NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - Most schools across the United States are now back in session. Depending on the school, however, “in session” can mean a variety of things due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. That uncertainty is creating challenges for everyone involved in a child’s education.
Latisha Robertson lives in a suburb of New Orleans, Louisiana, and has five children. Her oldest is a sophomore in college and lives on campus an hour away. But the other four are still under one roof. One “office,” actually.
“I converted my dining room into an office for all of us to share,” she explained recently. “My 12-year old, 11-year-old and 9-year-old are old enough to work semi-independently so I’ve got them as spaced out as possible in the dining room. But my baby is 7 and only in second grade, so he needs some help. We’ve got his little desk set up right next to my workspace.”
Robertson said one rule she has for the family is that everyone still gets dressed out of their pajamas so it feels as much as possible like they’re going to school. She makes the kids breakfast and has them all at their desks -- “ready to learn” -- by 8:50 a.m.
Her youngest child needs supervising much of the day, making it hard for Robertson to have a normal workday.
“When he’s in his virtual science class learning about matter, I’m right there learning with him -- making sure he’s comprehending it and helping him through technology issues. If it looks like things are going well for him, I might try to answer a few emails, but that’s about all I can squeeze in before one of my kids needs me for something.”
It’s common, Robertson said, for her to be in the middle of troubleshooting an issue for her youngest as another one of her children needs help printing a document or understanding a homework concept.
“They’ll get frustrated because they’re trying to keep up with their schoolwork, and they have to wait while I’m finishing something else. But I’m trying to teach them, ‘Be patient with Mommy.” This is new for everyone.”
New across the board
“I think teachers have earned our patience, as well,” said Jeremy Corbett, who lives in New Orleans, where he and his wife are doing their best to help their two children adapt to a new virtual learning environment.
In New Orleans, where classes began last month, the school district mandated classes be taught online.
Corbett acknowledged it must be hard for teachers to connect with students online like they would in-person but told VOA he’s been impressed watching how hard teachers are trying to adapt to their new situation.
But many teachers are finding that just as they begin to adapt, the situation changes again. This has been the case for a local third and fourth-grade special education teacher, Lauren Jewett.
“After a month, I’ve finally gotten into a little bit of a rhythm with this virtual stuff, but now I’m being told some of my kids -- but not all -- might be coming back to the classroom at the end of the month,” Jewett explained. “That means I’ll need to re-learn how to teach a classroom with half virtual students and half in-person students. It’s the same content, sure, but it’s a totally different skillset.”
Marielle Pichon, who recently began her fifth year teaching English and other subjects, acknowledged that the decision on how to proceed with the school year is complicated. On one hand, she’s worried about students potentially learning less during virtual education. On the other, she said she’s concerned about the health risks that could come with teaching in person.
Pichon said it’s been challenging for even experienced teachers to adjust to so much ambiguity.
“It’s a humbling experience,” she said. “Many of us who have a couple years of teaching under our belts suddenly feel like first year teachers again. How do you make material engaging across a new platform? How do you reach every individual child? How do you create routines? How do you monitor that students are actually learning?"
These are things Pichon said she had gotten pretty good at after years of practice. Now she’s attempting to remaster them.
“I think there’s definitely going to be some trial and error this year we’ll have to take in stride.”
Jewett explained that it’s not only the individual components of the job that have been transformed. Because of the uncertainty surrounding this school year, the very essence of planning curriculum has changed.
“When we plan, we’re used to starting with what we want students to achieve by the end of the year and working backwards from there,” she said. “Now I can’t even tell you what next week is going to look like, let alone the end of the year. Are we going to be back in school and I have to come up with safety procedures, are we going to be online and I need to help special education students navigate unfamiliar technology from the other side of a screen, or is it going to be some combination of both?”
“I’ve always tried to be involved in my kids’ education,” said Robertson. “But this year’s an entirely different level. It’s not just going on field trips and asking if they need help with their homework. Now I’m sitting in a virtual classroom and learning right alongside my child.”
Education experts and teacher advocates hope this unprecedented window into a teachers’ classroom -- even if it’s just a virtual one -- will translate to more support for educators.
“I’m keeping my fingers crossed that teachers finally get the pay they deserve,” said Alex Jarrell, chief innovation officer at New School for New Orleans, a local education nonprofit that works to improve the quality of the city’s school options. “It was nice to see all the parent social media posts this spring highlighting their appreciation for teachers, and I was hoping this would be a watershed moment for the profession.”
Jarrell said he’s worried that debate in Washington over whether and under what conditions schools should reopen has politicized education and put teachers who feel anxious about in-person learning during a pandemic in a no-win situation.
Many parents, however, remain in awe of what they’re seeing during this uniquely up-close look at their child’s education. This is the case for Corbett, who compared his new vantage point to watching a painting being made.
“I think in past years I would just receive something like a finished painting. My kids would come home and I could tell they had learned things at school. Now, though, as I sit next to my son and watch him learn, it’s like I’m seeing all of the work that goes into creating that painting from scratch. It gives me so much respect for what teachers do.”