“The start of distance learning was like building a plane in midair, but that plane was full — all the seats were already sold, and the flight crew had no idea what our destination was.”
That’s how Devon Treharne, a high school English teacher at the Shelter Island School described the abrupt change when a public health emergency forced remote learning on parents, teachers and students, whether they liked it or not.
Over one weekend in March, the Island School went from a physical place of community and learning to a virtual place of video classes, technical support, emailed assignments, and a complex schedule of online meetings that made some student’s calendars look like the appointment book of a Fortune 500 CEO.
Some did well, but many struggled to adapt to a new reality that will likely be played out again this fall as schools look at how to reopen. Speaking about what a truly challenging spring taught them, parents and teachers are thinking about the way forward this fall as the pandemic continues to affect how we learn, and how we live.
Finding the links
Lydia Martinez Majdišová’s 12-year-old son, Sebastian was one of those who did not take to remote learning. Ms. Majdišová, who had been visiting her parents in Slovakia when the travel ban came down in March, couldn’t get home until mid-April, and had to resort to remote-mothering for six weeks while her husband Pepe Martinez worked hard to keep their local business, STARs Café running during the emergency.
“Sebastian was not able to get into the online teaching routine,” Lydia said. “He forgot or he couldn’t find the links, and Pepe was at work every day. I started to receive emails from the teachers that his assignments were not on time. Every phone call [with Sebastian] ended up in tears and anger.”
Ms. Majdišová asked his teachers for help, and was pleasantly surprised by the amount of support Sebastian got. “They reached out to him, reminded him, and helped him find the links. He did what he was led by the hand to do.”
The teachers supported their students, and felt supported in turn by the school and parents. Kindergarten teacher Natalie Regan used ClassDojo, an app that connects teachers, parents and students and includes a feed for photos and videos that parents can post, designed for the youngest students.
“The parents played a huge role in the online distance teaching,” she said. “Kindergarten children are not independent in academics. They are babies, but they have to be writing and reading by the end of the year. The parents got involved, so it was a great marriage despite the situation.”
Ms. Treharne saw students struggle with the new reality. “Some kids found distance learning much easier than others and I never would have predicted some of the students who really struggled. The fact is, the bottom fell out in March. One day we were in school, the next we were done. We were all in a grieving process through the entire spring. Some students were angry, some depressed. Emotionally and psychologically, the impact of not being in school is immense.”
Hard situation or not, students were still graded. Ms. Majdišová said, “We were constantly reminded by emails that Sebastian didn’t hand in assignments. It was always glaring at him, that he will have a zero if he doesn’t hand it in. But for him to work in isolation was just not natural.”
Although she praised the efforts of the school and the teachers, Ms. Majdišová said for Sebastian, the school year after March was an almost total loss. “I felt like nothing was learned,” she added. “There was no proper learning experience.”
From a distance
Distance learning was a different kind of struggle for the McCarthy family, where 8-year-old Eliza became her mother’s office mate overnight, when school closed a few days after Tracy McCarthy’s office at Sylvester Manor closed, where she is Director of Operations.
“In the beginning it was fun, it was different,” Ms. McCarthy said.
She and 3rd-grader Eliza embraced the office model, and set up Eliza’s school meeting schedule on a whiteboard. The school flew into action, making sure every student had a computer, and even sending Eliza’s recorder home, so she could continue her music instruction. Eliza’s 3rd grade teacher, Chris Geehring, was so on top of the technology that Ms. McCarthy told him, “You were born to teach this way.”
After a few weeks, Eliza was able to organize her own schedule, and Ms. McCarthy had to supervise her less. Eliza started getting extra help for math. “She was getting some individualized instruction just like she would have in person,” Ms. McCarthy said. “But by the end she was not spending as much time on school as I would have liked her to spend.”
Veteran teacher Janine Mahoney supports the entire school community with academic intervention services and support for special education. She saw limits to the effectiveness of distance learning with students who need academic support. “Students who have difficulty with the ability to make a plan, to organize not only materials but thoughts, to strategize and set timelines, make checklists, set alarms for class meets, these students needed more support, which can be challenging to provide at a distance,” Ms. Mahoney said.
But even though Eliza McCarthy readily adapted to online learning, all was not well. For Eliza, as for Sebastian, isolation from the school community was especially difficult, even though they struggled in different ways. Ms. McCarthy said, “Her emotional state is of concern. She doesn’t have siblings. She doesn’t have kids on the block. For her mental and emotional health, she needs to go back.”
As the mother of three school-age children, Ms. Treharne spoke to both sides of the learning curve. While she was teaching from home, her husband was working from home, and all three kids were at home learning.
“My dog was barking every time a squirrel came into our yard. It was madness,” she said. “My kids reacted to distance learning very differently and I was able to learn from them as I watched them struggle or succeed. My daughter was ‘good’ at distance learning. She could crush her assignments in two hours and then have the entire day wide open. My son would take all day long, stop and start and struggle.”
The human condition
As the term went on, teachers and parents saw distance learning fatigue settle on students like a fog. “They were not as into it, they rarely showed their faces during live classroom meetings,” said Ms. Treharne. Ms. McCarthy saw her daughter acting out, and heard from other mothers that they had seen similar behavior in their children.
Lora Lomuscio’s 8th grade son, who goes to the Hayground School, and 10th grade daughter, will both be attending school on Shelter Island in the fall. For both of them remote learning was unwelcome, not because they had difficulty completing the work, but because they couldn’t see friends and teachers. Ms. Lomuscio said, “The experience underscored how important the human connection is in learning.”
The need for personal connection feels so vital that most parents and teachers say they will gladly go back to in-person classes in the fall, even if that means personal protective equipment will be more central to learning than books and pencils.
“I hate the thought of teaching and learning in masks, walking in wide circles around each other, not passing papers to keep contact to a minimum, but this is life now,” Ms. Treharne said. “I also dread the thought of distance learning again…”
Ms. McCarthy said, “I am hopeful that the school will open. Eliza wears a mask. She has no problem wearing a mask. I think the kids need to go back, and personally I really need her to go back.”
Ms. Majdišová is concerned about safety, and hopeful that everyone will follow the rules about masks and distancing. But when she asked Sebastian if he thought his friends would follow the hygiene rules, he wasn’t so sure. Ms. Majdišová said, “There are many parents who don’t support mask wearing. It’s hard to say if they would extend that to their children. You have to respect everyone, but if they do refuse masks in school, then God knows what we can unleash.”
Teacher Natalie Regan, who is also the parent of a Shelter Island School student, is hopeful. “Children are social animals, but there is a way. We will figure out ways to do it — consistency, stay in your area, stay safe,” she said. “This is a brand-new thing, but it’s a brand-new thing for all of us. Children are so resilient. If you explain, and take your time, they will rise to the occasion.”