Schooling at home: Classroom experience changes as families embrace remote learning

Tucker Coakley studies letters on a magnet board. He and his mother, Taryn, work on writing a message or he practices his letter recognition skills during remote learning. Submitted photos

For many, class is in session around the state — although students have traded school desks for their own kitchen tables.

It is uncharted territory for Delaware students and parents as they face the extended school closures during the pandemic. Before this, one of the longest stretches students were out of school in recent memory was a decade ago — when many school districts were closed for about a week and a half due to heavy snowfall.

With school buildings closed through the rest of the year, parents have become mediators of the school experience, balancing work with academics, play and meals. Since students were dismissed for an unexpected months-long break in mid-March, teachers and administration have tried to keep them engaged academically, and throughout the state, families are adapting to the new terrain.

The Delaware State News shares some families’ experiences in recent weeks as they navigate what’s become a new normal.

The Kosmalski family

“It’s been definitely an adjustment and a learning curve,” said Amy Kosmalski, a mom of three. “We have had a really positive mindset about it in our home and just have been patient with the situation that we’re in, and just realizing that we’re all just doing the best that we can.”

Mrs. Kosmalski’s children attend Appoquinimink School District — her daughter, Kayla, is in eighth grade, and her son, Logan, is a first-grader.

Most of their coursework is uploaded to Schoology and some of their classes meet on Zoom, a web-based video conferencing platform. Lessons began as review, and are now moving into new material.

Remote learning has been challenging because her children miss their friends, Mrs. Kosmalski said.

“Just being able to see each other on Zoom has been at least comforting and helps them, I think, reduce their anxiety and their fears while they’re learning remotely,” she said.

She added that she has seen a lot of independence and growth in Kayla, who has Down syndrome and following a course load to earn a high school diploma with some accommodations.

“She’s really gaining a lot of confidence in herself, instead of relying on additional adult support within the classroom,” she said. “I’m actually really loving watching her grow in independence.”

At the first grade level, she said there has been plenty of teacher support for Logan — and things to do. On Facebook, related arts and “Music Mondays” play out online for kids to watch live or save for later. Even their 3-year-old, Brynnley, wants to participate in the learning alongside her siblings, she noted.

Ms. Kosmalski works from home, and her husband is a stay-at-home dad, she said. As parents, they’re used to working with their kids on their academics, she added.

While she is accustomed to working from home, having everyone in the household at the same time can be “chaotic,” she said.

“It has not impacted me other than I’m basically working longer hours, if you will, because I have school work during when I would typically be doing my work so I’m waking up earlier, or going to bed later, just to do what I need to do,” she said. “If you write everything down that you have to accomplish in a day and you see all of the things that you’re responsible for, it can definitely be overwhelming, but we just try to take it one step at a time.”

The Papen family

During the closure of schools, Rachel Papen wants her preschooler Eleanor to feel safe and loved.

“And then I can put in some hidden curriculum like when we’re cooking or working on letters or name recognition. She’s really at a good age where I’m not as stressed,” she said. “I’m more worried about her social-emotional [wellbeing] because she’s not playing with friends and that’s something that I can’t offer.”

Mrs. Papen is a former teacher; her husband is a farmer. For them, the day-to-day hasn’t changed too much, she said, other than the fact Eleanor is no longer going to Wesley Preschool and Playcare like she normally would.

But the teachers have been engaged. Eleanor’s teacher has developed community-based activities, like a “bear hunt” through the neighborhood (a scavenger hunt, with social distancing in mind).

And one lesson incorporated the Papens. Mrs. Papen brought a baby cabbage to the teacher’s home and they did a video about the farm and each of the students in the class could pick up a baby cabbage to grow at home.

“She’s really tried to do stuff that isn’t putting kids in front of screens and is appropriate for the age they’re at, even though she’s not in the classroom,” Mrs. Papen said.

Different Facebook groups, coordinated by the teachers, have begun to post resources and daily enrichment activities.

“The nice part about that is that it’s really tailor made to her age. We’ve seen a lot of open sharing of great resources, but they’re more or less relevant depending on your kids’ ages,” she said. “And so what’s nice about having this connection with their teacher, that they’ve come to love over the course of the year, is that [the teachers] really know them and they know where they’re at as learners.”

Even with all of the learning materials available and her value of education, Mrs. Papen thinks overall well being needs to remain a priority.

“I just hope that people worry less about academics and more about making sure people feel safe because I think that teachers are magic, and whenever schools resume teachers will find a way to make it work,” she said. “The most important thing that we can do is just love our families wherever they’re at.”

The Coakley family

The day begins with making a list, Taryn Coakley said.

“For a 3 year old, that list includes things like ‘play with magnet tiles,’ ‘play outside,’ ‘have a snack,’ ‘take a nap,’ — just very run-of-the-mill for the day because we find that, since we’re out of our normal routine, the list helps ground us,” she said.

Mrs. Coakley and her husband are both still working, though they are doing so remotely now. While her husband works in one room, Mrs. Coakley does her communications work for a managed care organization while also watching their son, Tucker.

“That might mean that I have to get creative with things for my son. So I’ve spent some time thinking about different activities that would hold his attention for longer,” she said.

During the day, they work on writing a message on their magnet board, which improves his letter recognition. She bought workbooks so he could trace numbers and practice shapes and colors. There’s a combination of play and learning that way.

His Dover preschool has been great, she added.

A weekly update goes out with activities that teachers have put together, she said. Activities have included exploring outside and going on a nature walk.

She enjoys working with Tucker on his education, and that is top of mind with school out of session. But there are other kinds of regression she’s worried about, too, that come out of a stressful environment such as the one brought by the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on Delaware.

“For my son, he’s had trouble going to sleep, where he didn’t used to do that prior to this, so I think that was just his way of kind of reacting to the outside environment as of right now,” she said.

While adults may have the coping mechanisms to deal with the stress, she said, children may not.

“That might mean more tantrums or trouble sleeping or refusing to eat certain things or whatever it is,” she said. “So that becomes something else that parents have to now navigate.”

Keeping a positive mental outlook has been helpful for dealing with everything coming their way, she added.

Set to the tune of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” she created a parody music video, titled “Don’t Stop FaceTimin’”, of scenes people might relate to: playing hungry hippos while on a conference call, having a beer — or two — with a few stuffed animal friends and connecting with loved ones from afar through Facetime.

“I think there’s things in there that parents can relate to,” she said.

The Cullen Family

Amanda Cullen is a teacher — but it has been a bit different getting her three children to engage with remote learning.

“It’s been hectic. And I think that’s just because this is so new to everybody,” she said. “It continues to evolve and change. So, the first couple days you’re like, ‘OK, like well we’re off, what do we do?’ — that type of thing.”

Each day, Mrs. Cullen gets up and logs on to do her classroom work for her fifth grade students. Then she gets her children — Jackson, a second grader; Henley, a kindergartner; and Quinn, 2 — ready for the day.

She noted that her husband is still working, so it’s usually her home with the three children throughout the day.

The Cullen siblings, Jackson, Quinn and Henley, do some coloring during remote learning.

Jackson’s work is fairly independent — one of his assignments included making slime, she said — while Henley’s work is on Facebook, which she needs help to navigate.

Mrs. Cullen said that the new structure of learning has been challenging for her children — the bizarreness of the situation is hampering Henley’s interest and Jackson wants to play games or spend time outside.

Keeping the students engaged in any capacity is important, though, she said. In the summer, teachers know what to expect — winding down in June, returning in September, a process of reteaching and restructuring.

“With an extended time off, and us not necessarily knowing when we’re going to go back I think it’s even more vital that we keep them on top of it,” she said. “We’re just trying, and everyday we’re trying to make sure that they get their schoolwork done and their interactions with their teachers and peers, and then obviously I need to make sure that I’m connecting with my students and families too.”

Human interaction, she noted, is particularly important.

“We do a lot of Zoom calls and all my kids are doing it, my personal children — even my babysitter has been doing it with my kids, with my 2 year old — just to have that face-to-face interaction with peers and then the adults they’re really familiar with,” she said.

The Epperly family

Melissa Epperly tries to set her high schooler, William, up the night before to prepare for remote learning since normally she’s away at work.

“I say, ‘Look, this is your schedule, this is what you have to do the next day,’ so he knows exactly, ‘OK, A, B, C, D,’” she said.
While Capital School District has suggestions about when to complete work, it isn’t specific about the time that things need to be turned in, as long as the work gets done, she said.

“I say so, too, as long as you get it done, I don’t care if you do what subject first — it doesn’t really matter as long as you get it done,” she said. “We live with his grandmother, so she’ll make sure he stays on track and he’s not taking a three-hour break.”

There have been some plus sides, she said.

“I mean, like with us, it’s nice because of the flexibility; you don’t have to worry about, ‘Oh my god, I’ve got to get him up at 5 a.m.’ So, it is nice in that sense,” she said. “And if he doesn’t understand something, I’m OK, ‘Leave it ’til I get home and then I can help you if your grandmother or your sister can’t help you.’”

She expressed frustration, however, about the courseload under the remote learning format, especially for subjects like Spanish where it feels like the pace is too rapid, she said.

“He’s getting confused and he’s getting frustrated, and I’m getting frustrated, because it’s like there’s no way that you’re going to get all of this done,” she said.

She said that he also has an individualized education program — an IEP that outlines academic modifications — and she feels like the workload is the same for everybody, which can make it particularly difficult for him. But she said that the teachers are doing what they can.

For her, it’s tough for parents who are going to work every day outside of the home.

“They don’t make any accommodations for that; kids are still expected to do it whether their parents are at home or not. Luckily, we’ve got somebody here. I don’t know what your average Joe is doing,” she said. “Those of us who are still going to work want to come home and relax, and now we’ve got to make sure that kids have done their work and have done OK on it.”

And, she said, it can be tough for her son socially. “He misses his friends and he misses his normal routine,” she said.

The Perez family

At 9 a.m., the Perez family logs on to access their school Zoom calls with their teachers for the day.

“I just feel like it helps our day if we go down at the same time; so 9 a.m. they all get on,” Rachel Perez said.

Her fifth grader, Dakota, is usually on her call for about a half hour. The younger students, McKenna, a fourth grader, and Logan, a first grader, are usually on their remote classes for about 45 minutes.

When their calls are done, they do their assignments, which usually take until about noon. Sometimes they have lunch first, she said, and then get back to work.

“It’s a good part of the morning and early afternoon,” she said. “We’ve had a good experience with it. A little bit of technology issues, but the teachers are really helpful and they’ve called us on the phone. I’m pretty grateful.”

Her three students attend schools in the Caesar Rodney School District, and many of the classes have transitioned to online — including courses like gym and art. For her children, Dakota is able to work pretty independently, while Logan needs a little more support.

“I feel like it’s more intense for him because he’s kind of struggling with it. He’s not really used to working on the computer; he’s more hands-on, face-to-face, where my fifth grader, she’s like, ‘OK, I need to do this and then I’m done.’ Same thing with my fourth grader,” she said.

Mrs. Perez’s husband is in the military, so she said she has a lot of experience being home with the children; she homeschooled them for preschool, she added.

She typically works in the school cafeteria and as a crossing guard. She has been doing some administrative work for the school now, writing postcards for students in K-5, so she sits with Logan while she does her work.

There have been some stressors. The kids have enough devices to go around for their Zoom calls, but a couple of times the girls have been late to log on and have been locked out and “they took it more personally,” she said. Since the videos are uploaded later to view any time, Mrs. Perez has told them not to worry.

“It’s been nice having extra time and being home with them and seeing how they grow and think,” she said. “I think it’s been fun.”

The Joseph family

Katie Joseph thrives on routine and predictability — and so do her kids, she said. The pandemic has shifted what normal looks like, though.

Mrs. Joseph tries to get up between 5 and 6 a.m. to care for the horses before her husband leaves for work on the farm. She tries to get back to the house to do some of her work as a school psychologist for a juvenile detention center before her two children, Cora, a third grader, and Callie, a first grader, wake up around 8 a.m.

“Once they get up, we do breakfast and try to get them rolling with school stuff, because what I found is: if I can get all of their schoolwork done before lunch, it’s usually better because, by afternoon, they’re done,” she said.

Callie Joseph holds up her math homework, completed for her Spanish immersion class during remote learning.

But sometimes the girls are up by 6:30 a.m. It may mean a little more screen time for them, but “that’s what you got to do to get through sometimes,” she said.

The girls are students in Cape Henlopen School District and the teachers have been fabulous, Mrs. Joseph said. Callie is a Spanish immersion student, and that has been an added nuance to the day-to-day education.

“[They’re] really trying to make sure we have everything that we need in order to be able to do what we need to support them,” she said.

While Cora is pretty self-sufficient, Callie does sometimes need extra attention while Mrs. Joseph works full-time.

She was prepared to begin working from home and is still able to work with her colleagues who are in the building to coordinate getting information she might need.

“I miss my routine, I miss my schedule, I miss my kids at work,” she said, adding that there’s managing both the uncertainty of the situation, as well as managing the needs of her family.

“I’m doing grocery shopping for not just my family but my mom and my aunt as well each week,” she said. “It’s a lot. So sometimes, I have to remind myself to use some of the strategies that I teach my kids at work — just deep breaths and kind of remember, take it a day at a time.”

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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