COVID and the classroom

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The education system has been one of the many casualties of the coronavirus pandemic—upending traditional forms of teaching and learning. In Monroe County, school teachers have found new ways to do their jobs and crossed numerous hurdles to ensure students continue their education.

“It has certainly been challenging attempting to meet the academic and social needs of students in the new learning environment,” says Frank Cafarella, who teaches 7th and 8th grade social studies at Spencerport’s Cosgrove Middle School.

Frank Cafarella

For roughly a year, as schools mulled in-person instruction and hybrid formats, teachers have been at the center of their plans to make it work. Across the nation, they have been forced to become flexible and make learning accessible as states struggle to keep infection rates low. A Horace Mann Educators report in November predicted a shortage of K-12 educators as a consequence of COVID-19. The loss of teaching time, the shift to remote and hybrid options, and health risks all were expected to contribute to the decision to leave the profession.

Pandemic-induced shifts to fully remote or hybrid teaching modes have forced local educators to develop lessons that can be taught online, become proficient with unfamiliar technologies, adapt to new class schedules, and try to bond with kids who are no closer than a computer screen. Though some teachers have enjoyed parts of the experience, all interviewed for this story said they would be glad to welcome their students back for full-time in-person classes.

A sudden call for change

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s March 16, 2020 order to close all of the state’s schools caught some teachers by surprise.

“That Friday, we went home, and then then we got an email over the weekend that we were not returning,” says Kimberly McLean, who teaches 9th and 10th grade algebra at Spencerport High School.

From that point until school ended in July, the state’s public school students attended classes remotely over the internet. School districts gave their students iPads, Chromebooks or other devices with which they could do their schoolwork and communicate with their teachers. Some local teachers found the new mode of instruction discomfiting. 

“What was stressful about it was trying to design educational materials and activities that they could do on their own, that were meaningful,” says Todd Putnam, who teaches 7th grade English language arts at the Webster school district’s Willink Middle School. 

Putnam’s and his students’ school days were relatively unstructured.

“We didn’t have scheduled classes or scheduled Zoom meetings,” he says. “We provided work by the week for the kids.”

On his time off, Putnam tried to make himself available to help his students deal with academic problems.

“I would get an email at 9 o’clock at night, ‘I don’t know how to do this,’” he says.

Adjusting to a mix of schedules

In September, the Webster school district created a new instructional scheme under which parents could have their children taught remotely, or under a hybrid schedule that features in-person and remote classes. Since then, Putnam has taught his students under a kind of 2+2+1 schedule. Now, half of his students attend classes in-person for two days each week and the other half attends for two other days. On Wednesdays, Putnam “meets” all of them in 25-minute classes that he teaches online. 

Though the hybrid instructional schedule is a welcome change from fully-remote instruction, it has limits.

“The idea is that on those days when they’re not in school, they’re doing school work for each class for ideally the equivalent amount of time,” Putnam says. “We know that’s not happening.”

Part of the problem is that the ability to work independently differs among adolescents, and adults aren’t always available at home to guide them. 

“In 7th grade especially … different kids have different motivations and different work ethics and different home lives,” Putnam says. “A reasonable number of kids at this age really just need an adult to say, ‘OK, time to get up and do this now.’” 

New York suspended standardized tests last year, but the scores Putnam’s students have received in class indicate the virus has taken a toll on their education.

“Kids who have good attendance and are pretty faithful in doing their at-home assignments are doing as well as under normal circumstances,” he says. “There is a slightly larger number, in my estimation, of kids who are failing, some severely, due to an apparent inability to be self-motivated (or) organized.”

Kimberly McLean

Each day, roughly half of McLean’s students don their masks and attend classes in person while the other half participates online. 

“They’re on a computer screen that’s up close to the front of the room,” she says. “I teach live and Zoom at the same time.”

Though McLean much prefers hybrid to full-remote instruction, she has difficulty reading the screens of her students’ graphing calculators when they’re on Zoom.

“If they hold their calculator up to the camera, it’s a bright, white light for me,” she says. “I can’t fix problems as easy as I would if they were in class.”

The pandemic has also made it harder for McLean, who has been teaching for more than 16 years, to connect with her students. Normally, she would meet them at school or community events outside the classroom.

“This year, I can’t do any of that, so reaching them is very hard,” she says. 

A new normal

Though some of McLean’s students are struggling to do their work outside class, hybrid instruction has prompted others to grow. 

“They’ve got the responsibility now, they’re time-managing, they’re getting their work done,” she says.

At Webster’s DeWitt Road Elementary School, all of of Kari DiGiacomo’s 32 students attend classes remotely, split evenly between morning and afternoon online sessions. The experience has taken the 3rd grade teacher back to her first days in the classroom.  

“I’ve been teaching for 26 years, and I feel like a first-time teacher sometimes, because I spend so many hours making my plans appropriate for that remote learning,” she says. 

Despite that, DiGiacomo, who relishes taking on challenges, has enjoyed the experience of teaching students from afar.

Kari DiGiacomo

“I absolutely love teaching remotely, because of the challenges and all of the pros that come with it,” she says. 

To effectively work with students who are only on computer screens, DiGiacomo has had to change her style of instruction.

“I have learned to be very specific with directions, and explaining things to my students, because we are on Google Meet (a video communication service like Zoom) and we have to be very specific,” she says.

DiGiacomo also has found new ways to reach out to her students online.

“You just have to find those unique times to talk with them, and get to know them as a person,” she says. “I really feel like I know those students as well as I would in person.”

Achieving academic growth

Remote instruction has given DiGiacomo a chance to learn more about the difficulties her students sometimes face as they try to learn their lessons outside the classroom.

“There might be a lot of other siblings in the home that are also trying to work remotely,” she says. “It’s challenging for parents and households.” 

Online instruction has presented other problems, as well. DiGiacomo can’t see what remote students are writing until it shows on her computer screen, or deal with those who are having behavioral problems as easily as she would in person.

“When a student is having an issue, you can’t quietly pull them to the side,” she says.

Such problems do not appear to have impeded DiGiacomo’s students’ academic progress.

“All of the students are making growth towards the grade-level standards,” she says. “I am seeing the same academic growth with remote students as I usually see with in-person students.”

About 90 percent of Cafarella’s 7th and 8th grade students attend classes under a hybrid 2+2+1 schedule, and the rest completely remotely. Those who attend in-person classes seem glad to be back, even part-time.

“I don’t hear many students complaining about being in school anymore,” he says. “Everyone, teachers and students, have a renewed appreciation for the way school used to be.”

Not that there haven’t been bumps on this new road to education. Cafarella initially had difficulty getting to know his students because of his limited contact with them, and the masks they wear in class.

“Only seeing them twice a week physically in front of you … even just learning their names takes twice as long,” he says.

The masks also can limit Cafarella’s ability to understand what students are saying to him.

“You don’t realize how much somebody relies on lip reading (to) hear other people speaking until you’re trying to do it with a mask on,” he says.

In addition, some students are having difficulties with remote learning.

“(Even) the most mature and responsible students are going to have a much more difficult time attempting to maintain focus learning from home than in the classroom,” Cafarella says. 

The challenges have affected his students’ academic progress.

“By traditional standards of metrics like test scores and things like that, it’s certainly not what it has been in the past,” Cafarella says. “Teaching and learning can be done in a better way, absent a global pandemic.”

Caitlin Law

At the Rochester City School District’s Adlai E. Stevenson School No. 29, Caitlin Law taught all of her music classes remotely from March to December. The experience gave her and her colleagues the opportunity to acquire new skills.

“I’ve been able to practice again what I want our students to do, which is learn,” says Law, who teaches K-6th grade general education students and K-8th grade special education students.

Remote instruction gave Law the opportunity to learn how to use computers and cameras for instruction.

“I’ve been able to really think how I’m approaching my teaching of the foundational skills with music, like note reading and rhythm reading,” she says. “We’ve actually been able to do music creation through some of the different platforms that we’re using.”

Law also gained an opening to guide her students as they used laptops or other devices to take classes and do their schoolwork.

“It’s not just using a computer anymore as a typewriter, it’s using it to enhance everything they’re doing,” Law says. 

Her students have enjoyed and benefited from remote instruction.

“Some kiddos, because it’s more focused for them, they’re doing really well,” Law says.

On Jan. 5, RCSD initiated Phase 1 of its reopening plan, which allows the hybrid instruction of students who are attending selected schools, including School No. 29. The students’ parents had to choose to allow them to attend in-person classes, and the kids had to be in specialized programs, or have autism spectrum disorder. A number of Law’s students qualified.

“I was so happy to see my students arriving in the morning for school,” she says. “The ones that I have seen so far were excited to be back.”

If all goes as hoped—and coronavirus cooperates—RCSD plans to bring more students in for hybrid instruction on Feb. 8.

Mike Costanza is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer.

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