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News Feature

The Peninsula
Originally published in The Weekly Packet, May 5, 2022
Pausing to reflect: COVID’s impact on area schools
How teachers adapted

by Maggie White

To mark Teacher Appreciation Week, May 2-6, and School Principal’s Day, May 1, The Packet spoke with local educators about the challenges they have faced during the pandemic.

Technologically speaking

“Pretty much everything was new. It showed the resilience of our teachers and our staff. They were asked to do something that was nearly impossible”, said Shelly Schildroth, principal at Blue Hill Consolidated School of COVID-19 times.

Lee Lehto, English teacher at Blue Hill Harbor School, spoke about getting up to speed with online platforms. “Everyone had to get equipment, headphones, understand the technology. We’re figuring out our Zoom setting, how to best function on there, how to deal with breakout rooms. I’ve gotten much better on Google Classroom, but it’s a learning curve. For me and the kids.”

For Cory Schildroth, special education teacher at George Stevens Academy, “It was new to provide individualized instruction by not sitting next to the student. Providing support but being separate—there was a learning curve. The technology became ‘you have to figure it out’ rather than it being a benefit.”

For Surry Elementary School Spanish teacher Jillian Liversidge, homemade videos became a key instruction tool. “With little people, it is particularly challenging to engage them through a screen, especially in a language that is not their own. I found myself becoming really familiar with YouTube. Basically anything that I could find that was colorful and fun, I’d make a video.”

Over at the Brooklin School, super studies (combined science and social studies) teacher Amy Bebell “had to reinvent how I taught. I have labs and equipment and so many tools. I had to put so much of that into storage to be able to put the desks 6 feet apart in the classroom. Last year, I felt like I was teaching with my hands tied behind my back much of the time. I just didn’t have my stuff!” And then there were the challenges on the other end of the screen.

Lost connections

For Chelsea Wallace, teacher of grades 3 and 4 at Brooksville Elementary, “One of the biggest issues for my students here in Brooksville is that the internet is really spotty. Some students could not participate on Zoom or access their assignments.”

Cory Schildroth echoed frustrations with connectivity issues. “During peak COVID when everyone was home, a few students didn’t have great internet and it was clear how much we relied on the internet. If the internet goes down, it all stops.”

Inherent with remote learning was also the limited ability to monitor students. “[I]f you don’t know where a student is in the building, you can go find them. When you don’t know where they are in a Zoom setting, you can’t just go find them. Especially if they don’t want to be found,” said Schildroth.

According to Lehto, “Some students are really self-directed and can deal with Zoom. For those rare students, it worked really well, but it’s not a great teaching model.”

Indeed, Lehto said the second year of the pandemic was the worst because, unlike the first year, she’d had no time to get to know her students before remote learning kicked in. She didn’t know, for example, how a student might normally behave interpersonally or what might be going on in their home.

“How do you reach people who are drifting away? The ones who aren’t coming to the Zoom classes. We had some students who just couldn’t deal with it—either their house was crowded, their internet was bad or it was just too hard. There are a million reasons why it might not work for someone remote.”

Indeed, said Reg Ruhlin, superintendent for School Union 93. “At least 95 percent of students really benefit from being at school with their peers and with a teacher who cares about them. It is the most effective model. That was taken away from us and now we know.”

Social limits

Aside from the challenges remote and hybrid learning models presented, the most commonly expressed drawback of COVID-19 was the lack of social integration. “We used to eat together,” said Lehto. “We’d have ‘Taco Tuesday’ and eat together—the whole school. We haven’t done that in two years! We used to do cookouts, all-school presentations. But for two years, we’ve had no field trips, no hands-on, group experiences.”

At GSA, “Lunches were very unsocial. Kids couldn’t get together, they had to spread out. It felt very—I don’t know a better word—depressing?” offered Cory Schildroth.

Wallace observed, “Last year we were only able to go on one field trip. And we could only go with our classroom pods. We felt separated from the rest of the school and from the community. And I know the community felt that same way, they really missed coming into the school and interacting with the school.”

Bebell and a fellow teacher organized a camp-out night for older students. “Everyone had their own tent, so we kept our distance. We had a camp fire, we went for a hike at night…It felt really important to try to still have fun whenever possible.”

Liversidge took the idea of outdoor time to a new level, moving all of her classes permanently outside. “It was a huge change—teaching world language outside. Just teaching outside in general in a variety of different climate conditions…the lack of ability to teach with flashcards for example, when you need finger dexterity and I’m wearing mittens.”

There’s simply no substitute

Another issue that COVID-19 exacerbated: the ongoing dilemma that is the dearth of substitute teachers. Sedgwick Elementary Principal Carla Magoon said, “This year, more students and staff have been out, a lack of subs is a real big problem. Teachers feeling like they can’t go to an appointment because there’s no sub…I’m not sure what it is—whether it’s lack of subs out there or that there are more job opportunities now.”

Ruhlin reported a similar issue. “Our biggest challenge was staffing shortages. Some of that was day-to-day, people calling in sick, people quarantining, people resigning. So the principals were forced to provide and juggle adequate supervision and coverage for students through the course of the day.”

The bottom line? “It meant teachers taking on additional duties. Teachers were doing more and so were support staff. If we lost a bus driver or administrative assistant, someone had to fill in. It was a constant filling in of the jigsaw puzzle,” said Ruhlin.

“The mental health of everybody…it’s been a time. People don’t always see it. A lot of stresses on students, staff and families. Put it all together and shake it up and it’s a lot,” said Magoon.

Back up to speed

Now, though masks are coming off and in-person learning is again the norm, there’s still catch up to be done. Wallace “noticed that a lot of students couldn’t write a sentence properly. They didn’t capitalize the word at the start of a sentence for example. So I then had to teach those second grade standards, so we could get to where we need to be for third grade.”

Falling behind wasn’t limited to academic standards. “Students had to relearn how to be in a classroom again, how to be with their peers. My focus was on their social and emotional learning,” said Wallace.

About moving forward, Bebell observed, “It’s going to be a slow process. My second graders haven’t had a normal school experience. So a lot of this year was just teaching them how to behave in a school. Basic student functioning skills.”

There’s no doubt that teachers are reveling in the return to normalcy. “Now that we’re back in person without the masks, it’s wonderful. It’s just wonderful! You learn there’s a lot of nuance with nonverbal communication. It’s good for a student to see me smile and they can smile back. It’s a big deal!” exclaimed Cory Schildroth.

Silver linings

There are some positives that emerged from COVID-19 times. At Sedgwick Elementary, “For the staff as a whole…one thing is that it’s helped them to be a really fine-tuned machine. They’re really working together more. We’ve had more time where we’ve talked about stressors. Before the pandemic we didn’t do that as much. Now it’s more ‘how can we work on this problem together?’” said Magoon.

Bebell said, “We started doing a more detailed weekly email to parents because they haven’t been able to come into the building. I don’t see that stopping.”

Cory Schildroth also cited increased parental involvement. “We run IEP meetings every year and we started doing those through Zoom because we had to, and now we’ll continue to do it through Zoom because we like it. It made it so that parents could participate—for example if a parent is out of town and can’t make it to an in-person meeting, now they can be there.”

Wallace noted, “I see a lot more respectfulness among the students.”

For her part, Liversidge is staying outside. She said, “The kids are happier, are definitely more engaged, and look forward to the games and the activities. Because the nature of teaching outside is more kinesthetic, it’s a nice balance to being in front of the screen all of the time.”

As for Lehto, she’s thinking big: “I’m comfortable with technology and now my imagination is bursting! Could I go somewhere for a week and not lose my job? I could be remotely available, put all my students into a project for a few days, and if I could, say, go to Mexico for a week, that’d be amazing. That really changes the world!”