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

by Sarah Earle

On Monday and Thursday mornings at 11:30, Franklyn Bass sets aside his regular duties as interim superintendent of the Concord School District and logs onto a video conference with a group of high school juniors and seniors, a couple of school board members and two school administrators. 

The agenda doesn’t include coronavirus briefings, logistical updates, or progress reports on the myriad aspects of remote learning. Instead, the group, which Bass assembled shortly after Gov. Sununu ordered all public schools closed in response to the coronavirus pandemic, discusses short stories by William Faulkner and James Joyce. 

“It’s sort of an experiment for me to play around with,” said Bass, a former English teacher who last Monday morning was leading a Socratic seminar on two of the main characters in Joyce’s “The Dubliners” via Google Meet.

All around the state, a variety of educational experiments are taking place as educators, students, and families adjust to a reality no one could have imagined just a few months ago. In the four weeks since the March 15 executive order went into effect, educators say they’re pleased — even amazed — by how effectively their school communities have risen to the challenge of remote learning. 

“Even with all the stress of this pandemic, what has been just so inspiring has been all these little stories about what people are doing,” said Jacqueline Coe, superintendent of SAU 24, which serves students in Weare, Henniker and Stoddard. 

At the same time, teachers and administrators are worried about logistics, academic progress, student needs, and the uncertainties that lie ahead. 

“We’ve had to build the plane while we’re flying it and then build a new plane.”

Bass, who’s been serving as superintendent of Concord schools since November, devised the short story class for two reasons: to afford himself, the administrative staff, and school board a ground-level view of remote learning in practice, and to provide a meaningful experience for students, who suddenly found themselves isolated at home, away from friends and the routines and rituals of school life. 

“I wanted to provide some different kinds of insights for the kids,” he said. 

Everyone, in fact, is learning to do things differently. Forcing a nearly overnight transition to a new educational structure, the school closures have called on educators to deliver content, assess progress, and connect with students and their families in innovative and flexible ways. 

“At the very beginning, there was just a lot of panic on the part of families, a lot of anxiety on the part of teachers,” said Kris Gallo, principal of Christa McAuliffe School, a K-5 school in Concord. 

Principals and teachers around the state devoted a lot of time to individual outreach in the early days of the closures, reassuring both families and staff and gauging their needs. 

“I’ve spent more time talking to families than ever before,” said Katie Scarpati, principal of Mill Brook School, a K-2 school in Concord. “I think the families feel a new level of trust.” 

At the same time, school districts scrambled to implement remote learning tools, adjust schedules, and address programs thrown into disarray by the closures — all while not knowing when and whether schools would reopen. 

“We’ve had to build the plane while we’re flying and then build a new plane,” Coe said. 

Early on, many school administrators said they overestimated how much they could accomplish in the new model. 

“Our teachers and students were feeling somewhat overwhelmed with the volume of work,” said Michael Fournier, superintendent of the Bedford School District. “We were finding out teachers and students were putting in 12 hours a day and they couldn’t get everything done.” 

As the closures stretched from four weeks to seven weeks and educators began to anticipate not coming back all year, many began reassessing what they could realistically accomplish. A large number of districts have now transitioned to four-day weeks, with one day set aside for catch-up activities for students and staff, and some have also modified their school calendars to end earlier. Many have also stripped down their lesson plans to focus on the essentials. 

“At the high school, we said, ‘cut in half, and then maybe cut a little more,’” Coe said. “Are we losing something? Absolutely. We could pretend and sprint through to the end, but I would rather focus on a few areas. … What do you want kids to know and understand 10 years from now, 20 years from now?”

Gallo said her team came to a similar understanding a few weeks in. “At first we tried to replicate the school day … but what we eventually figured out is that it worked for very few families,” she said. “We had to scale back to just the essentials. We know there are going to be gaps in students’ learning.” 

“The whole country is in the same boat,” Scarpati added. “I think that’s kind of helped teachers and parents to take a breath.” 

Madelyn Cyr, an eight-grade student at Weare Middle School continues in her Advisory class, where they are still chatting weekly with members of the Sweethearts and Heroes organization. The WMS is piloting the B.R.A.V.E.S anti-bullying program for the organization, which is located in New York State.

But if remote learning has forced educators to scale back expectations, it’s also allowed innovation and risk-taking to flourish among both students and teachers. 

“I think we have some people working with technology that have not worked with technology in the past. I think they’re gaining confidence,” said William Harbron, superintendent of the Dover School District.  “The major thing that we’re trying to tell everybody is, understand you have to be flexible. Understand you’re going to make mistakes. Be forgiving of each other and be supportive of each other.”

“The creativity of our teachers has just been amazing,” said Daniel LeGallo, superintendent of the Franklin School District. “All sorts of interesting things are cropping up.” 

Much of the creative energy is directed toward maintaining a sense of community for kids. Principals are injecting humor into their daily announcements, now delivered by video, and conducting contests and trivia challenges. Teachers are inviting students to share photos in digital classrooms. Counselors are bringing their pets to virtual counseling sessions. And most schools have implemented at least some live video sessions so that students can interact with each other and their teachers. 

“The students do love the live video sessions,” said Dover High School Principal Peter Driscoll. “They’re just so thankful to see everyone.” 

Scarpati and her staff recently made a photo montage of teachers holding signs with different inspirational messages and sent it out to families. 

“One dad wrote back and said, ‘thank you so much. I don’t know how you expect me not to touch my face when all these tears are streaming down,’” Scarpati said. 

Tomorrow, we will explore some of the challenges and opportunities that districts are facing in the world of remote learning. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter to get the latest information on Reaching Higher NH’s work.