Distance learning brings opportunity, but officials say it’s no substitute for the classroom

“Good morning, boys and girls!”

Under normal circumstances, principals Bryan Miltenberg and Gary Karlson begin each morning at Aquebogue Elementary School with this greeting to students.

Those greetings have since gone virtual, coming in the form of read-alongs and daily challenges to engage with students in this time of distance learning.

“It’s not ideal,” Mr. Karlson said in an interview Tuesday. “But that connection is really essential. That’s the part kids hold onto.”

With her first-grader, Charlotte, Amanda Golz usually tunes into the daily videos, which have provided some much-needed normalcy and set the tone for another day of home learning.

“[Charlotte] likes watching her principals and teachers,” Ms. Golz said. “But there are certain things you can’t teach through a computer.”

Though it quickly became evident, news that schools would remain closed through the end of this academic year devastated educators, students and parents, who have had to adapt to sudden changes while holding out hope that they’d return to their classrooms soon. 

[Little kids] are feeling more of that separation and anxiety. The transition has been harder

Amy Bailey

Now, they must prepare for the long haul.

“We’re teachers — we like children, so we miss them terribly,” said Gregory Wallace, a physics teacher at Riverhead High School who serves as president of the Riverhead Central Faculty Association.

Distance learning, he said, is no substitute for brick-and-mortar classrooms, especially in a course like physics that relies on hands-on demonstrations and small group activity. “That back and forth, discourse and dialogue, really cements the learning,” Mr. Wallace said. “It does not translate.”

Unlike a normal school day, it’s hard to find the “off” switch, he said. “You’re online all day. You find yourself answering students’ emails at 8, 9, 10, 11 p.m. because that’s when they have time to do their work.”

Ms. Golz, who also has a son in eighth grade and twin daughters in fifth grade, said her children’s teachers are doing their best but miss the face-to-face interaction.

Her older children are more comfortable working online, using Google Classroom to submit their assignments. Ms. Golz then works with her youngest to complete assignments using an app called Seesaw — all while juggling her own schedule of working from home and completing a second bachelor’s degree online.

While they’ve shifted into a routine to make sure schoolwork is getting done, Ms. Golz worries that her youngest daughter, who had been working closely with a reading teacher, could fall behind. “Her reading teacher reached out to see how she was doing and gave me some tips,” she said. “But I can only do so much.”

In addition to concerns about her own children’s progress, Ms. Golz feels for families with children who may have Individualized Education Plans and how the disruption is impacting them.

As dining room tables and living rooms are transformed into classrooms, the families of “essential workers” have also had to make major adjustments.

Amy Bailey, also a mom of four, works as a nurse practitioner at Peconic Bay Medical Center. Her husband, Eugene, is an air traffic controller who must also report to work as an essential worker, forcing the couple to alter their schedules. “It does require a lot of parent involvement,” Ms. Bailey said.

While there are a few days each week their children, who are in fifth, seventh, ninth and 11th grades, must hold themselves accountable, Ms. Bailey said on days she is home, she mostly keeps an eye out to make sure everyone’s staying on task and not getting distracted by their phones or YouTube.

Staggered wake-up times allow Ms. Bailey to work one-on-one with her youngest in the morning and also to ration the family’s devices, which occasionally requires sharing.

“We’re making it work,” Ms. Bailey said, adding that her children’s teachers have gone “above and beyond” to engage with students by making videos, checking in and understanding the challenges different families are facing.

Apart from academic setbacks, both Ms. Bailey and Ms. Golz said they’re concerned about the social impacts distance learning could have, particularly on their younger children who aren’t quite old enough for cellphones and social media like their teenaged siblings.

“A huge part of school is interaction with other kids,” Ms. Bailey said, adding that she’s helped set up FaceTime dates between friends to say hello. “[Little kids] are feeling more of that separation and anxiety. The transition has been harder.”

Despite the challenges and very real threat that the “summer slide” phenomenon will only be compounded by the pandemic, some are viewing this period as an opportunity for more free-form, creative learning.

In addition to core subjects, students are being encouraged to get outside and move around and submit activity logs for gym and ROTC courses. “I think that’s great,” Ms. Bailey said. “At least then, they’re breaking up their day and not just sitting at their computer.”

Another unexpected bonus has been spending more time together. “With four kids, there’s always such a rushed schedule,” Ms. Bailey said. “[My husband and I] are usually just chauffeurs until 9 p.m. each night.”

“We’re all home together every night for dinner instead of running around all the time,” Ms. Golz added.

For Southold kindergarten teacher Karen Krukowski, lesson planning now requires an added level of consideration for how parents will facilitate assignments. She’s shifted her focus to quality, not quantity, of work as she meets the great challenge of keeping kindergartners engaged from afar through interactive assignments.

A lesson on springtime, for example, saw one student share video of his family’s goats, which led to interaction and questions among students, Ms. Krukowski said.

She also resurrected Flat Stanley, a classic literacy project she used early on in her career, but with a modern twist — Flat Teacher encourages students to try a new activity that becomes a weekly writing prompt.

“I went for a tractor ride, a beach walk, climbed a couple of trees, made brownies, ate rainbow ice cream and played Monopoly,” Ms. Krukowski said. 

Ms. Krukowski said she’s found remote learning particularly challenging because teacher interaction is critical during such a huge developmental year. By March — which is when school closures took effect — her young students typically begin hitting their stride.

“They come in in September and when they leave in June they’re totally different students,” she said.

Megan Tepfenhardt of Shoreham, the STEAM and instructional technology coach in the Mattituck-Cutchogue district, has been helping to facilitate student engagement throughout the pandemic.

“The most important piece is connectivity right now,” she said.

Through the elementary school website, she posts a variety of interactive links that provide multimedia content ranging from teacher read-alongs to a virtual art gallery showcasing student work.

“The thought was to try and create opportunities for kids to connect, see what their friends are doing and work with their teachers,” Ms. Tepfenhardt said, particularly for younger students, since upper level students are already familiar with using apps like Google Classroom. Mattituck students at the middle and high school have more structured days, requiring them to log into virtual “periods” between 9 a.m. and noon each day.

Each district from Shoreham-Wading River to Greenport has organized initiatives that ensure parents who are essential workers have access to child care and that students who may rely on the school for meals and emotional support can access those services as well.

In this new era of learning, concerns are growing over equity. Mr. Wallace teamed up with educators in nearby districts to organize the North Fork Tech Project, a fundraiser that has taken in over $25,000 to purchase 195 Chromebooks for students from Riverhead to Oysterponds. Of those, 164 have been distributed to students so far. 

Across district lines, efforts are also underway to help teachers understand how to use online learning platforms and apps through professional development courses held via Zoom or by turning to educator communities on Facebook and Instagram. “The collaboration has been through the roof,” Mr. Karlson said.

Recognizing how unprepared the state’s education system was for the sudden pivot to online learning, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said last week that planning for life after the pandemic must include “reimagining” aspects of education.

The governor announced that state officials will work with former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates to create a blueprint for education in the new normal that will likely increase reliance on technology.

“One of the areas we can really learn from is education, because the old model of our education system, where everyone sits in a classroom, is not going to work in the new normal,” Mr. Cuomo said during a briefing last week. “When we do reopen our schools, let’s reimagine them for the future.”

The governor’s comments drew backlash from educators around the state.

“Before Gov. Cuomo seeks guidance from out-of-state philanthropists, he should consult New York State residents as well as their practitioners who serve children in our classrooms,” Mr. Wallace wrote in a statement to the Riverhead Board of Education last Tuesday. “The fact that Mr. Gates and Mr. Schmidt once sat in a classroom does not make them authorities on education.”

Mr. Cuomo has since announced that his 19-member Reimagine Education Advisory Council would include members of the education community from the SUNY system, superintendents, teachers, parent advocates and school board members from across the state.

In the meantime, with one school year winding down, educators are starting to focus on what a fall reopening may look like. Mr. Wallace said schools must be “careful” about reopening.

“Of course, we want to go back tomorrow,” he said. “You don’t realize what a big part of who you are has been taken away. But we don’t want to risk lives in the community.”