Guiding and encouraging her first-grade students through a social studies lesson Monday afternoon while she was seated in her classroom, Denti Elementary School teacher Candace Darois asked one student to tell her about a time when he was a good citizen.
The student, pausing to think about his answer, suddenly exclaimed “don’t say that!” before quickly explaining “my sister said ‘never.’” Darois chuckled and noted ‘’well, that’s a sister....,” before quickly resuming the lesson.
A few moments later, as students responded to questions from Darois about scenarios involving following directions, she paused and noted she saw a dog with one student. Darois asked the student if the dog was “still learning with you,” and then continued getting students’ answers.
None of the pupils in the approximately 18-student class were in the classroom with Darois, but she interacted with them while seeing their faces on her computer screen throughout the lesson; each student was in a separate remote location, and images of each one were on her screen. What she saw on her computer was also projected onto an adjacent larger screen in the classroom.
The classroom scene was part of Monday’s opening day of classes for the 2020-21 academic year in the Rome school district, with general education being provided on a remote basis due to the COVID-19 situation for at least six weeks; the Rome district has more than 5,000 students overall in pre-K to grade 12. Meanwhile, about 128 district students in the supported learning/special education program are receiving in-person instruction, including about 12 at Denti.
During opening day at Denti:
• For Darois, “everything went really well” including what she had wanted to accomplish, she said Monday afternoon during a point when students were off-screen for independent learning activities; students’ school day followed the regular 9 a.m.-3:10 a.m. elementary schedule, with modifications for remote instruction.
Darois noted the setting was “so positive” for her class, including parents who were happy and “kids smiling.” At one point a parent appeared on the screen, seeking help in directing her student to an online school library session, and Darois showed her on-screen the links to connect to that session. Darois said afterward it was part of “trouble-shooting,” pointing out that she gave parents her cell-phone number to further help them contact her quickly if needed during the school day.
When asked to what extent the remote instruction was difficult, Darois observed “I wouldn’t say it’s difficult,” but “I just miss the individual” interactions with students. This includes “how they socialize,” and in-person teaching methods such as sitting on a carpet in the center of the room and using whiteboard devices. In her eighth year as a first-grade teacher at Denti, Darois is used to feeling the “energy in the room” and seeing students “talk together...play together.”
But Darois also emphasized the distance-learning approach is now far improved from the environment last spring, when the school district had to launch remote instruction for the rest of the 2019-20 academic year through June after schools closed in mid-March because of COVID-19.
“That panic is gone” from last spring, said Darois, citing feelings then of “what am I going to do” and how to “do this.” She expressed “kudos” to the school district for the extensive training that has since been offered to assist staff in remote instruction. She also noted technology improvements in the online teaching systems being used, including user-friendly “hyper-link” functions and on-screen “icon” symbols for guidance in Google Classroom applications.
It has made “everything so much easier for students and parents,” Darois commented.
Remote learning can provide advantages for students in that it “helps them become more technology-savvy individuals,” said Darois, adding they ultimately will “have to learn those things” to later be “college- and career-ready.” It can “definitely give them an edge up,” she remarked.
“My one worry” is that the “social aspect” for students including playing and interacting together may weaken during the remote instruction, said Darois. Once students resume in-person instruction, she aims to “do as much as I can” using play-based learning which can involve hands-on aspects.
Her animated and enthusiastic style in working with students includes such steps as showing them how to kiss a finger and put it on top of their heads for a periodic "brain kiss," and having them put their hands on their laps for a "deep breath" to refocus. Darois pointed out that in teaching overall, "if you want to engage your first-graders, you have to be over-the-top" throughout the day in helping to boost their attention spans.
First-grade students will receive some in-person one-to-one screening next week to help evaluate their respective learning levels such as in reading, Darois said. This will assist such as for placing them in virtual reading groups for instruction relating to reading books, she explained.
• While most teachers were involved in remote instruction, Denti teacher Erin Palombo had a more typical first day of classes with her eight supported learning students from ages 5 to 8.
Among the only major differences from prior years' opening days were in the masks being used and the social distancing being observed, noted Palombo. Overall, "I think it's been good," she said of Monday's opening.
• Among teachers overall, there was a "lot of frustration" at times as the remote learning day continued, Denti Principal Sherry Lubey said Monday afternoon. In some cases, the initial excitement and "enthusiasm...off the charts" at the start of the day was lessened by later, as students got tired, she said.
Everybody will "sleep on it tonight" and "do better" moving forward, said Lubey, adding there would be some adjustments and "working out bugs" in the remote learning approach.