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Parents turn teachers; schools go virtual because of COVID-19

After Gov. Tom Wolf made the first announcement that school would be closed for two weeks last month, schools began preparing for the inevitable - virtual learning, or some level of it.

Teachers began gathering materials, setting up assignments and working to make sure their students would still be able to learn even though they weren’t in the classroom. School districts were finding creative ways to make sure they provide the education the students need, while following the guidelines of the state.

Parents, on the other hand, began worrying, mainly because virtual learning outside of the classroom when you are not home schooling or cyberschooling, was a new challenge in itself.

For many, it meant juggling working from home while being their child’s educator.

When Wolf announced the school closures would continue indefinitely, and later changing that closure until the end of the academic year, virtual learning began, and a whole new world for thousands of students, teachers and parents was created.

“It’s a really big experiment,” Roxanne Ojeda-Valentin, a single mother with a full-time job in Buffalo, New York, told The Associated Press.

Even in school districts that are providing remote instruction, the burden now falls on parents to keep their children on task.

Already overwhelmed parents, who are adjusting to a new balancing act between being home all day while working and raising children, are left to find educational websites and curricular materials on their own. And while the challenges are daunting for all, they can be nearly impossible to overcome for parents limited by access to technology and their own levels of education.

Moving outside the classroom

Locally, school districts have set up Zoom meetings, Google Classroom, ClassTag and other forms of virtual learning for students.

Kerry Uher of Coaldale, who is an eighth-grade teacher at Penn-Kidder Elementary in Jim Thorpe and a mother of three under the age of 7, said that she tries to reach out to her students daily to “provide them with activities that encourage them to engage in nature, their families, their own thoughts and to just remind them that they are the newest primary resources in an unprecedented time.”

In addition to continuing to educate her students, Uher is also serving as her children’s educator at home.

“My daughters, 5 and 7, journal daily about what we are doing and how we are handling this situation as a family,” she said. “Education does not stop when one leaves the classroom, so we are also doing science lessons in the woods, math cooking lessons in the kitchen, art lessons by making cards for our elderly friends, and reading everything we can get our hands on.

“This is not a perfect situation by any means, but we have discussions about why what we are doing is so important. Not every day is spectacular, but our ‘teamwork makes the dream work’ family motto seems to be keeping us afloat.”

Millions affected

Across the United States, over 53 million students and their families are affected the school closures.

After Kansas became the first state to announce schools would remain closed for the year, a task force recommended from 30 minutes of work a day for the youngest students to up to three hours daily for students in sixth grade and up.

In Portland, Oregon, Katie Arnold’s 7-year-old son has been spending his days in his mother’s office, keeping busy on an iPad and her laptop while she’s managing accounts for a catering company.

While her son’s district explores virtual learning, she has been combing the internet and tapping friends for suggestions.

“Scholastic had a bunch of free things and I have a friend who’s a teacher, so I’ve gotten a lot of workbook pages for him to do, just to try to keep him busy,” said Arnold, who also has been using educational websites like ABCmouse.

Looking at home schooling for guidance

Some parents are turning to those with experience home schooling for guidance, unsure of whether to enforce strict schedules and where to look for academic help.

Amid an influx of interest, the National Home School Association dropped its membership fee from $39 to $10 for access to tip sheets and teaching materials, executive director Allen Weston said.

The online site Outschool saw 20,000 new students enroll during a single weekend in March, compared with the 80,000 who have attended class since its 2017 launch, CEO Amir Nathoo said.

The company offers live, teacher-led online classes beginning at $5 each, but has also offered free webinars on running online classes through video conferencing.

Krystle-Dawn Willing-Tiedeman of Lansford, who is a librarian in the Northern Lehigh School District, says the transition has been easier because her first-grade son loves routine.

“Liam made it clear that he wants to follow his normal Specials rotation and he expects to do many of the things he usually does in Panther Valley Elementary School,” she said. “I wrote a rough schedule on a dry erase board and have done my best to give him minimum requirements (15 minutes of each activity) but to allow him flexibility to do more if he’s engaged or to explore other things if he isn’t interested.”

Tiedeman built in 20-minute recesses to also allow for free play and is happy that most of his teachers are on Facebook and send him personal messages.

“Liam and my high school students from Northern Lehigh have a lot of the same questions right now, and I try to give them information in very much the same way,” Tiedeman said. “I try to be reassuring, to remind them that my support and caring is a constant during these uncertain times. I try to be honest, even when that honesty may be difficult to discuss. I try to be positive, because I also need to believe everything will turn out all right.”

When not educating her son, the pair has participated in #Chalkthewalk in front of their house with messages of love, kindness and hope.

All in it together

Child development researcher Jessica Logan and her husband continue to work full-time from home and have been tag-teaming school-related questions from their 8- and 12-year-old children, home from Columbus City Schools in Ohio.

“I see all these people writing out, ‘Here are the six hours we’re going to spend each day doing homework,’ and was like, ‘Not happening in my house,’?” she said. “When am I going to get my work done? I still have my own work to do, so does my husband. Neither of us can take the entire day off to sit with them and do math work sheets or science experiments.

“All parents are in the same boat,” Logan said. “Your kid is not going to fall behind if they don’t do these assignments every day.”

Carolyn Thompson of The Associated Press contributed to this story

Liam Tiedeman, a first-grade student at Panther Valley, shows off his chalk work to inspire others during this time of uncertainty. CONTRIBUTED PHOTOS
Lucy, Violet and John Uher, the children of Kerry and John Uher of Coaldale, take their math lesson outside as a way to learn during the pandemic.