Editor’s note: This is the first of Emily Karlichek’s conversations with Farmington area teachers who share their thoughts about remote and in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. In some cases, we have agreed to withhold identifying information at the teachers’ requests.
The start of school always carries with it a variety of emotions for families and teachers alike, but the COVID-19 pandemic has made this a year like no other.
These three local teachers say they’ve had to make big adjustments and quickly adapt to deliver quality education with safety as a top priority.
Reimagining the remote classroom
About 20 Oakland County public school districts, including Farmington Public Schools, opted for a remote start. Lauren O’Neill teaches Spanish to 8th-12th grade students at Farmington STEAM Academy and North Farmington High School.
“As I prepared to teach fully remotely, I watched a lot of tutorials on how to operate our new learning system, and bounced ideas off of my colleagues, struggling through it together,” said O’Neill, a Wixom resident. “I like the new learning system, but we did not have access to it until about a week and a half before school started, so I made a trial account and played with the features before having my district login information.”
She said teachers had to modify their expectations about what they could cover in a virtual environment, and created “guidelines for productive online learning.”
“Preparing for the fall was much more stressful in terms of reimagining how the classroom looks and brainstorming ideas about how to make meaningful connections with our students and families in a virtual environment,” O’Neill said.
With almost a month of classes behind her, O’Neill said her biggest challenge has been managing her workload and creating meaningful relationships with her students. And her biggest cheerleaders and best resources continue to be fellow educators, near and far.
“We have helped each other in so many ways and I do not think I would be doing very well without their support and expertise,” she said. “Teachers are amazing, I have so much love and respect for everyone doing this job right now – it is so hard!”
In-person school looks different
Joanna has been teaching in-person since classes resumed at her metro Detroit private school. Remote learning is an option, but only about 15 percent of students chose to stay home. She teaches 3rd-8th grade strings and orchestra.
The school already had small class sizes that made social distancing easier, but everyone still faced big adjustments. Also, students and staff must remain ready to go fully remote at any time.
“School looks different now,” Joanna said. “Kids eat lunch in their homerooms, classrooms are cleaned between classes, and there are social distancing marks on the carpet everywhere. Stairwells are one-way and bathrooms have limited occupancy.”
Mask wearing through the school day has been less difficult than Joanna expected. One of the biggest challenges has been keeping the kids physically distanced in shared spaces.
“It’s very counter-intuitive and difficult for them – they want so desperately to interact with their friends and classmates the way they normally would,” she said.
Teachers had to streamline use of the school’s learning management system so they could teach in-person and remote students at the same time, helping everyone “stay organized without overwhelming them,” Joanna said. She has also found some tools that help her families.
“My favorite resources right now are Flipgrid, a super fun tool for students to record video assignments that feels a bit like social media, and Loom, which is a simple way for teachers to make videos or screencasts for their students,” she said “As a music teacher, I use these tools daily.”
‘Stressful, different, and uncertain’
Laura Luckins teaches 10th-12th grade chemistry in person at an area private school. While she had hoped for a remote start, the Farmington resident prepared to work in person with most of her students in person and virtually with a small group.
“We set up an iPad system and they Zoom in,” she said. “I can share my screen with them, and they have a second camera on the whiteboard so they can see me.” After some tech hiccups in the first week, things have gone smoothly, she added.
While Luckins missed her students and enjoys being in the classroom, this year’s experience has been “stressful, different and uncertain.” Like so many others, she has leaned on her colleagues more than ever.
“My other teachers and the administration have been incredibly helpful,” she said. “I found a ton of stuff through the American Association of Chemistry Teachers, and I’m just trying to keep it simple this year. I feel really supported by my head of school.”
Measures for the safest in-person return possible included distanced classroom seating, disinfecting protocols, lunch in the classroom with delivery from bus drivers, and schedules designed to minimize passing time traffic.
Students seemed happy to be in school, Luckins said. However, after several positive COVID-19 tests, her school recently shifted to all-remote instruction while deep cleaning and contact tracing is performed.