By Mary Niederberger
CLAIRTON, Pa. — Eight-year-old Jeremiah Baker had a busy Memorial Day weekend, but still he was up bright and early on Tuesday to read aloud to his second grade teacher Kristen Hecker.
But the second-grader wasn’t sitting at his classroom desk as he carefully made his way through “Pete the Cat: Trick or Pete,” regularly flipping the book so Hecker could see the pictures.
He was sitting at his family’s dining room table, while his mother Nicole watched him read to Hecker via a computer screen using Zoom. Hecker frequently interrupted to talk about the story and the meaning and pronunciation of words Jeremiah was reading.
Such is the state of education in the era of COVID-19.
Along with read-alouds, there have been virtual butterfly releases, science experiments, a virtual trip to the zoo, live math and English lessons and even dance parties and scavenger hunts all with teachers and students participating through their computer screens.
If Clairton Elementary students want to understand how the virtual magic happened that has brought this new educational setting to their district, they might choose for their next read-aloud text, “The Little Engine That Could.”
When Gov. Tom Wolf closed schools on March 13, some local more affluent districts already had one-to-one technology programs that provided computer devices for all of their students. That made the transition to remote learning easier.
Pittsburgh Public Schools had one-to-one computer technology in only a few schools and is still scrambling to purchase and provide every student with a device. Superintendent Anthony Hamlet has pledged each student will have a device and internet access by fall.
In Clairton, where 90 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged, the 390 students in grades 6-12 had personal Chromebooks the district purchased previously, mostly through grant money, for a one-to-one technology program.
But the district’s more than 400 students in grades K-5 shared 75 devices that made their way through the school on a cart.
By the time Wolf closed schools, the district already had performed a technology audit to see which elementary students had access to computer devices and the internet. Then-Superintendent Ginny Hunt set about trying to raise funds to purchase devices for those who needed them.
To her surprise, a plea on the district’s website raised more than $95,000 in about two days — mostly from the Fluhme Family Foundation and U.S. Steel — to provide computer devices and internet connection for students who needed it.
But that wasn’t the only surprise.
Elementary teachers who had no previous formal training in how to use Google education platforms got together for several days and collaboratively taught themselves and each other how to use Google Classrooms and such virtual communication tools like Zoom and Google Hangouts.
“Our teachers had no formal professional development in Google Classroom. We created our own system. It was like we were at the Clairton pool and had to dive off the high dive. They just did it,” Clairton Elementary Principal Debra Maurizio said. “We are very fortunate to have the teachers we do because they just do it.”
She said she and the teachers trained for both the educator and student experience with the platform.
As the weeks went by and various teachers learned different skills on the platform, they shared them with their peers. In addition to the work and activities the teachers are providing on the Google platform, the district is also providing counseling and other mental health services remotely along with speech and physical therapy.
“It was a challenge at first,” Hecker said. “How are we going to do this with kids who don’t have support at home. It was a struggle for a few days and then the parents learned how to log on and we really just pulled it off,” Hecker said.
Patti Livingston, who helps her granddaughters with their remote work, agreed it was tough at the beginning.
“The first week it took a little getting used to. Computers tend to frighten me. But they have wonderful tech support at the school and the teachers are able to talk you through it,” said Livingston, whose husband is president of the school board.
Like teachers in most districts, Clairton teachers are still not teaching full-time online synchronous classes. The sudden switch from classroom to online has not allowed many districts to provide that type of education though Hamlet has promised it for fall if students are not back in class.
Also, as with most other districts, the majority of elementary lessons in Clairton are either emailed to students’ accounts or delivered in paper packers and the students complete them on their own or with the help of adults in their homes.
That makes for a lot of paperwork for teachers, grading papers, returning them to students and taking phone calls and zoom meetings with students and their parents when they need extra guidance.
Teachers say they are on the phone with parents sometimes early in the morning before the parents go to work and in the evenings after work.
Fifth-grade teacher Stacie Baur holds live math meetings via Zoom to go over the concepts students are working on. On May 22, she had 19 students attend a session on fractions and decimals. Students were sitting at their kitchen tables or on their couches with the eyes on the screen, where Bauer used her computer monitor and another camera to show the computations she was working on.
Just as if she were in the front of a live classroom, she kept track of who was paying attention and who was goofing off. She muted microphones when too much noise came from a student or their home and kept the lesson on track.
While they worked hard on their lessons, the students also took time to use the chat function to tease and taunt each other in friendly ways much the same way they would have done had they been gathered in class. It was a clear example of how much they miss the normal group dynamic of a classroom.
When Baur asked students to comment on their remote learning experience they responded: “The online school is harder than real school.” “I miss you Ms.Baur.” “Is it true we are going to have to wear masks when we come back to school?”
Most agreed they’d like to come back to school, though one student commented “I don’t want to have to get dressed.”
Baur said she has a total of 65 math students in fifth grade, but about 19 attended her math meetings. “Those are the ones who want to do more,” she said.
But, she said, she understands not all students are able to be online at that time and she has provided her cell phone number to all of her families. She also holds social lunch meetings each week. Fifth-grade students are also reading chapter books together online, Baur said.
Baur said teachers have taken students on virtual field trips to such places as the falls at Ohiopyle State Park and kindergarten students experienced a May 22 virtual field trip to the zoo using Zoom and the cameras. On display were a lion and cub, a polar bear taking a swim, a sloth and penguins.
Elementary music and chorus teacher Kevin Danchik performed “My Country Tis of Thee” and “American the Beautiful” along with help from his son on Memorial Day and “You Are My Sunshine” for Mother’s Day. He is also having students write parts of a song that he will put together to produce a full piece online.
Since teachers are working from home, their pets and family members are becoming familiar to their students on the other side of the screen.
Hecker had to take home the class pet, a guinea pig named Lucy. The class is currently writing a story about her.
In addition to live lessons, teachers have recorded ones as well.
Hecker posted a recorded math lesson on Tuesday morning that involved building large numbers using ones, tens, hundreds and thousands.She sat on the floor next to an easel with instructions
She also holds live zoom “brain break” sessions where she devises games for students to play. During one recent brain break, she created large dice with pictures on them. When she rolled the dice, students were given 20 seconds to search their homes from the object that showed up on the dice INcluded socks, slippers, balls and toilet paper. Students had fun and could be heard squealing and laughing.
It was another way for students to see their teacher and interact with each other during a time when they are feeling isolated.
Kids and parents are getting into the action too, posting their own science experiments to the school’s Facebook page. Here one student demonstrated a live experiment that included milk, food coloring and dish soap.
Teachers are still choosing students of the month and commending them with photos and certificates on Facebook. And others are sponsoring regular virtual lunch meetings and Google hangouts for classmates to get together.
Livingston said she has been impressed with the way teachers have stayed connected to the students during this remote learning period.
“I was very surprised at everything they did and that they got it done so quickly,” she said.
Mary Niederberger is a reporter for the Pittsburgh Current, where this story first appeared.