Tasked with bringing 21 students together in song through Zoom, Arreon Harley-Emerson, a teacher at the Choir School of Delaware, moves between three computer screens, a tablet and a piano. For subjects like science, music and sports that require hands-on instruction, teaching remotely has proved challenging. Photos by Jim Coarse
When school resumed last fall, the pandemic required students, teachers and parents statewide to adapt to the new challenges. We’ve heard about distance, hybrid and even in-person learning for months—but what does that look like? To find out, we go inside the virtual classroom.
In a brightly lit study with her parents’ university diplomas looking down from the walls, 9-year-old Katie O’Neill focuses intently on her laptop screen, edging forward in her seat as her feet dangle, not quite touching the floor.
Normally, Katie would be starting fourth grade at North Star Elementary in Hockessin, but on this midweek September morning, she is connecting remotely to her new teacher and classmates.
“What do you notice about the word ‘snap?’” the voice coming from Katie’s Chromebook asks. “Let’s look at it again, because I know you guys know.” Immediately, Katie’s left hand shoots straight into the air, then drops just as quickly as she begins typing her answer.
Meanwhile, at Tower Hill School in Wilmington, a small group of sixth-graders has trooped outside to learn how speed is calculated. Divided into groups of three, each child masked and well spaced apart, they ready their laboratory instruments—a toy Tumble Buggy, a tape measure, pieces of chalk and a stopwatch.
Their science teacher, Mary Taylor, supervises from several miles away inside her Hockessin home. Before the students left the classroom, the young and energetic Taylor remotely played a video she had made earlier that demonstrated how to set up the speed test. Luisa Sawyer, another teacher, has volunteered to go outside with the students and use her smartphone to connect with Taylor, allowing her colleague to follow and comment on the students’ progress. While they work, two students whose parents have opted for remote learning perform their own experiments using materials collected from their homes.
Over at the Choir School of Delaware, which supplements students’ academic classes with music and mentoring, teacher Arreon Harley-Emerson is busy finding his own workaround for a particularly challenging problem: how to remotely teach subjects that need a lot of hands-on individual instruction, such as art, sports and chemistry labs—and in his case, music.
On this particular fall day, Harley-Emerson is tasked with somehow bringing his students together in song. Twenty-some faces stare at him from a computer perched atop a Yamaha piano at his Havertown, Pennsylvania, home. Across from his piano, a second computer screen is lit up on his desk, and the young teacher works back and forth between the two—walking, then sitting, playing the piano, singing, instructing, headphones on, headphones off, then picking up a third screen—this one a tablet with musical notations. He pauses in the middle of the room to listen, his hand cradling his chin, as his students break into song. Somehow it all works.
After COVID-19 shut down schools in March, ushering in an awkward switch to remote education, school administrators, teachers, students, parents and government officials worked throughout the summer to prepare for a new school year with unpredictable dimensions. Would schools be open or not? If so, how would classroom logistics and student behavior have to be adjusted? If not, would every student have access to a workable computer and Wi-Fi? What about parents who worked outside the home while their young children were supposed to remain there to attend cyber classes?
“I’m a chemist by training,” says Ken Aldridge, head of Wilmington Friends School, so when headlines began appearing in January about a deadly new virus in China, he saw that “we may have a problem. March 12 was the last day before spring break, so we took the time over the break, along with two snow days taken at the end of the break, to prepare,” Aldridge says. “That gave the faculty a head start” in switching from in-class to remote teaching.
“Over the summer months, a lot of our faculty took online classes about remote learning,” Aldridge says. Friends School, along with most other public and private institutions, also addressed the question of trying to find a suitable computer for every student. Many already owned or were purchasing computers to lend to students. “We had been one-to-one on laptops before spring break,” he says. “Over the summer, we switched to one-to-one iPads for preschool and laptops for the rest of the school. We were able to adjust because of a learning plan we had with Apple.”
As August rolled into September, Friends considered having its Lower School return to the classroom, while its Middle and Upper schools worked on a hybrid method, with students attending class two days a week and studying remotely three days—one group Mondays and Tuesday, the other Thursdays and Fridays, with Wednesdays designated for cleaning. The plan, which Aldridge says has so far proven effective, serves to “reduce student density in the buildings.”
Social distancing has become the norm in all aspects of life, and education is no different. On Sept. 2, parents of Dover High ninth-graders queued up in the school’s parking lot for an afternoon drive-through pickup for computers for their kids. Some of the students in higher grades had already gotten laptops in the spring, according to Dover High principal Courtney Voshell.
In addition to using the summer months for teacher education, adapting and expanding school facilities, and rounding up laptops and iPads, some schools also solicited feedback from parents in case Delaware virus guidelines allowed schools to fully open.
“We asked parents several weeks before school started what their preferences were,” says Robert Fulton, superintendent for the Cape Henlopen School District in Sussex County. “About 48 percent preferred opening the schools to students, 20 percent wanted to keep the children at home and about 30 percent were undecided.” So, Cape Henlopen opened its schools using a hybrid model, with two alternating cohorts of students attending class in person and a third cohort learning remotely only.
Similarly, as with instructor Taylor at Tower Hill, most schools gave their teachers some latitude as to whether they taught from school or remotely, mainly out of concern for teachers with health conditions or those who had parents, close relatives or children at home in compromised health. With COVID-19 cases again on the rise, the school continues to offer this flexibility.
Finally, there was an issue schools could not directly solve: How could parents who worked away from home look after younger children who would not be attending classes in person? Fourth-grader Katie’s parents, Kevin and Kim O’Neill, both had jobs outside the home. Additionally, Katie’s younger brother, Kody, 5, would be attending pre-kindergarten in person in the youth education and care program at Hockessin Athletic Club.
Kim had just begun an exciting new job in February as a pharmaceutical sales rep, but instead of traveling to training courses as planned, she found herself at home attending Zoom conferences with her new work colleagues while also trying to oversee her daughter’s distance learning. Her husband, a well-known physical therapist, continued his practice during the lockdown, cutting his work schedule to four days a week to help out at home.
“Last spring was a learning curve for all of us,” Kim said shortly before the new school year started. “Katie would have preferred to be in school, where she focuses better, but we have a neighbor who is a former teacher who tutored her an hour a week to make sure she didn’t fall behind. And I don’t envy the job that teachers are having to do.”
The O’Neills ended up making some hard decisions over the summer: Kevin would temporarily step away from his therapist job—a financial and professional hit—to be a full-time stay-at-home parent. Nevertheless, he acknowledges how fortunate his family is to have the ability to make that adjustment. “I really feel bad for the people who aren’t able to do what we’re doing,” he says.
Just before Katie’s first day of at-home classes, Kim added a little levity to their new life by posting a humorous sign on their front door:
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Although limited in what they could do, school administrations worked hard during the summer and first weeks of the fall semester to make things easier on families. Getting computers for students was the biggest obvious logistics hurdle. Another was providing scheduling flexibility. At Fairview Elementary in Dover, principal Melissa White says, “All our teaching is being recorded so students can access it later if needed, and they will be able to ask questions by Zoom,” a popular communication software used to connect students and teachers.
“There were even some positives we discovered during the spring,” Aldridge says. “We found some students who were very shy in person became a bit more active online. Additionally, it showed the resiliency of not only students but also of staff.”
As the school year progresses, however, some teachers say they fear that students—particularly those from poorer families—are losing out on educational and social support they would have received by attending school in person. The Choir School’s Harley-Emerson is especially critical of what he sees as a lack of coordinated planning at the state level and the confusion that it has brought to disadvantaged students and families.
“It’s systemic racism,” asserts Harley-Emerson, who teaches students from diverse backgrounds. He notes that people of color or those in poorer neighborhoods are most affected by the switch from in-person classes to being schooled at home. “Kids all over the state are doing different things in different schools. We can see it here at the macro level because we have students coming from three different schools with three different setups. It’s a fractured system, so we have to juggle.”
Educators also expressed worry that the traditional bonding between teachers and young students is at risk. “We’re working to focus on social and emotional learning,” says Nick Hoover, principal of Meredith Middle School in Middletown. “We have a specific time each day devoted to [maintaining relationships online] between the staff and the kids and with students to students. And there is an attempt to make this connection with each class before going to content.”
As fall moved along, Fairview’s White reflected on both the promise and the challenges of remote education. “Our educational goals have not changed,” she says, “even though the medium has changed. It’s taught us how much students need us, and how much we need the students.”
By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, students at the Newark Center for Creative Learning were preparing for the last week of hybrid education before going totally remote on Dec. 1 through March 15 during the winter months when the school’s outside accommodations would be impractical. It had been an interesting and largely successfully semester of education during a pandemic, says Lauren Evans, the school’s administrative director.
“We had to call on our progressive roots and our problem-solver roots,” she says. To maintain cultural and social ties, for example, Fridays have been dedicated to community-building, whole-group virtual meetings and one-on-one teacher conferences with remote students. And when fall rains caused puddles on the floors of some of the tents the school had erected to be able to conduct classes outside the school building, students were tasked with helping solve the problem. Using maintenance shovels at the school, students helped trench one tent and dug a moat around another, Evans says.
But there was one goal that even the progressive school couldn’t quite achieve—keeping students totally free from COVID-19. “We do period testing,” Evans said, “and right after Halloween, one came back positive. We retested everyone, and thankfully all those tests came back negative, and all the other students came back this Thursday.” She sighs. “We almost made it!”
While it’s hard to predict what the future of learning looks like in Delaware—whether students will fall behind during the pandemic, and how will that be rectified, for instance—schools say they will continue to follow the science and comply with Gov. Carney’s guidelines to protect the health of their communities while they remain hopeful for a vaccine.