Adobe Stock photo | For some students, staying focused amid so many distractions occurring on and off the screen is an added challenge that comes with distance learning.
by CHRIS BURRITT
NW GUILFORD - Three times in the past three weeks, Guilford County Schools (GCS) has delayed the return of elementary students to their classrooms, heightening stress on children and parents worn down by uncertainties stemming from the COVID-19 outbreak.
The frequent change of plans is also taxing teachers, who are providing instruction remotely while preparing for the eventual return of students. Sharon Contreras, GCS' superintendent, plans to update reopening plans this Friday, Nov. 6. She then plans to ask the school board during its meeting next Tuesday, Nov. 10, whether to continue trying to resume in-person instruction, possibly as early as Nov. 12 for some students, or wait until January to reopen classrooms.
"'It's just frustrating' are the words I keep hearing when I talk to other parents," said Ronda Daniels, Northern Guilford Elementary's PTA president. Her two sons, first-grader Nicholas and third-grader Preston, attend the school.
Daniels said she spends several hours a day helping her younger child to "make sure he's understanding the basics" of the district's curriculum. "He's a 7-year-old boy, and his ability to focus on a remote call isn't there," she said. "That's a commonality when I talk to first-grade parents."
As a stay-at-home mom, Davis said she believes she's more fortunate than many families in which both parents are working or single parents are juggling jobs and supervising their children's remote learning.
"When you talk to working parents, you can see the stress on their face," she said in an interview earlier this week.
Amanda Swearingen, director of the Laugh and Learn Childcare Center in Stokesdale, said she's heard the anxiety from working parents upended by the delay in returning children to the classroom.
"I've gotten a few calls from parents desperate for child care," Swearingen said. "They ask whether we have a spot."
The answer is no, she said, explaining that she's reduced the number of openings for school-age children from about 20 to 15 due to social distancing requirements in the classrooms. She also said she's looking after "the sanity of our teachers."
Before the closing of schools due to the coronavirus, children typically arrived at the center around 2:45 p.m. for after-school care. They're now being dropped off by their working parents as early as 7 a.m. and stay as late as 6 p.m., according to Swearingen.
"Normally our teachers' afternoon duties are giving the school-aged children snacks and taking them outside and doing crafts and other activities," Swearingen said. "Their normal is not teaching K through fifth grade all day, every day.
"It's been difficult on everyone," she said. Although they're grateful for their children's care, some parents are frustrated because "their kids aren't doing well with virtual learning," Swearingen added.
"For the kids, it's been hard for them to focus," she said. "There are so many different lives happening on each computer. They see coming here as getting to play and socialize with their friends. Now it's totally different, because they have to do their school work while they're here instead of their normal."
Elementary students were initially supposed to return to school Oct. 20, but the day before, in the late afternoon, they learned that wasn't going to happen.
"When we found out the day before that they weren't going back, it was like Christmas was cancelled," said Courtney Schroyer, raising two sons, Camden, a fifth grader, and Holden, a second grader, with her husband, Brent. They're assigned to Northern Guilford Elementary.
Holden, the younger son, was "so sad," Schroyer said. "We had already dropped off his supplies at school, we had picked out his clothes and we had decided what he was going to take for lunch the rest of the week.
"He was on Cloud 9," continued Schroyer, recalling how devastated they felt when they learned about the delay. "Both of us were crying. I don't have to worry much about Camden through all of this because he knows how to do the work, but Holden needs to be in school."
Schroyer said she and her family are as prepared as they can be to ride out the rest of this semester, knowing they may not return until after the holidays.
"As much as I want them to go back, I have to ask, if they do, would they be pulling them back out again?" Schroyer said. "It's really been an emotional roller coaster and it's been hard on the boys."
Megan Tasman said she and her husband, Mike, were fortunate when Revolution Academy, a charter school offering a combination of in-person and remote learning, accepted their two sons who are assigned to Northern Guilford Elementary School.
Megan works as a customer service manager for a furniture company in High Point. Her husband operates a business offering house repairs, landscaping and tree removal.
"Juggling and managing the business from home, doing my job and schooling the children was getting to be too much," Megan said. Even though the couple's children aren't in school all day, she added, "It gives us enough time to keep working and keep our sanity, so to speak."
Dana Angel, president of Stokesdale Elementary School's PTA, said she's talked to many parents who say the school year "is getting easier and harder at the same time."
Children are growing more comfortable learning remotely while their parents are adjusting their schedules to supervise their work, said Angel, who has two children at Stokesdale Elementary. At the same time, young students are craving social interactions with classmates and teachers.
"The kids have to get back to school; they need it," Angel said. "But it has to be safe. We as parents have to be confident about that."
Pre-kindergarten students began attending classes on a voluntary basis starting Sept. 29, followed a week later by kindergartners. Some students with disabilities have also returned to schools.
The lingering health risks of COVID-19 prompted GCS' decision last Friday, Oct. 30, to pause the return of older students for a third time since last month.
Middle schoolers were scheduled to return for two days of in-person instruction per week, beginning with sixth graders Oct. 20 and seventh and eighth graders Oct. 26. High school students are slated to return to classrooms in January.
In a statement last week, Contreras and school board Chair Deena Hayes-Greene said "the week-to-week uncertainty" has weighed on families as "they juggle work, childcare, online learning and other responsibilities."
Contreras said her goal "remains the same: We need to move forward with a gradual and careful reopening of schools."
Karen Ellis, Northern Guilford Middle School's principal, said she's heard mixed comments from parents amid what she described as "circumstances (that) are uncertain and unknown."
"Some are very ready for their children to come back to school," Ellis said. "For some others, online learning may be working better. In-person learning is the ideal situation, but everybody is focused on getting the students back safely."
Teachers "are doing a great job with remote learning, but it is very difficult," she said. "They're frustrated not knowing what is coming next."
Some students aren't turning on the cameras on their computers, depriving teachers of face-to-face interactions with them during remote instruction.
"Teachers are teaching to a conference of avatars or initials on the screen instead of faces," Ellis said. "It's just a disconnect. They're trying to create relationships."
Some parents acknowledge their children have been challenged to stay focused during remote learning.
When schools closed last spring, Schroyer said it took at least three weeks for her sons to transition from attending school to distance learning.
"It was very stressful because it was hard to keep both of the boys engaged," Schroyer said. "But I think because we knew it was toward the end of the school year and there was an end in sight, we plugged through it. We thought, 'we're going to go into the summer and then we're going to start next year in the building.' And then when it did not turn out that way, we were very discouraged."
Even so, Schroyer said so far this year she and her husband have been "very pleased with the teachers."
"They're doing the best they can," she said. "However, the kids are not getting the same amount of instructional time - online classes are shorter, so the amount of learning time is less. And then, you see the other kids on the screen - and they're moving around, getting snacks, putting the teacher on mute, turning their screen on and off, and putting themselves on mute. It's too much going on at one time."
Schroyer recognizes teachers are hard-pressed to enforce rules remotely.
"One day when I came home from work, I noticed LEGOs in Holden's work station," she said. "He had been playing with his LEGOs while he was listening, so is he really focused and understanding what's going on?"
Schroyer, who works full-time, said she has a high school-aged babysitter staying with her sons two days a week.
"She does the best she can, but she's not making sure the kids are working the whole time," Schroyer said. "I just think about all the kids whose parents are at work. Who is watching them to make sure they're involved?"
Schroyer believes Camden, her fifth grader, is receiving about the same level of education as in previous years, but has less instruction time.
As for the amount of time her sons are spending in front of a computer screen while distance learning, she wishes it were less. And, she's observing another side effect of distance learning.
"I have found both of the boys are becoming lazy - they don't want to brush their teeth in the mornings and get dressed, because they're not leaving the house," she said. "They get out of bed at the last second" before the start of virtual classes.
A tutor helps Holden once a week in math and reading. He's managed to form a bond with his teacher this year, but it's not the same as when he has attended school in person.
"He needs that one-on-one contact and it's just not the same virtually," Schroyer said. "When you're in school and you don't understand something, there are opportunities for kids to get help from the teacher's assistant."
Minako Partyka said she was disappointed late last month when some students, including her daughter, Anna, a fifth grader at Oak Ridge Elementary School, were assigned new teachers in preparation for their return to the classroom.
Even after in-person instruction was delayed, her daughter's assignment to new teachers remains in place, according to Partyka.
"Why are we making a change that does nothing but sever this relationship that my daughter has with her teachers?" said Partyka, who expressed her concerns in a letter to the school board and GCS leaders. "I wish they would undo it and give the teachers back to their students."
Daniels, president of Northern Guilford Elementary's PTA, said she'd like to see GCS start returning students to the classroom one grade at a time, beginning with the youngest children. Resuming in-person instruction during a shortened school day would allow students to learn fundamentals.
"There is only so much that can be taught remotely,' she said.