Learning virtually

Published 9:05 pm Monday, May 4, 2020

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IW teachers, students adapt to school at home


Since March 23, when Gov. Ralph Northam ordered all Virginia schools to remain closed through the end of the academic year in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Georgie D. Tyler Middle School math and science teacher Laura Tumminello has made an effort to stick to her normal school schedule.

She still wakes up early, starts her day with a cup of coffee, and by 10:30 a.m. can be found giving math and science lessons to her students, just like on any regular day of classes.

Except now, instead of being in her classroom, she’s seated on a sofa at home, speaking into her computer’s web camera and microphone via Google Hangouts — an online video conferencing system similar to Zoom and other internet-based platforms that have seen a recent surge in use among those in states with stay-at-home orders.

On this particular day, she has scheduled two such face-to-face video conferencing sessions, one that began at 10 a.m. and another that will start at 2 p.m.

“Good morning, can you hear me?” she asks after starting the Hangout.

One student from her eighth-grade math class appears on the screen, seated in the passenger seat of a moving car.

“Hey, Aiden, can you guys hear me?” Tumminello asks again.

A cell phone rings off-screen.

“Aiden, can you hear me? I can’t hear you,” she asks again.

Tumminello checks her cell phone; six other students have texted her saying they are also having microphone and camera issues. She then migrates her lesson for the day to Zoom, where a few other students have finally succeeded in signing in.

“Please write down your questions and hold them through the end,” she informs her class. “Anybody have drawings of wings?”

Her oldest daughter, Amelia, she explains, has been helping to pick optional drawing assignments for Tumminello’s students while at home working on her own college-level art project. For this particular day, the theme was to draw something with wings.

“Chevy, did you do it?” Tumminello asks.

One of Tumminello’s students — presumably Chevy — holds up a drawing of a roll of toilet paper with wings and a halo.

“Look at our toilet paper flying away,” she says.

“Don’t remind me of that; I have no toilet paper,” says another student.

A dog barks from somewhere in the background. Tumminello then begins the day’s lesson.

“This is a picture that came directly from your packet,” she says, switching her screen to a PowerPoint presentation. “What do you notice? Why is it called a scatterplot?”

The students then spend a few minutes discussing positive and negative data trends, as well as scatterplots with no discernible trend upwards or down. By this time, it’s nearly 11 a.m. — time for her students to go on to their next online class of the day.

“For tomorrow … you can do the reviews No. 1 and 2 and the volleyball stats,” Tumminello says, referring again to the lesson packets the school has been distributing to students since the shutdown.

April 20 marked the first day of teaching any new material since the shutdown began, with packets distributed online and, for the benefit of those without access to a reliable internet connection, in hard copy via bins located in front of each elementary school.

For Carrollton Elementary School kindergarten teacher Elizabeth Mann, teaching in the days of COVID-19 has become much the same.

“I have personally been very proactive in making videos daily to send to my kids since the quarantine began to help keep some sense of normalcy for them,” Mann said. “They don’t understand at the ages of 5 and 6 what’s truly going on or why they can’t go back to school. Over time, I’ve added more things as I’ve better understood technology and new programs. I am now using Zoom as well.”

Mann must also contend with the demands of her own children, ages 2 and 5.

“In a household where both parents are working from home but also have young children, it has been interesting trying to juggle everything,” Mann said. “There have been some days with tears, but we are willing to demonstrate grit and keep at it. Our newest schedule has been our favorite, and oddly enough, it’s back to waking up early with a set day-time schedule and going to bed at a decent time.”

Teachers are on call and are expected to respond to all parents within 24 hours, as well as participate in professional development meetings, grade-level meetings and other staff meetings via Zoom.

“We are constantly thinking and worrying about our school children, who become our kids as well,” she said. “Are they OK? Are they eating enough? Are they learning? How are they doing emotionally with all of this?”

Mann added that when schools initially closed for a minimum of two weeks in mid-March, she had expected that even in a worst-case scenario, schools would reopen by May.

“I still had hope that things would change as had everything else up to that point with COVID-19,” she said. “The day I truly cried and lost hope of returning was once the governor closed us for the year, and we were asked to pack up our classrooms like we do at the end of the year. At that point, I knew it was final, and the lack of closure was hard.”

Fellow kindergarten teacher Julie Branch at Windsor Elementary School also has her three children — ages 12, 15 and 17 — home with her.

“I am lucky that they are all in middle and high school, so they are pretty self-sufficient … I think supporting them on the emotional side is a completely different story,” she said. “They want to see their friends, their girlfriends, and my oldest is missing the end of his senior year and all the special events that go with it.”

Tumminello’s daughters, one a college senior and the other a college freshman, had held part-time jobs in the restaurant industry prior to the pandemic, and had been paying for most of their own needs. Now, with both home and unable to work, the family is having to support four adults on two incomes.

“We have been blessed so far that we are able to pay our bills since the pandemic started,” Tumminello said. “We have had minor stress on our budget, mainly in the area of groceries … We are fearful for the increase of food prices and the lack of availability of products.”

Her husband, she added, is a police officer.

“He is definitely essential personnel,” she said. “He is with the public daily … During his shift, he takes extra precautions. When he comes home, he is the only one who handles his uniform to keep it away from the rest of the family. He has a separate room in the house now where he dresses and undresses.”

Karen Reeder, a reading specialist at Carrsville Elementary School, is also fearful of public contact right now, as her husband is immunocompromised.

“I was given the opportunity to go to school one day to gather materials,” Reeder said. “My school team made it possible to minimize encountering others while I was there. We are so blessed to live in this area. Many people have offered to help us since we are unable to go into public places. My colleagues, families of past and present students, neighbors and church family constantly check on us. I couldn’t think of a better place to live and work.”

Still, she misses her students.

“The highlight of my day is to see their faces on my computer screen when we meet,” she said. “At the end of a session, one student always says, ‘I love you, Mrs. Reeder. I miss you.’ I can’t wait to see them again and give them a big hug.”