School’s out for at least a month and half. That news would normally be heralded by kids as manna from heaven. But distance learning is presenting plenty of frustrations for children and teachers. And the truth is, they miss each other terribly.
If there is a silver lining to the March 15 to May 4 school closings — what’s been called for by the governor so far — Nauset Regional High School Principal Christopher Ellsasser may have found it. This is, he said, “a prioritizing opportunity,” a time to ask what makes kids want to learn.
Students, parents, and teachers are finding rules need to be bent. Educators have cut back on expectations of hours spent staring at a screen. And grades will be just “credit or no credit” for the second and third terms of school, Ellsasser said. This year, he added, “we think everyone will have an asterisk on their transcripts.”
MCAS exams will “go away,” for this spring, too, said Supt. Michael Gradone of Truro Central School. The federal government has granted a waiver to allow this, and the state legislature is expected to follow suit, he said. Gradone believes the upside is the chance to find ways to keep students engaged in learning for the sake of learning itself.
School leaders agree the challenge of mastering online teaching platforms leaves much room for error. “We are building the airplane while we’re in the air,” said Paul Niles, executive director of the Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School, which educates 243 sixth- through eighth-graders, about one fifth of them from the Nauset district.
For the Youngest, ‘Not a Good Way to Teach’
At the Provincetown Schools, even the youngest students are asked to sit before a screen for three hours a day on Zoom or Google Meet.
“I’m saying the rules around screen time are off; this is a pandemic — let’s get through it,” said Suzanne Scallion, the Provincetown superintendent.
That’s not all instructional time, she explained. She said her elementary teachers are moderating virtual lunch and recess, so the children can be together remotely, as well as checking in on students.
This approach differs from those in the other Outer Cape elementary schools. They are not holding long Zoom sessions, but mixing short teacher check-ins with a suggested list of resources students and parents can tap into.
The youngest students are least likely to be able to handle virtual school without heavy parental involvement.
“The teachers are doing an amazing job to provide resources, but little kids aren’t independent,” said Ariana Bradford, a part-time Wellfleet Elementary School computer teacher. “So it’s time-consuming for parents. The message from the school administration is ‘We understand this is a hard time, so your mental and physical health is the most important thing,’ ” Bradford said.
Even so, “The kids generally do not like virtual school,” said Lisa Daunais, the Provincetown Schools kindergarten teacher. “They miss each other and me.”
And learning gaps get wider when some kids lack internet access, devices, or supervision. For that reason, Truro’s Gradone says teachers there are not aiming to present new material.
“To be candid, this is not a good way to teach,” Gradone said.
Middle School Tightrope
At the Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School, educators are walking a “tightrope” as far as holding students accountable without grading them, Paul Niles said.
The guidance from the state Dept. of Elementary and Secondary Education is to have “accountability light,” he said.
“We are not grading in the traditional sense,” said Julie Kobold, Nauset Regional Middle School principal. Instead, she said, “Teachers are giving feedback on submitted work.”
In many cases, teachers are giving far more than that. Reva Blau, who teaches English as a second language (called ELL) at Nauset Middle School, said many immigrant families are headed by one or two parents who are essential workers — nurses, other health-care workers, or grocery clerks.
“As ELL teachers, our relationship is more important than ever,” Blau wrote via email.
She checks in on wi-fi connectedness, supplies books, and doles out emotional support — she has videotaped puppet shows and serenaded kids outside their windows.
“A responsive teacher attuned to students’ needs is what helps the most,” Blau said.
Sophomore Nell Hamilton, the 2022 class president at NRHS, is an honor student. But finding the inspiration to get her work done has been a struggle since March 15, she said by phone from her home in Eastham.
She is reading Elie Wiesel’s Night in English and learning Algebra II.
“Math is not my strongest subject, and we have not done any Zoom for that class,” she said.
Empathy motivates her, Hamilton said, to pursue it anyway. Teachers are working hard to make assignments, so she feels obligated to do the work.
Also, she realizes next year is looming, and she will need to understand grade 11 material.
Ellsasser, Nauset High’s principal, said his staff realized quickly that trying to replicate classroom learning via computer doesn’t work. Evaluation has to shift at a time like this.
He has told teachers, “Don’t think about how much work kids could do,” he said. “Think how much work you can provide useful and timely feedback on.”
Staff reporter Ryan Fitzgerald contributed to this article.