Schools settle in to virus-fueled changes

Osawerene Iriowen starts class each day at a desk, with the American flag behind him so he can say the Pledge of Allegiance in the morning, his school supplies at his ready.

While at first glance it may look like a snapshot of a first grade set up at the Academy of Dover Charter School, Osawerene is learning from home remotely.

Osawerene Iriowen, a student at the Academy of Dover, completes work at his at-home classroom. Submitted photo

“I’m happy doing online learning now,” he said. “Before I was not happy because I wanted to go to my classroom in school.”

It’s been a little longer than half a year since the first COVID-19 case was reported in Delaware, which shifted the trajectory of nearly every facet of day-to-day life.

How we got here

Most public school students in Delaware went home one Friday and never returned to finish out the year when Gov. John Carney initially ordered a two-week school closure in mid-March.

Districts and charters rallied to send home academic supplies and review materials to their students over the “break,” while also establishing grab-and-go meal service for families.

That two weeks grew, until school buildings closed for the remainder of the year.

Sports came to a halt. Seniors mourned the loss of their high school “lasts.” Graduations, ceremonies as traditional as they come, were entirely reshaped to allow for social distancing.

With three months of the 2019-20 academic year to go, districts had to determine remote learning plans themselves and submitted those to the Delaware Department of Education.

Some districts, Secretary of Education Susan Bunting said at the time, gave plenty of detail. Others were more general, with links to resources already created. Many relied on review for a significant portion of that time.

Osawerene Iriowen, a student at the Academy of Dover, started the 2020-2021 school year remotely in a classroom at home. Here, he flexes his science knowledge. Submitted photo

In June, after school had let out for the summer, three working groups consisting of educators, students, parents and members of the state legislature met once a week to discuss different facets of returning to school. Those groups targeted health and wellness, academics and equity and operations and services.

Each took into consideration three potential reopening scenarios and determined draft recommendations for the schools throughout the state to follow, addressing transportation, mask-wearing, social distancing and more.

Those considerations went to DOE, which compiled a 34-page Returning to School guidance in July. Around the same time, the Delaware State Education Association pushed for at least six weeks of remote learning, so educators could be adequately prepared when returning to classrooms under the reality of coronavirus. In early August, Gov. Carney greenlit schools’ ability to open for hybrid learning. Much like the spring, the ball was in the court of school leaders.

Throughout August, school administrations drafted plans and school boards debated and approved a variety of concepts that spanned remote or hybrid starts, delayed beginnings to the school calendar and more.

Rolling with it

For Osawerene’s school, AOD, the charter had the space to give students the option of returning to in-person learning or staying remote. During the day, while peers get off the bus wearing masks and settle into their desks spaced out across the classroom, those at home log on to Zoom and join in synchronously to the lessons. Osawerene has even gotten to help with the morning announcements from home.

“It’s like different from in school,” Osawerene said. “Because people are working at home doing their homework.”

His father, Esosa Iriowen, had commended the school’s shift to distance learning when classes first went remote in March.
“I know more about this whole thing, when the child is getting enough or not getting enough,” Dr. Iriowen said at the time. “I tell you, he is getting more than enough. I really appreciate his school [and] all the teachers there.”

“Summer break gave the school a good time to plan ahead,” he said this week, noting that as the parent representative, he hears a lot of feedback from fellow parents and the response has been positive.

Dr. Iriowen, who is no stranger to remote classes as he conducts his own as a chemistry professor at Delaware State University, and Osawerene laughed about how often students are reminded to mute themselves during remote classes.

“They always tell us to mute ourselves if we’re not talking,” Osawerene said.

“Those teachers, they have all the tolerance in the world,” Dr. Iriowen said. “They have all the tolerance in the world.”

Recalling the end of last school year, the Richarson Kamara family said they did “pretty OK last time,” according to Mozella Richardson Kamara, a parent of children in Capital and Caesar Rodney school districts.

“We just rolled with it,” she said.

The start of this year is more structured than during the end of last year, she said, calling it “so significantly different.”

“They spend a majority of their day on Zoom; they get quite a few rest breaks, which is awesome because sitting online for six or so hours straight would be difficult but they’re structured,” she said. “The teachers are doing most of the heavy lifting just as if they were in class.”

Ms. Kamara’s daughter, Amina, is a fourth-grader in CR, just a year behind Ms. Kamara’s granddaughter, Ayana Richardson. The two girls complete their lessons in their own Zoom rooms but sit together as they do their work.

“It’s better for them because, even though they’re both in different grades, there’s still a feel of having another person in class,” she said. “At first that was a little challenging but they do fine because their teachers are keeping them each engaged. Then during break time if they have essential arts or activities they’re able to do them together, instead of alone.”

Ms. Kamara had noted Amina struggled the most with the drastic shift nearly overnight from going to school to suddenly being home.

“She’s not demonstrating the same issues as last year,” Ms. Kamara said. “She still prefers in school learning, but it’s a little easier for her.”

From left, Wyatt Meisinger, Lea Jazdzewski and Cindy Meisinger hold signs during a protest to open schools at the Department of Education in Dover on Oct. 1. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

For Zayn, her 13-year-old son in Capital, he is still in his element with independent work, she said. However, last year, she felt that the district wasn’t proactive addressing Zayn, who has autism and an individualized learning program. That remains a struggle this year.

“I had to initiate the initial meeting. I gave them time, but no one contacted me,” she said. She noted that she’s optimistic about his new education team, and his special education teacher who seems to understand his needs.

Otherwise, though, he’s doing fantastic, she said.

“He started the year off really well, not perfect because there’s always some learning but as far as his engagement, and excitement, he’s learning in his element,” she said. “Whereas the other children might struggle a little bit remotely, Zayn, he’s excelling.”

Both CR and Capital intend to phase in hybrid learning, though each district is handling it slightly differently. CR has had opportunities for small in-person gatherings, and several grades will begin phasing in this month. Capital’s school board meets next week and will determine how the district will begin hybrid. But Ms. Kamara’s children will remain remote.

When she talked with the children about what they preferred, Amina was on the fence about hybrid. Once she heard the playground was closed, her interest waned, Ms. Kamara said.

Schools closing wasn’t the only disruption to children’s lives. Extracurricular opportunities and socializing with their peers had mostly ceased, too.

Ms. Kamara’s family has always been active — from karate, to swimming, to dance. Those programs are starting to open again, with the dojo limiting the number of students for class and dance operating virtually and in-person.

The family has tried to make activity part of their day. Zayn gets up for a walk in the morning with his dad, the girls get up and have breakfast and go for walks or skipping sessions. In the future, she wants to introduce “field trips,” like apple or pumpkin picking.

“Just so they can get up and get out, which I think has helped a lot,” she said, adding later, “before school had actually sent any work [last year], I was doing some homeschooling stuff with some structure. That included recess time which was taking them outside and forcing them out. Even though Amina was down and not feeling so good, she was having a struggle there, I think that that helped.”

Getting outside is part of the Iriowens’ day, too.

“The one thing I know he complains about is he cannot go to the playground and play with his friends,” Dr. Iriowen said of Osawerene’s remote learning.

During breaks, they take bike rides or play outside for a change of scenery and he gets to play with his little brother during “recess time.”

Dr. Iriowen noted that he happens to be in the same line of profession as teachers — an academic — and has the flexibility to work from home, and the space to create a classroom for Osawerene.

“Not every parent has the opportunity to work in a profession like mine,” he said.

He added that some parents — who need to leave the house for work or don’t have someone who could watch their kids — need the in-person option, and the school was prepared for that.

“In March, they tried their best,” he said. “In the fall, they were ready.”

Opposition to restrictions

When school shut down for two weeks, Lisa McCulley, a parent from Middletown, was alarmed, but she and her family “remained patient.”

As that two weeks stretched into a month, Ms. McCulley found herself starting a group in reaction to the shutdown. It grew into Stand Up Delaware, which has been a presence at several reopening schools rallies across the state in the past month.

The group was founded in April. Working with parents, teachers, administrators, nurses, doctors and more, they penned a white paper submitted to the governor, DOE and the three working groups for consideration over the summer, pushing for reopening.

“For myself, it was personal because I grew up in a very abusive home and I was very concerned about children who are trapped in abusive homes in a shutdown, where I knew, as a child, school was my haven, and teachers were my heroes,” she said. “And to take that away from children who are either abused, or underprivileged, living in poverty, living in a situation with addictions in the home, mental illness in the home, all those things compounded and were just a burden that I felt very strongly had to be supported and reacted to.”

Ms. McCulley’s son was a junior at Appoquinimink High School last year. She called remote learning a “disaster.”

“My son learned nothing,” she said.

She said they were concerned about his prospects for college as he feared for his senior year.

“We really had to think long and hard: do we trust our governor and our public schools to do right by our children?” she said.
Her son is now attending a private online school, and having a much better experience, she said. But it hasn’t stopped her from championing the full reopening of public schools.

While she’s considered herself involved in her children’s education before, she never expected to become this involved,
especially politically, she said. In the months since first drafting the white paper, her involvement has led to aconversation with the governor’s chief of staff and volunteering for gubernatorial challenger Julianne Murray.

And while coronavirus is unquestionably in the realm of public health, it has become tinged in politics, however unwillingly.
In the reopening rallies in September, one hosted outside of Appoquinimink’s administrative offices, another outside of the DOE’s in Dover, the gatherings drew Republican candidates running for state and national races who advocated alongside parents for reopening buildings.

With her background in nursing, Ms. McCulley said she believes there’s a virus — one that is “particularly contagious” and that precautions should be taken, especially for those at higher risk. But she struggles with how it’s impacting children, she said.

As she has woven into her rally speeches, Ms. McCulley listed the places serving children open, in contrast to schools.

“If we can have the YMCA, and we can have the Boys and Girls Club, do childcare, five days a week, up to 10 hours a day, up to 30 to a classroom — it’s happening right now, it was happening all summer, in every school district in Delaware — if we can do that, we can have five days a week, full time school like we used to,” she said.

Where we go from here

During his press conference last week, Gov. Carney acknowledged that getting students back to school remains a priority, but the data is trending in the wrong direction.

For schools to fully reopen for in-person instruction, the state should have fewer than 10 new cases of coronavirus, less than 3% percent of people testing positive and fewer than 10 daily hospitalizations. Only one of those earmarks — hospitalizations, which is at about 7.3 — was trending positively.

“That’s why we need to redouble our efforts to do better. And that’s why we need to get the message across to college students at the University of Delaware, and our other colleges and universities, to be careful and not carry on [at] social events off-campus that become super-spreaders and for everybody to wear a mask when they’re in public,” he said, adding, “If you want your children back in school — and we all do — let’s wear a mask.”


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

Have a question, tip, or resources about the coronavirus pandemic? Submit it to our newsroom and we’ll do what we can to provide answers.