Northern Lebanon School District teacher Tiffany Hogg on Monday went for a drive past all her students’ homes.
“The kids and their parents all came out on their porches to wave,” she said. “They really enjoyed it. I want to keep that connection open. I don’t want to lose that.”
Hogg is a second-grade teacher at East Hanover Elementary School in Grantville. She, like teachers throughout Northern Lebanon School District and the rest of Pennsylvania, is enduring the third week of the statewide school shutdown ordered by Gov. Tom Wolf to contain the spread of COVID-19.
She’s trying to keep in touch with her 15 students as much as she can.
“I record videos of myself reading a picture book to the students,” she said. “In the classroom I read a lot of pictures books but I also am reading a chapter book. Every day I read a few more chapters of that story, and they can comment on it.”
In addition to chapters from “The One and Only Ivan” by Katherine Appelgate, Hogg said the students take turns reading their favorite books to their classmates.
Fortunately, she said, the kids all have tablets at home, so it’s easy to stay in touch.
Rumors were circulating about a potential shutdown but when it came, Hogg said, “we were caught off guard.”
“Teachers were talking, but we didn’t think it was going to happen to us,” she recalled.
Then, after Gov. Wolf announced the two-week shutdown, “I didn’t even tell my students. I didn’t want to upset them.”
Hogg said she packed up two boxes full of school items she thought she might need, and she quickly reached out to the parents to let them know what was going on.
“I told them, this was a shock to us, too,” she said.
“That first week, we were able to go back into the school,” she added. “We could get access, so I did go pick up a few things. Mainly books, so I could do some read-alouds with my students.”
Her students all have school-issued iPads, she noted, so staying in touch is easy. Older students in the district have school-issued Google Chromebooks.
“Most of my kids are really comfortable using iPads,” she said. “We use them daily in my classroom, so for them it wasn’t too big of a transition.”
They use programs like Seesaw, Google Meets and Zoom to stay in touch, she said.
“We can still talk to each other, laugh together,” she said. “It’s nice, I think it helps the students and the parents as well.”
Each day, she said, she posts assignments for her kids. For instance, she explained, “they can read me a story and I can hear them. They’ll send me the video.”
They also send photos back and forth, she said — letting each other know what they’re doing, how they’re keeping themselves busy during the quarantine.
They even have a collaborative project going. Each student is working on a piece of a video “to thank the service workers who are still out there doing their jobs,” Hogg said. “They’re excited to see how I put it all together.”
This week is a transition period, Hogg said, so all teachers and students can familiarize themselves with the hardware and software being used for distance learning. “Next week, we’re going to really hit the grind.”
“I want to find creative ways for the kids to show what they’ve learned,” she said. “For instance, I give them some math problems and they solve them, then they create a video explaining what they’re thinking.”
Melissa McInerney, principal of East Hanover and Lickdale elementary schools in Northern Lebanon, said her Lickdale teachers are posting a video of a staff member reading a story each day. East Hanover teachers planned a parade through the community with an escort of police cars and fire trucks. Staff members decorated their cars and encouraged students to wave from their front porches or yards, she added.
Other schools are making similar plans, while at least one has students making cards for local senior citizen facilities.
“Unfortunately as this is our new normal for now, we will strive to find creative ways to support our students and keep them engaged,” McInerney said.
Bernie Kepler, superintendent of Palmyra Area School District, said in an email March 26 that teachers there were “working diligently” to prepare for distance learning.
Administrators formulated a game plan during the week of March 16, he said, and then rolled out “a full week of training” for teachers from March 23 to 27.
Students in grades 6-8 have school-issued iPads and older students each have a MacBook Air, he said.
Last Friday, he said, the district distributed nearly 300 iPads to elementary families and will be handing out more this week.
Teachers are all grade levels are using various platforms to interact with their students, he said, including Schoology, Google Classroom, Zoom Meetings, Study Island, RAZ Kids, Everfi and more.
“I am using the terminology, ‘calm engagement for our children,’ to describe our district’s expectation for our learners,” he said. “We are considering each family’s ability to engage in learning. Family’s will face varied experiences and stress levels, work versus no work, healthy versus facing varied illnesses, internet versus no internet, etc. We are working to remove as many barriers to engaging in learning as possible.”
All teachers have home “office hours” when they are available to students and parents, Kepler said.
“It is important to note that we are not offering days of school,” he said in the email. “The educational offerings we are providing are not equivalent to one of the 180 days we typically have in a school year. The Department of Education has waived the days/hours requirement, therefore, we are providing learning opportunities for families to take advantage of to the best of their family’s situation/ability.”
However, he worried a bit about the rest of the school year, the conclusion of which still remains unclear.
“From a contractual perspective, our teachers at Palmyra Area School District worked all of last week in preparation of online learning offerings and are working with instruction online beginning today,” he said Monday. “In essence, from a cost perspective and contractual perspective, we would have minimal ability to lengthen the school-year beyond our June 5th last day of school.”
In a letter this week to parents, Kepler said the school is asking students and their families “to engage as much as possible so that students are best poised to return to a ‘normal’ educational environment, whenever that may be determined to be safe.”
Schools officials, he said in the letter, “do not have all the answers regarding attendance, grading, how this will impact next year, etc. Our main goal is to engage each student, reach out to the families who aren’t engaged and determine if there is anything we can do to assist or if there are any barriers we can help remove.”
In a March 26 letter to parents and guardians, Annville-Cleona superintendent Cheryl A. Potteiger said the school closure has been “challenging.”
“We understand the frustration you may be dealing with due to how much our way of life has changed in regards to educating your child(ren),” she wrote in the letter.
Potteiger said teachers “have been busy working on developing virtual learning opportunities and resources to provide for the students of our district.” However, she noted, if the governor extends the school shutdown beyond April 6, “new plans may need to be put into place based on directives that may be provided.”
Educational resources are available on the district website, she said.
But, she said, “please know these resources and opportunities that have been developed for students are optional. Student work will not be graded and any educational opportunities will not have due dates.”
Teachers will be reaching out to students every week to check in, she said. “We hope you will encourage your child(ren) to participate.”
Last Friday, Potteiger said, district staff organized a parade through the area “to let our students know that they are missed and also to show support for our families during these trying times.”
As the school shutdown continues and has no definite end date, Hogg said her students — “even the kids who were enjoying have a few days off” — are eager to get back to their classroom routines.
That first day back, she expects, “is going to be a great reunion before we dive back into the typical routine.”
“I believe the first day back is going to be a lot like the first day of school,” she said. “Just coming back to reconnect. I’m sure they’re going to have a lot of stories to share.”
However, Hogg said, the challenges of today might lead to some interesting innovations in education in the future.
“There are challenges, but maybe this might be a way to push them in the future, to allow students to showcase their learning in multiple ways … and forcing teachers to learn new techniques,” she said. “We have no choice, we have to embrace it now. I’m kind of excited for next year, to see what possibilities this opens up.
“I think this is a great time for everyone to show these kiddos how we can persevere and overcome a tough situation. This is a perfect time and place to show these students that we can do this.”
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