“We’re just trying to take it day by day”: Educators reflect on challenges and see opportunities with remote learning

On ordinary weekday mornings, the network of sidewalks branching out from Christa McAuliffe School in downtown Concord host processions of children: on bikes and on foot, gripping parents’ hands or running ahead of them, holding dog leashes or poster board projects, waving at friends and crossing guards. 

Now, the sidewalks, the playground, the parking lot are all empty. A message board outside the school reads, “We Miss Our CMS Comets.” 

As she reflects on the past month, Christa McAuliffe School Principal Kris Gallo can list many victories. Teachers have gotten the hang of new technologies and found creative ways to deliver content. They’ve ironed out kinks and scaled their expectations. They’ve identified student needs and are doing their best to meet them in the new remote learning model, which began about a month ago in New Hampshire, when Gov. Sununu ordered all K-12 schools closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

But the words on the message board are true. “I miss the kids a lot,” Gallo said. “I haven’t found the best way to stay connected to all 400 students.” 

Across the state, educators offer a similar mix of sentiments. Success stories are many, but serious challenges and worries remain. 

Some districts say they’re still struggling to get the workload right. “Everybody’s putting in more hours than they do in the brick and mortar,” said William Harbron, superintendent of the Dover School District. “It does require a whole different level of energy, too. … Parents don’t understand how much time is required of teachers to plan this well and execute it well.”

Technology also remains a challenge for some districts. Even tech-savvy young people are struggling to manage all the different learning platforms, said Dover High School Principal Peter Driscoll. 

And while some types of content translate well to online platforms, others, such as music, gym and tech classes, do not. 

At a recent meeting for teachers in the Pittsfield School District, the elementary school music teachers shared that she was finding it difficult to engage students, said Superintendent John Freeman. 

Gilbert H Hood Middle School eighth grade social studies teacher, Mrs. Owens, remote teaching from her home. 

“She felt like maybe people didn’t take her class as seriously,” he said. 

Freeman also worries about student engagement overall. Like many districts, Pittsfield has been taking attendance though a combination of check-ins with teachers and submitted assignments. While it’s difficult to measure the new numbers against the old, Freeman estimates attendance is down about 10 percent across the district.

“That’s an ongoing concern,” he said. 

Among the biggest quandaries for schools is how to fairly assess student progress. Many districts have moved from a letter grade or four-point rubric system to a pass/fail system, particularly at the elementary and middle school levels. Many are also providing a narrative progress report. The move hasn’t been without controversy.

“You have constituents that are saying, ‘hey, my kids are working their butts off and trying to get good grades … and then there are other people who are like, ‘if we don’t go to pass/fail, my kids are going to fail,” Driscoll said. 

At the high school level, where credits are critical for graduation and transcripts are seen by colleges, the question is even more complicated, leading some districts to adopt a hybrid model. 

At Pittsfield High School, for example, teachers are giving letter grades for year-long courses and moving to pass/fail for the second semester. However, students can request a letter grade from their individual teachers if it matters to them for college admission or other reasons, Freeman said. 

In Manchester, school board members are also considering a modified grading system, in which students would continue receiving letter grades but would receive an “incomplete” rather than an F if they did not pass the class. 

Schools are also looking at how changes to this year’s competencies and assessments will affect next year’s plans. In Bedford, for example, educators plan to build in some time next year to conduct pre-assessments and determine what knowledge gaps they need to address, said superintendent Michael Fournier.

Along with all the other challenges, educators and families are anxious about the future. Elementary teachers are wondering how they’ll do class placement for next year. High school juniors are stressed about college applications and SATs. High school seniors and their families want to know whether they’ll have graduation, and administrators don’t have answers. 

“Are we going to be able to gather again? Who knows?” Harbron said. 

New challenges seem to crop up every day, said Franklin School District Superintendent Daniel LeGallo, who last week was working on getting live video feed up and running for all schools and families. The key, he said, is to get used to uncertainty and realize that it’s impossible to have all the answers. “We’re really just trying to take it day by day and not get too far ahead of ourselves,” he said. 

 “There’s no way we’re going back to the way things were.”

In her 30 years as an educator, Kim Carpentino, principal of Gilbert H. Hood Middle School in Derry, has witnessed two dramatic changes in school culture. One was in 1999, when the Columbine High School shooters shattered the sense of safety families associated with schools. The other was last month, when the COVID-19 pandemic toppled the traditional learning model. 

“It amazes me how well people have done,” Carpentino said. “Are people struggling? Absolutely. … What’s going to make the difference is can you move on, can you learn?”

Gilbert H Hood Middle School student Arianna Lawton left this message for her teachers.

For Driscoll another educational shift comes to mind when he thinks about the COVID-19 crisis. Widespread acceptance of technical education came out of World War I and the government’s view that young people were not prepared to be soldiers, he said. 

“Historic events cause changes in institutions,” Driscoll said. “This is a historic event, and this is going to cause changes, too.” 

The remote learning experience has already taught educators important lessons. One that resonates with Driscoll is how well some students are doing in this new environment. For example, quiet students who stayed in the shadows during class discussion are finding new ways to express themselves. And some students who battled anxiety are actually feeling less anxious in their home classrooms. 

Driscoll and his staff have taken such lessons to heart. They’re already working on plans to offer some online classes within the school building next year, affording students an alternative way of engaging with material as well as more flexibility in their schedules. The remote learning experience has also highlighted for teachers the need to teach students more executive functioning skills so they can more effectively manage independent study. 

As a school year unlike any other comes to a close, additional lessons will undoubtedly unfold, offering educators new insights into their practices and new chances to transform education. 

“We just made this wholesale change,” Driscoll said. “There’s no way we’re going back to the way things were.” 

Coming Next Week: How the COVID-19 closures are amplifying inequities and what educators are doing to meet the needs of all students.

Read more: A new reality: Educators reflect on the first weeks of remote learning