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For online teachers (and students), school is a work in progress

Ellie Lyons waved good morning to her first-graders from Natick. She has converted the backdrop of her bedroom in her Brookline apartment into a makeshift first-grade classroom to make her students more comfortable.
Ellie Lyons waved good morning to her first-graders from Natick. She has converted the backdrop of her bedroom in her Brookline apartment into a makeshift first-grade classroom to make her students more comfortable.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

First-grade teacher Ellie Lyons started class promptly at 8:30 from her Brookline apartment. On the bedroom wall behind her, a neatly handwritten sign spelled out the agenda for discussion — starting with the day of the week and the weather. On the computer in front of her, 20 rambunctious 6- and 7-year-olds bounced within their separate cells of an online video conference.

“So, my friends, I really miss having morning meeting at school,” Lyons said, before asking for volunteers to answer what day of the week it was.

The student who raised her hand was missing a bottom tooth and was speaking from the passenger seat of a car.

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“The day of the week is Thursday," she said, before quickly correcting herself: "I mean it’s Friday. Oh my God!”

This was what first grade looked like on March 27, 2020, in this case at Natick’s Bennett-Hemenway Elementary School. The picture varied by classroom, by age group, by school, and by community, as educators across Massachusetts tried to resume teaching, or at least restore connections with their students, whose routines have been upended by coronavirus-related school closures.

Even before Governor Charlie Baker ordered a three-week closure of schools statewide beginning March 17, some schools began improvising, reaching out to students online and scheduling class meetings or office hours. Full districts like Natick sprang into action, launching remote learning by Wednesday of Week Two.

A makeshift blackboard on the bedroom wall.
A makeshift blackboard on the bedroom wall. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Others, like Lexington, treated the initial shutdown like an extended snow day, holding off on assigning homework and asking parents to be patient while they developed longer-term plans in anticipation of a lengthy closure. Baker subsequently extended the shutdown to seven weeks.

The delay in instruction frustrated some high-achieving parents who expected more organized structure for their children at home and a bigger bang for their tax buck, noted Lexington Superintendent Julie Hackett.

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“A few days felt like months, years even, to people,” Hackett told the Globe, pointing to the scoldings she was getting on social media and reiterating her response. “Oh my gosh, today is Day 3. Can we all please breathe?”

“It’s nobody’s fault,” Hackett added. “People are just really reeling from a time when everything is unknown and there’s so much pressure. My heart really goes out to families trying to figure it all out.”

From the get-go, the state advised administrators that they could not operate virtual schools while their buildings were closed — largely because federal law requires a “free and appropriate public education” be provided to all students with special needs, and that couldn’t be done equitably from home. State officials also acknowledged that many students didn’t have ready access to technology at home to be able to access course work, classes, or tests. As a result, teachers were told to give students enhancement opportunities and review, but not to assign new material or issue grades.

“Right now, the directive is: no new content,” said Edward Barry, who teaches biology and chemistry at Lexington High School and who has relished the collaboration among teachers brainstorming by video conference. “Do a deeper dive into things you’ve already covered, approach things from a different angle. Doing lab work is difficult. Not everyone has flour in the kitchen to do kitchen chemistry."

Inequities are everywhere, educators are rediscovering. Even in relatively wealthy suburban school districts, many families don’t have laptops or reliable home Internet connections.

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In Natick, a Metro West town of 5,800 students, at least 40 students lacked Internet access at home. School officials distributed Internet hot spots to their families, and also started giving out 400 laptops, said Superintendent Anna Nolin. Still, that won’t be enough.

“We’re a very digitally forward system and we just don’t have a device for every child,” she said.

A student interacted on a computer screen with Ellie Lyons.
A student interacted on a computer screen with Ellie Lyons.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Even in homes with technology, a student often has to compete for computer time with a parent who is working remotely or siblings who also have school work or meetings. Some teachers don’t even have Internet access at home, Nolin said.

“That was an eye-opener for me,” she said. “They can’t afford to have it in their homes. When you’re right out of school with a lot of college debt and trying to meet rent, that’s real."

Meanwhile, at a time of uncertainty amid a pandemic, educators don’t want children to feel pressured by academics. Students should explore learning for about half the length of the usual school day, Education Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley recommended.

Added Hackett: “We don’t want students at the computer in the morning until the evening doing nothing but technology at a time when they really need to take good care of their health and social and emotional needs.”

As the school year drags on, though, some districts may press to teach new material, Riley acknowledged last week. It’s unclear how they will provide support to all students, and whether their legal obligations to do so will be waived. Students with special education needs often make up about 15 percent of a student body; their issues range from slight learning or reading problems to severe autism or physical differences that can’t readily be accommodated online.

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“For instance, I can’t tell you we are serving our mute, autistic, or blind students right now through this process,” Nolin said.

She was disheartened by the advice from US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who suggested schools could easily swap to remote learning. “Well, that’s great,” Nolin said, “but you tell me how I provide physical therapy to a student this way.”

Hackett, of Lexington, noted that some of her town’s students with severe disabilities attend programs outside the district that have now closed their doors. “We’ve been trying to even think about ways to advocate for respite for families who need it,” she said. “It’s a major challenge.”

So, too, was ramping up remote learning for thousands of students in individual homes. The day before the launch was so hectic in Natick that Nolin could compare it to only one prior school day: 9/11.

“This was a second to that," said Nolin. "Families, kids, everybody was freaking out about what it means to do online interaction with each other.”

She cited concerns not only about the logistics of using technology, but about privacy and etiquette, as parents, teachers, and students entered one another’s homes virtually.

Lyons spoke to her first-grade classroom from her apartment.
Lyons spoke to her first-grade classroom from her apartment.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

“There’s so many pieces to it. You’re chatting in to people’s homes. You’re watching teachers do their work," she said.

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On her video chat with 20 first-graders, Lyons got a surprising amount accomplished. The students shared a song and traded examples of “kind” things they had done for others. (One girl said she’d helped a sister with slippery hands open the bathroom door. Another helped her younger brother get more Goldfish crackers for breakfast.) At Lyons’s prompting, they described the homework they had been doing. One girl displayed the math problems she’d done at her father’s direction, then did a little victory dance. A boy described a review he’d written of a movie.

They discussed the elements of fairy tales, which they were encouraged to write this week. “They live happily ever after,” one girl offered.

Then Lyons read her class a Peter H. Reynolds picture book called “Ish,” which conveyed a particularly poignant lesson for the moment: Work doesn’t have to be perfect for you to be proud. Lyons called it “pretty fitting because we’re in a classroom-ish. We’re together-ish, right? But we’re making it work.”

But as she read, Lyons spilled coffee near her computer. “Friends, I’m going to pause for a second,” she said, telling the children to take their microphones off “mute” and talk among themselves while she got a towel.

In her absence, chaos reigned. Silly faces were made. A teddy bear was forced to dance. Someone growled.

She returned, called for muting, and silence was restored for the ending and the lesson: Whatever home learning they tried this weekend, they should share it, even if it’s not perfect, she said, “because I bet there’s a lot of great work in it.”


Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert