Teachers, staff struggle to adapt to new school year

Published 6:21 pm Thursday, September 17, 2020

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The coronavirus pandemic has upended the beginning of the school year for districts across the nation, Stanly County included. Instead of spending time inside brick-and-mortar school buildings, getting acquainted to new classrooms, classmates and teachers, the majority of students in the county are working from home, logging onto Zoom, Canvas or some other online platform.

And for schools that have been able to have in-person instruction, life is still far from normal, as social distancing, mask wearing and daily temperature checks represent constant reminders that the pandemic is still around and should be taken seriously.

As of Thursday, the county has experienced almost 1,800 total cases and 57 deaths. Though the schools in the county have not experienced any clusters of coronavirus cases (defined as five or more laboratory-confirmed cases by the state’s Department of Health and Human Services), Badin Elementary recently switched to remote learning for a week after positive COVID-19 cases were detected.

“The first several weeks or so of school you’re getting to know the kids and they’re getting to know you and it’s hard to do that online,” said Gray Stone Day School teacher Mary Branton, who teaches honors and advanced placement world history to freshmen. Gray Stone has operated exclusively online since school began Aug. 6.

Andrew McLeod, a sophomore at Gray Stone, said that meeting his teachers and classmates online for the first time was different than past years because “you aren’t able to bond with them like you normally would” in a traditional classroom setting. He noted that it’s also hard to find motivation to complete his assignments when “I am in the same place I sleep, eat and have fun.”

Katherine Jolly, another Gray Stone sophomore, cited motivation as the biggest obstacle for her so far this year. She said that though she’s adapted to working from home “there are still days where I just want to sleep all day.” One strategy that helps her stay focused has been putting her phone away while she works.

Gray Stone Chief Administrative Officer Helen Nance said the challenges for teachers include working to make sure students stay engaged in class and carving out time during the day to answer any questions they may have.

“I will say that our teachers are handling it very well and have certainly risen to the challenge,” she said.

Branton, who teaches around 140 students, said it is difficult to develop expectations for her classes when she only gets to see each for 40-minute blocks of time Tuesday through Friday.

In order to stay motivated and not get distracted by her environment at home, Branton has been working each day from her Gray Stone classroom.

“I feel like I’m giving my students my better self when I come to Gray Stone each day,” she said.

She has the same expectations for her classes: In order to get into the proper mindset each day, she encourages students to do the same things they would would normally do before coming to school such as showering and putting on proper clothes.

Since she can’t see them in person, Branton encourages her students to communicate with her often, both when they need help and if they are feeling overwhelmed. For Wellness Wednesdays, Branton posts inspiring quotes along with a Google form students can fill out if they have questions about an assignment or feel stressed. Branton has already tweaked some assignments based on feedback from students.

Branton says many of her students have experienced technological glitches, including problems accessing Zoom and the online platform Canvas, where they go to complete their online assignments. These problems “causes the teacher stress and causes the student stress,” Branton said. As an educator, “it’s really just a balancing game of trying to alleviate their stress and their (sense of) being overwhelmed while also balancing your stress and keeping yourself from being overwhelmed.”

“It’s hard,” she added.

And she’s not alone in her frustrations.

“We are exhausted daily”

Stanly County Schools has been operating under the Plan B option, where middle and high school students are rotating between weeks of in-person and online learning. This has resulted in creating extra work for many teachers. A total of 2,771 students enrolled with Stanly County Schools have opted to work exclusively remote this year.

“It is difficult to teach because you really are teaching two different classes,” said Michael Curlee, a special education teacher at South Stanly High. He said his biggest frustration has been struggling to connect with students online, who often are not completing the work assigned to them.

The 2019-2020 SCS Teacher of the Year co-teaches a class where 10 students are failing — nine of which are working from home.

“How do you reach the remote learner that no matter what we do, we can’t get them to get online and do the work?” Curlee said. “How do we hold those students accountable?”

Several Stanly County Schools teachers participated in a virtual meeting with school board members Tuesday night, where they echoed similar frustrations they have encountered in trying to adjust to the new school year, especially with students alternating between weeks of in-person and remote learning.

Teachers spoke about feeling overwhelmed and burnt out working to teach students both in the classroom and online. They also spoke about consistently working past midnight many days, sacrificing personal time with their families.

“It is impossible for face-to-face teachers and our remote teachers to do this, to truly provide (students with) an education and be effective teachers with the way the schedule is right now,” said Badin Elementary teacher Katherine Furr, who spoke on behalf of the school. “We are all drowning and barely keeping our head up right now.”

Krista Turner, a physical education teacher known to children and staff at Central Elementary as “Miss Sunshine,” said teachers aren’t being given the proper resources to be successful and are being stretched to the limit.

“You are killing teachers,” Turner said. “We are exhausted daily and pouring out tears of desperation.”

High school teachers spoke about how students are struggling to adapt to the nature of shifting between in-person and online learning.

Meredith Howell, a 16-year AP English teacher at South Stanly High, said 40 percent of her seniors are failing. “Many are in-person learners and their missing assignments come from weeks that they are remote,” she said.

Howell said to talk with each of her students who are failing would take “probably three to four hours a week,” which is time she doesn’t have available. She averages around 80 emails per day, and on Monday, she noted she had 123 from parents, students and staff.

Kim Widenhouse, an English teacher at Albemarle High, said the majority of her students at home, which can be up to 80 percent any given week, are not completing any work. Despite the fact teachers are often working seven days a week and even visiting students at their homes, she said more than 50 percent of the students at the school are failing multiple classes.

“We’ve got to have time with them, we’ve got to have face-to-face every week somehow,” Widenhouse said.

Tina Carter, a drafting teacher at North Stanly High and current SCS Teacher of the Year, said she has started to doubt her abilities as a teacher.

“When I start feeling this way, it scares me,” she said, “because if I’m going to doubt myself then certainly the students are going to feel and see this, too.”

Carter said it has been daunting for many teachers adjusting to Canvas, the online management platform where they assign work to students at home. Students, who are juggling assignments from multiple teachers on Canvas, have also been confused, she said.

Board member and former teacher Glenda Gibson later said she has heard from teachers who have worked up to 16 hours a day.

“Our teachers are working twice as hard, three times as hard, sometimes even four times as hard as they have ever worked in their teaching career,” she said, adding that the health of teachers is critical.

“I love and I value our teachers,” Gibson said. “They’re just the best and any way I can support them I will.”

Board member Patty Crump said while the school’s reopening plan was a “great start, it definitely needed revisions.”

She acknowledged that between juggling face-to-face teaching, uploading assignments onto Canvas, grading assignments and responding to emails, many teachers don’t have planning time each day.

“They’re just trying to do it all,” she said. “They’re acting as superheroes and they’re running out of gas.”

In order to alleviate some of the pressure, the school board passed a motion to allow teachers, no matter the grade level, to teach remotely for one day each week. The board decided upon Friday as the remote learning day, though changes to the schedule will not be made until the school system works out the logistics.

Lack of reliable internet

Another issue teachers and students are dealing with is inconsistent internet access, especially for households who live in the more rural areas of the county. While SCS has created mobile hotspots, some areas don’t have good enough cell signal to take advantage, said Elliot Brooks, lead administrator of media and instructional technology. The school system is also in the process of establishing wireless access points outside school buildings, which would allow students to access WiFi from the parking lots.

Brooks estimates that based on the population that was able to complete work last spring when all students were working remotely, around 30 percent of students likely don’t have consistent internet access.

“It’s not an easy task to provide internet access when it’s not available in an area,” Brooks said.

Similar to teachers, support staff are also working extra hours. Brooks has a host of different responsibilities including addressing internet connectivity issues and training people on how to use Canvas. He usually works between between 60 to 70 hours a week. Last month, he fielded more than 3,000 emails.

“As much as teachers are online, I’m online, too,” he said.

In-person instruction 

While Gray Stone and SCS are dealing with the rigors that come with online learning, other schools, including private Christian schools in the county not bound by the state’s requirement to operate with limited in-person instruction, have had more freedom with their reopening plans.

Carolina Christian School in Locust, which teaches students from preschool through high school, has been operating with traditional in-person instruction since the school year began in mid-August. Each classroom, which averages about 15 students, has been practicing social distancing and students and teachers are required to wear masks, said Head of School Dr. Daniel Patton.

“I do not believe education is at the same level of quality unless you have that personal connection, that personal relationship between a student and his or her teacher,” Patton said.

In addition to masks and social distancing, every student and staff member also has their temperatures taken each morning before entering the building, he said. The areas where people congregate such as classrooms, the cafeteria and restrooms are cleaned and sanitized each day. The school has worked to minimize interactions in the hallways.

“Our staff has been wonderful in putting in place new protocols and our parents have been extremely helpful,” Patton said, adding  that “overall, we’re off to a good start” to the year.

Christ the King Christian Academy in New London has also operated with in-person instruction during the first few weeks of the school year. Students and teachers are required to wear masks when traveling through common areas, like hallways, but not in the classrooms, where desks are spaced at least six feet apart, Principal John Kahl said. As a teacher himself, Kahl says he doesn’t wear a mask when he’s at the front of the class, but will put one on when he’s interacting in close proximity to students.

The school is also utilizing disinfectants and hand sanitizer products, produced by the company Germfree Innovations, which Kahl says kills viruses “within 30 seconds of having contact.”

The school, which has about 78 students, relies on parents taking their kids’ temperatures before coming to school each morning. The parents then sign a card, acknowledging that their child’s temperature is below 99.9 degrees, per Centers for Disease Control guidelines. Once at school, random temperature checks are performed on students as an extra precaution. Every student is also assigned their own digital thermometer.

“We want to catch the virus before it gets to the school,” Kahl said of the school’s preventative measures.

Homeschooling during the pandemic 

Many families in the county prefer to take direct control of their children’s education and homeschool them.

Locust resident Brooke Atkinson is homeschooling two of her children, while her three other children and niece, who attend Oakboro Choice STEM School, are participating in remote learning.

A former homeschool student herself, Atkinson said it has been harder for her children who are working remotely due to all of the technological problems that come with being connected to a computer all day.

“You just can’t have that many people on a platform and not have glitches,” she said. “And you can’t expect teachers to be teaching kids in a classroom and remotely and be able to do a thorough job for either group. I feel like it’s a terrible position to have the teachers in.”

Brooke Atkinson’s son Colton and her niece Trinity working remotely from home. Photo courtesy of Brooke Atkinson.

Atkinson knows of at least five families who have taken their children out of public school to homeschool them. She thinks many families will likely continue homeschooling their children even when the pandemic recedes.

“I think we’re going to see a lot of people that are going to permanently stay in the homeschool mode, particularly for the elementary and middle school grades,” Atkinson said.

Even before the pandemic, the number of homeschoolers in the county had been on the rise. There were an estimated 1,321 homeschoolers in Stanly last school year, according to state data— a 102 percent increase from a decade before, when there were roughly 660 homeschoolers.

Rachel Armer also believes more parents have turned to homeschooling as a result of the pandemic. She says homeschooling is appealing because it allows parents to have more control over their children’s education.

Armer, along with a few other families, recently began a Christian-based learning center in Stanfield to homeschool their children. Her kids, a kindergartner and a first grader, previously went to a local church for school. The first half of the day is devoted to traditional academics while the second half involves learning about the Bible and working on arts and crafts. The children go to the Stanfield Learning Center from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. Monday through Thursday.

“I never thought I would ever be doing something like this,” Armer said, “but my biggest thing is, it’s for my children.”

Growing and adapting as teachers 

Many teachers have become more accommodating and lenient when it comes to deadlines for assignments due to computer issues and the broader uncertainty caused by the pandemic.

Mary Branton, the Gray Stone teacher, has been much more willing to accept late work this year compared to in the past. She said she would rather a student submit an assignment a day or two late than to not submit it at all.

But she still works to find the balance between being understanding and still expecting the work to be completed.

“You want to still give them the expectation of school, but you want to give them grace,” Branton said.

Tina Carter has a similar mindset, saying she will advocate for any student “but there’s a fine balance between grace and enabling a student to be lazy.” She added that accountability needs to be stressed each day.

But while the pandemic has placed many pressures on teachers, it has forced them to work outside of their comfort zones, which can lead to more resilient teachers, according to Michael Curlee. He said when teachers are able to overcome their challenges, it can lead to growth.

“Does it stink right now? Absolutely,” Curlee said about the current situation, but “a lot of teachers now are going to have more tools that they will have learned how to use.”

About Chris Miller

Chris Miller has been with the SNAP since January 2019. He is a graduate of NC State and received his Master's in Journalism from the University of Maryland. He previously wrote for the Capital News Service in Annapolis, where many of his stories on immigration and culture were published in national papers via the AP wire.

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