s done. And it’s ticking,” she said. “All of his transitional goals haven’t been really touched.”

Assessments have been done, which show he has an interest in caring for animals and helping with people, but he hasn’t been able to visit places that demonstrate careers in those fields.

“He’s sitting and watching videos or looking at pictures on a screen,” she said. “And for Jacob that doesn’t mean anything.”

She noted that, in February, she, her daughter and son all had bad bouts of pneumonia. She considered her family part of the high-risk category for COVID-19, and suspended the registered behavior technician’s visits and strictly followed quarantine guidelines.

With the family recuperated healthwise, she feels like it’s become less of “if” and more of “when” they get coronavirus, she said.

“The mental health of my kids are deteriorating. We’re not supposed to do this. This is not normal,” she said. “Like I said, it’s not if we get it, it’s when we get it because it is what it is. I just wish everything would open back up and just let it happen, let it fall where it is, because the cure seems to be worse than the disease right now.”

She added that Jacob’s strongest characteristic is his socialization and his love for being in the community and around people.

“And that’s just been ripped away from him. We’ve been trying to teach him to wear a mask but he hates it. It’s a sensory thing,” she said. “He’s learning six foot distance, but when you’ve been taught to shake people’s hands and say hi, because that’s what we do, it’s really hard to unteach that.”

Mrs. Kamara said that her family has always been active, from dance, to karate, to swimming.

“My youngest girl, it was really, really hard for her. In the beginning it was OK, because they were thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’m tired I’m sick of getting up going to school,’ but after it started to sink in, she spent a couple of days where she would just really be tearing, crying, depressed, sad,” she said. “Missing her teachers, missing her friends and things. And that was really hard to kind of go through and watch.”

They’re a technologically savvy family, she said, and dance and karate have moved to Zoom.

“In the beginning I was like, ‘Oh my God, we don’t have to run so much, this is great, we can sit home, sit still,’” she said, noting that they are up early, driving the girls to their choice schools, and making sure Zayn gets to his school.

“But eventually you realize that it is more demanding on you than actually taking them to and from school, because now I’m the teacher, the lunch lady. I’m managing three children who are all starting school pretty much the same time,” she continued.

Dr. Iriowen emphasized the quality of education his son is getting is consistent, adding, “But they want to be with their friends where they can make noise during lunch and shout and run around on the playground. That’s what they’re missing; they want to be able to run around and scream.”

Mrs. White noted that she commends teachers, and being together in the house all day, with work and school going on, can be difficult.
“It has proven to be a challenge for my family,” she said. “I mean, we’ve been working through it. I’ve had to do a lot of redirecting with my kids. Sometimes I’ve had to put them in timeout. It has been challenging.”

As the parents look ahead to the fall, Mrs. Kamara said that schools will need to remember that children’s lives changed quickly.

“If we think about it a lot of times people only define trauma as extreme things, but this was traumatic,” she said. “So I’m hoping that they’ll realize that our children have been somewhat traumatized, for lack of a better way to put it, and have some plans in place to mitigate that — whether it’s sessions with guidance counselors, all of those things. They have to address it. They can’t just go back to business as usual.”

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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