Teachers reflect on unusual school year so far

Amber Hobbs, a kindergarten teacher at Lake Forest’s North Elementary School, takes a selfie with her class during their first day of in-person learning earlier this year. The district moved to all remote learning over the winter holiday season. Submitted photos

Phased-in hybrid learning, swift temporary moves to remote classes, new technology — the academic year thus far has had its fair share of obstacles for students and educators as they work their way through the coronavirus pandemic.

“I mean, with anything, you’ll definitely have trials,” said Shaneeda Shaw-Hicks, a certified nursing assistant teacher at Dover High School. Her school has been remote since last spring.

“I think that a lot of students are working. I think they’re working hard. We do have some students that definitely would benefit from in-person learning,” she said. “However, at this time, it’s about safety and making sure that we make the best decisions for everybody involved.”

Many schools have moved back to — or remained — remote heading into the holiday season, following Gov. John Carney’s recommendation to pause hybrid learning from Dec. 14 to Jan. 8 if schools were facing operational difficulties.

Gov. Carney said Tuesday the state is still eying a return to hybrid Jan. 11.

Here’s how some educators have been managing.

Ada Todd, Academy of Dover

Ada Todd has had two fourth grade classes for the price of one — with a group in person and another group tuning in from home.
Academy of Dover students were back in school in late August, unless they opted to learn remotely. But the charter school, like many others throughout the state, has now moved to remote learning across the board for at least a month over the winter holiday window.

“I’ve been trying for the most part to make sure that there’s some equity there, that what students online are getting (is) also what students in class are getting,” she said. “So switching to online was very easy for our class because we were already placing our work online.”

Online learning requires the students to be more “self-driven,” she said.

“If they turn off their camera or they leave the call, it’s kind of hard for us to get anything else said to them,” she said. “There has to be some sort of drive of their own, internally, to do well, even in an online environment.”

Several students have had a hard time getting online consistently, but generally classes are well-attended, she said.

“We have been working hard to make sure that they’re getting everything that they’re supposed to get standards-wise in the school year,” she said. “And it’s a struggle for sure — but not just for us, for parents, for them. But we’re doing our best to make sure they’re not lacking something just because of the situation that we’re in.”

That said, she noted that the students learning during the pandemic shouldn’t be compared to those in that grade level from years past.

“I keep hearing people saying they’re getting behind,” she said. “But in truth, who are they getting behind? Because everybody is getting behind right now. So it’s not like they’re behind anybody. They’re all going to have to catch up. They’re all going to have to catch up to where they intended to be. And isn’t that what learning is about?”

There is growth and improvement happening, she said.

“It just might not be in the exact same direction or the exact same pace that we planned it out from the beginning of the year,” she said.

For the group that struggles more than the rest of their cohort does, there is extra time to come together for more instruction, she said.

“I have a handful that engage really well all the time, but I also have this other group of students that I’m constantly having to pull from, so I’m constantly calling their name or asking questions or saying, ‘What do you think about this?’ just to kind of pull them in,” she said. “As a teacher, those would probably be the same students that I would have to pull in when I’m in the classroom, so it’s kind of the same thing, just getting them talking, getting them sharing their ideas and not just being a bystander.”

Shaneeda Shaw-Hicks, Dover High School

Capital School District’s secondary students hadn’t yet come back to school before the district opted to suspend in-person learning until after the holiday break.

In a typical year for Shaneeda Shaw-Hicks’s Dover High School students, they would be hands on with their certified nursing assistant program. This year, the students have been learning their skills through Zoom.

“I’m sure it remains stressful,” said Shaneeda Shaw-Hicks, who teaches certified nursing assisting at Dover High. “However, the best decision is made for this time, especially with the COVID numbers rising. It’s very important to make sure our students stay safe, as well as our staff.”

For the most part, Ms. Shaw-Hicks has seen students working “as hard as they can.”

There’s extra testing time, as well as extra Zoom time. Students have been able to work together through making Quizlets and flashcards.

“Probably, I would say, the number of students passing this year is probably around the same as last year,” she said. “There might be a slight number — about two or three students — that kind of fell down, but they’re grasping and trying to grab what they need and are working hard to get themselves where they need to be.”

So much of Ms. Shaw-Hicks’ classes, though, require hands-on skills. Most of those skills begin in early 2021.

“This year, with the COVID numbers up right now, it’s going to be very tough for clinical rotations right now,” she said. “So we’ve been incorporating some possible virtual methods that would meet the needs of all students. The biggest thing is we definitely want to make sure that we’re equitable for the students whose family may not allow them to come back versus the student who is allowed to come back hybrid.”

Even with the hiccup, there are partners in the community who will hire students out of the CNA program even if they’re not certified, as a home aide or something of the sort, she said.

As an educator, Ms. Shaw-Hicks said that she feels more equipped this school year.

“I had that summertime in there to better prepare and come back and be OK with making sure that the students are accountable for their work and making sure that they understand what needs to happen,” she said. “We have had a few problems with some getting on the internet; however, the district has been very good about making sure we have laptops and internet and services to them, so that they can get what they need.”

Amber Hobbs, Lake Forest North Elementary School

Amber Hobbs’ kindergarten class attends school one week and is remote the next. It was a Friday when she found out the school wouldn’t be having in-person classes until January, and she didn’t get to see her students before remote began again.

“I had quite a few crafts I already had made for them,” she said. “So I actually went and dropped them all off at their homes.”

Students received gingerbread houses — an activity usually completed in class — and nutcracker ornaments to decorate. It’s something that has trickled over from when students were in person, working on paper-and-pencil activities.

“Having them in the classroom has been wonderful,” she said. “Being in kindergarten, they need a lot of fine motor practice with writing. So we were able to offer them that instead of at home, when they’re doing most of their work on a computer.”

When classes were slated to begin remote at the start of the academic year, Ms. Hobbs worried that students this young wouldn’t connect with a teacher they knew only through a screen. When classes started, the district suggested taking some time away from curriculum to make student connections.

In morning meetings, she had students say hi to someone else in class, do “free shares” about what’s happening that day or play “rock, paper, scissors.”

“I do feel that I did a pretty good job connecting with my students through Zoom and them connecting with each other,” she said.
“They have to say good morning and say their friend’s name, so when they came into the class and they already knew what they look like, and they knew their friend’s name, so that they could talk to them in person and not have to be shy because they’ve already developed those connections with each other.”

In her class of 19, three have had connectivity issues — which the district is now helping to address.

“You can see an improvement from what they get in person versus online, and I wouldn’t say that online (is) not effective. It does do the job, but you can just accomplish a lot more in person than you can, in short time, on the computer because you have to give them computer breaks,” she said.

In kindergarten, students already come in with all different academic ranges. Some of them know most of their letters; others come in not knowing any letters or sounds. That comes in handy for this year.

“We’ve always had a wide variety of academic levels,” she said. “And it’s our job to manage them and put them into lessons and activities that will stimulate them and help them reach their potential, depending on where they started. And it’s the same this year.”