Pandemic made Illinois homes a classroom: What teachers, parents say after year of COVID

https://ift.tt/2P8664F

Virtual learning proved to be a blessing for the Spengler family. Violet, 4 at the time, was going through cancer treatment, and social distancing proved to be a very effective way to keep her well while her immune system was supressed. The family also used the time to do some fun things, like visiting Springdale Cemetery. Violet is pictured with her 2-year-old brother Dommie. (SUPPLIED PHOTO)

PEORIA — When Illinois shut down a year ago to slow the spread of COVID-19, almost every home with children became a classroom.

Parents, many of whom also began working from home, were thrust into the role of teacher’s aide, helping kids navigate the new world of virtual learning.

The experience varied wildly from home to home depending on many factors, including what school district they were in. Administrators in some districts closed schools for months, while others chose to stay open in various capacities.

The range of parental experience through the crisis was evident.

“Thankful for Delavan School District. They handled going remote last school year in the best possible way and we’ve been in-person since August, five days a week. They go above and beyond!” Felicia Farden, whose 7-year-old son Tucker Siltman is in second grade, told the Journal Star via Facebook. 

Tucker Siltman does his school work at the family home in Delaven during the shutdown last year. Tucker is now a second grader. (SUPPLIED PHOTO)

When classes suddenly went remote in March, it was a free-for-all at first, Farden said. But Tucker’s teacher, Stacey Green, quickly got things under control.

“She made videos of math assignments, sent home all of the accommodation tools and assignments and did a lot of meetings with Tucker over Zoom just to make sure he knew she was still there to love and challenge him in that wild time,” Farden said. “We did have to purchase some things, like a laptop and some extra school supplies. Without Mrs. Green, we would’ve been lost.”

Other readers expressed serious difficulty. 

“As a family, we faced a big financial block due to me having to quit my job. There was no more extra anything. Plus, it triggered anxiety in my child that deals with IEP, which then made my middle child start to not like school either. It was like a domino effect,” wrote Samantha Smith, who has two children in Peoria Public School’s Harrison Community Learning Center. “The one way I was able to change my family’s routine was reward. Even the littlest accomplishment got a reward. ‘Oh you wrote your name right, you get to pick out a candy or a little party toy from the box.’ It was making them feel special really, really helped push us to the end.”

Ultimately, the staff at Harrison really stepped in to help, Smith sa.

“My oldest with the IEP has a wonderful amazing team behind him that went above and beyond to get him caught up, and went from F’s to straight all-passing grades,” she said.

The family is grateful that full-time classes have resumed at Peoria Public Schools.

“Since going back to school, things have gotten way better. I am finally able to start looking for work again," Smith said. "We went from maybe attending two days online a week because I couldn’t keep their attention on the computers to not missing a day now they are back in school and both have been super excited to get back to normal life and see their friends. They used to be so miserable — I am so glad they are getting some normalcy back to their lives during this pandemic.”

One reader saw the experience as an opportunity for her kids to learn new skills.

“… What remote learning really gave my kids was a good start at self motivating with their education,” wrote JoLean Laming. “They’ve learned how to be more responsible for getting themselves what they need and became more self reliant. I truly appreciate my kids learning this because I knew too many in college where the first year was rough because they never had a time where a parent wasn’t constantly making sure they did their homework or made them learn how to figure out solutions on their own.”

Laming’s children are 10 and 14 years old and attend school in Metamora. Both parents worked to smooth the transition into remote learning by creating work stations in each child’s room. They also discussed how to budget time. The children were given both positive and negative reinforcement — you can’t play video games until you’ve finished your work — to help keep them on track. The effort paid off. 

“Both seem to really be proud of themselves for how self reliant they have become. They have learned the difference between making a mistake and making a conscious choice that does have consequences,” said Laming. “They have learned how to work through something that is hard and how delaying doing the work usually means they are delaying the opportunity to do something fun. But, most importantly, they learned how to recognize stress, whether it was self created or a product of uncontrollable circumstances, and how sometimes things are just unfair but we all are going to work together to get through it and find something fun as reward at the end of it.”

For at least one area family, remote learning was a blessing.

“My 4-year-old daughter was diagnosed with kidney cancer in October 2019. She was only a few months into her chemotherapy and missed a good chunk of her preschool year, but her teachers at St. Vincent were so good to us, bringing her homework and crafts at home,” wrote Mary Spengler. “We sent Violet to school every chance we could. It was, and is, her favorite place. Then the pandemic hit. Schools closed down. Our teachers did the best they could engaging the kids via Zoom and suddenly my daughter was able to see her friends a lot more than when she was home with low counts due to treatment.”

Virtual learning was perfect for Violet Spengler, 4, who was diagnosed with cancer in October of 2020. Social distancing was a good thing while her immune system was suppressed, and having the whole family at home all day created a very supportive environment for everyone, including Mom. (SUPPLIED PHOTO)

Not only did the shutdown allow Violet to participate in school activities again, social mitigation measures helped her stay healthy when her immune system was suppressed by the cancer treatment.

“The rest of her treatment was smooth sailing. These children, when they have these ports in … they have to go to the hospital every time that they even get a minor fever,” said Spengler. “And she didn’t have to stay at the hospital overnight anymore because when things shut down, people were wearing masks and we were able to work from home.”

The flexibility of remote learning was helpful as they went through a stressful time.

“One of the hardest parts for me with her treatment was being a full time working mom, and feeling a little bit of a failure as a mother, not being there all the times when I felt like she needed me. So when things shut down and I was able to work from home and be with my kids, and spend that time with her at one of the most important times in her life, it just meant a lot to me to be with her,” said Spengler.

The family made the time together fun by baking, doing crafts and taking little day trips outdoors. The shutdown ended up being a good time for the family.

Violet finished her treatment in June and was able to return to St. Vincent de Paul last fall, and early in March the family got some good news about Violet’s health.

“She had her nine-months scans on Thursday. Her bloodwork, her scans, everything is normal,” said Spengler.

Violet and Dommie Spengler stand outside the family’s home last year. The pandemic shutdown ended up being a good thing for the Spengler family. Violet was undergoing cancer treatment and the time together was helpful at a stressful time. (SUPPLIED PHOTO)

Teachers get creative

The day the shutdown was announced, the world turned upside down for teachers. 

“I’ll never forget, it was Friday the 13th, my son’s birthday,” said Angie Baker, a kindergarten teacher at Franklin Primary in Peoria. “I just had a feeling that we were not coming back because my daughter was home for spring break, she goes to ISU, and we got word that they weren’t going back. I just remember being kind of scared and worried.”

When in-person classes ended, Baker and the other kindergarten teachers at Franklin immediately started making videos and lesson plans for remote learning. Communication with parents was a big part of the success of the effort, Baker said.

“We were in constant communication with parents daily — phone calls, texts, emails,” she said. “That was one of the positives of everything, the constant communication. We relied on the parents a lot.”

Probably the most difficult part of teaching from home was that she had to share the space with her two kids and husband, who were home together all day.

“I’m loud, everyone could hear me teaching kindergarten,” she said.

One of the highlights of the past year came in April 2020, when Baker and her fellow kindergarten teachers spent a day and a half visiting students at home. They handed out treat bags and read each child a book.

“Just seeing their faces, seeing them light up, I just wanted to cry,” she said. “It was the neatest thing ever.”

Baker didn’t express many complaints about the past year, but she did say that she was glad to be back in-person with a full classroom. Students at Peoria Public Schools returned to full-time in-person learning March 1.

“The first day we were back in person, I was like a kid at Christmas, I couldn’t wait to see them and they were so glad to be back, too,” she said. “It’s definitely a relief to be back.”

Learning from a crisis

Collaboration was key to the success of remote learning during the shutdown, said PPS superintendent Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat. 

“Everything we have done has happened collaboratively,” she said. “In the creation of the return to school plan, there were over 100 individuals involved, and over 100 meetings. The community was involved with feeding children 100,000 meals. And we had volunteers from the community who assisted in delivering over 700 laptops to families who needed it. The whole community was just so supportive.”

When schools first shut down and teachers went to work figuring out how to teach remotely, administrators immediately began working on a plan to keep feeding students even though they weren’t in school. Because so many of the district’s children live in poverty, continuing to provide meals was very important.

“For some of our kids, the school is the only place where they can get a hot meal,” Desmoulin-Kherat said. 

That was just one of the challenges faced by the area’s largest school district during the shutdown. Another issue was the fact that so many families had members at higher risk from COVID-19 infection. Many low income people work in service jobs, which means they are more likely to be working in-person through the shutdown. And a large number of families live with elderly members, who are more likely suffer severe symptoms from COVID infection. Because of these factors, PPS administrators decided to take a very cautious approach to re-opening, Desmoulin-Kherat said.

“Peoria Public Schools is very, very different from Dunlap and Morton,” Desmoulin-Kherat said. “I had superintendents in outlying areas saying ‘we’re coming back, and our board told us to do this or that,’ but at the time, I just couldn’t do it. We were just truly at risk. That’s why we needed the COVID testing and all of that, it put everyone’s mind at ease.”

Today, Peoria Public Schools has a robust testing program that includes regular testing at all the high schools. The program helps administrators keep tabs on the district’s positivity rate, which has remained quite low.

Looking toward the future, administrators are implementing programs to make up for learning loss that happened during the shutdown, including more tutoring options and summer school. Desmoulin-Kherat also is hoping to expand virtual learning, a program created out of necessity during the pandemic which has proven to be very popular with some families.

“We have 1,523 students enrolled now, and that’s what they are doing — they are not coming to the buildings,” Desmoulin-Kherat said. “Some have thrived under that model. Obviously it’s not the majority, because we still have 11,000 that do still want to be in-person. But choice is good, I love to provide choice when we can, because one size does not fit all.”

Though it has been a chaotic time, the pandemic may lead to some positive changes in education. It has given Desmoulin-Kherat the opportunity to do something she’s been wanting to do for a long time — to reimagine education.

“I’ve been talking about reimagining education for like five years, and we were just talking, talking, talking, with very little movement,” she said. “When the pandemic shut everything down, and we truly had to reimagine in the blink of an eye, we were able to transition from the traditional instructional delivery to remote instructional delivery, and so it is definitely possible. We just really need to continue to reimagine — we cannot stop because education really needs to be reimagined.”

Leslie Renken can be reached at 270-8503 or lrenken@pjstar.com. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.

via Peoria Journal Star

March 21, 2021 at 08:45AM

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s