A whole semester at Chicago Public Schools has come and gone, and Hyde Park-Kenwood students continue to struggle with issues related to remote learning: a lack of opportunities for socialization, an unhealthy excess of screentime, and burnout.
But educators, concerned for the safety of their students and themselves, are wary about returning to the classroom. In a series of interviews with the Herald, local teachers discussed the challenges of remote education during a pandemic, as well as the difficult tangle of issues that accompany any possible resumption of in-person instruction.
As it stands, students from pre-kindergarten through 8th grade will be allowed to go back on Feb. 1. They are not required to do so, however, and most families have not opted for in-person instruction: only one-third of CPS students are set to return, and those who will are disproportionately white.
Given that the vast majority of students who attend Hyde Park-Kenwood’s public schools are African American — and a majority of CPS students are set to continue distanced learning at any rate — remote education will continue to be a defining feature of local public schools for the first several months of 2021.
Brenda Lugo, a preschool teacher at Reavis Elementary, said she has been trying to maintain the ordinary classroom routine during online instruction. Since socialization is important for the preschool experience, Lugo starts each day by letting her students talk amongst themselves and with their teachers.
“They definitely do know each others’ names right now. Maybe one or two may not be as familiar with names, because they have a harder time learning names, but most of the kids do know each other, and they do talk to each other,” she said. “So we give them that opportunity to talk. Talking is mostly what we try to give them time on.”
Lugo said she and her colleagues give the preschoolers open-ended questions to relate to their life experiences, especially when they read stories. “That generally leads into good conversations and discussions of, ‘Me too. Oh, I did that.’ Or, ‘My mom did that. I like to do that,'” she said. “We try to lead them into discussions with each other in the classroom.”
Once in-person preschool begins again, Lugo is hopeful that the students’ virtual relationships will turn into interpersonal ones.
Because the preschoolers’ attention spans are so short, district policy is to only give them 60 minutes of synchronous time together — over computers, with stories, lessons and discussions — a day. Lugo breaks her class into even smaller groups of two or three in the afternoon so “that if there’s something they don’t understand, something they need more work on, we can give them that additional support.”
“They socialize maybe for about half an hour, and that’s between maybe the conversations and the lessons. So it’s not like they’re socializing for 30 minutes straight like they would maybe in a classroom or maybe up to an hour in the morning, and then they have more time maybe in the afternoon,” she said.
Outside of a pandemic, however, Lugo teaches full-day preschool, so she conceded that remote learning has had dramatic ramifications for the students’ socialization.
“They don’t have those one-on-one conversations. They don’t have those group interactions where they’re playing in the block corner, where they have time to analyze, think and create things in groups, or even have arguments,” she said. “In a full-day program, they practically become like brothers and sisters, where they get along or they have arguments.”
Lugo said the majority of her students’ parents are against sending their children back to school because they feel it isn’t safe.
“We tell them that CPS has prepared the schools, they have a plan in motion, and that we have been trained how to handle situations as well. They are providing masks to students. They are masks to teachers if they need them. There are certain protocols that are in place that we have to follow as well,” she said.
“We do discuss the information that we’ve been given by CPS. That’s the first thing we do, but it’s really up to them.
“A lot of parents do feel that we are doing our job at Reavis. I don’t know if that has something to do with it, but they see that we’re doing hard and we’re doing our job, and that has made them think, ‘Well, they can continue working on until everything is sorted out with COVID.’ So I don’t know.”
Lugo herself is scheduled to be back in the classroom in front of some students on Jan. 11, a month before older elementary students come back.
“I think that will be OK,” she said. “I think that will be fine. I just have to stick to the protocols and make sure that I can keep these babies safe as well while they’re in my care and hope that the parents are doing the same thing for their children so that we can all stay healthy and safe.”
Megan Merony, who teaches special needs students with disabilities at Shoesmith Elementary, said the visuals like PowerPoints used for remote instruction have improved since the spring, thanks to collaboration between teachers, but she said it is still difficult for young children.
“They do have their books in front of them, but it’s hard for them to do it in their book and then show us on the screen or take a picture of it for us to see,” she said.
Online break-out rooms have been “great” for small-group socialization, Merony said, “But we do miss the turn-and-talks or the partner-shares or those skills that you learn really early on about how to take turns and let someone else talk.”
Karley Sanipass, who teaches 1st grade at Shoesmith, said her students get 15 minutes at the beginning of the day and five minutes after lunch to talk amongst themselves. Her students get personal behavior charts, and one of the rewards for good behavior is getting to do a show-and-tell.
“During that, they can ask questions of their friends. We’re kind of trying our best to try and give them as much socialization as we can in a remote learning setting,” Sanipass said.
But Bianca McCree, another Shoesmith teacher, said how hard it is to provide for socialization in a remote learning setting.
“Second grade is when we teach them how those social skills like how to apologize, how to be active listeners, how to take turns, how to show empathy,” she said. “It’s kind of hard to teach that over a computer because we don’t have real-life examples of tapping into a classroom.”
Recess, she said, is prime teaching ground for socialization, but one that is altogether absent from remote learning. Some of her students have no siblings and are the only child at home all day. In the break-out rooms, she tells them, “This is your partner; you guys can talk about whatever you want to talk about. I just really want you to be able to talk to your peers.”
Through DonorsChoice, a crowdfunding website for school and classroom projects, Sanipass and McCree were able to get supply kits for their students at the beginning of the academic year. Both included whiteboards, and McCree said it has been easier to have her students show their work all together on camera rather than unmute them one at a time to see if they are getting their math problems right.
Brian Graves, a 3rd-grade language arts and social studies teacher at Murray Language Academy, recognizes that there are gaps between what his students would normally be doing and what they have been doing this year, but he does not want to dwell on them.
Like his colleagues at other schools, Graves is doing break-out meetings for small reading groups on a daily basis. He does guided-reading groups, leads class discussion over videos and daily writing instruction. He said Murray “is all on board with support groups for social-emotional needs.”
“We have classroom chats. We have classroom discussions about social-emotional needs,” he said. “We have daily Q-and-A sessions about what’s going on in the world, what’s happening in the world. We’re trouble-shooting tech glitches. … When they’re engaged, we do interactive games through different apps. There’s things that I do virtually that I’ve never done in the classroom.”
And though he acknowledged “screen fatigue” in the afternoons (“tired eyes”), he said his class is having 98% attendance with cameras on.
Asked whether his students are behind in their school curriculum, he turned the question around, saying, “Are they really behind when they’re this engaged and applying tech skills that I never had as an adult until a couple years ago? I mean, these kids are far ahead in computer science than ever before.” (He said he has taught a few coding applications, and a few guest presenters have taught coding workshops.)
“Does it replace a classroom? No, but this is our virtual classroom now.”
Speaking at the close of the fall semester, Graves said how much he was looking forward to winter break and less screen time himself. “I have friends saying, ‘Your schedule’s more rigid than an adult’s. You sit at that computer more than I sit at my computer, and the kids’ schedule must be difficult,'” he said.
Graves said he is “cautiously optimistic” about going back to in-person learning. “I want to be back in a school and get back to normal, too, but the risk is real and scary,” he said.
John Anderson, a Kozminski Community Academy teacher (top left), with his 7th grade class
Dawn Evans, who teaches math to 6th- through 8th-graders at Bret Harte Elementary, said socialization is still a “big part” of her curriculum, as much as fractions or pre-algebra.
“I love class communications and classroom discussion in my math class,” she said. “That is a big struggle with us doing this remotely, because many of the students are a little bit reluctant to open themselves up in this kind of a setting. It’s really about the structure of whatever activity or however I structure the lesson to really get that out of them.”
Most of Evans’ students are not turning on their cameras or microphones during class, and CPS policy is that she cannot force them to turn them on. Most days, Evans said she is teaching to a blank screen.
“What I need to see is their facial expressions. When I’m teaching a concept, I can look at their face and say, ‘They have a puzzled look on their face, I’m going too fast. They seem bored, I’m going too slow.’ I can read their faces,” she said. “If they don’t put their cameras on, I can’t.”
Evans said her middle school colleagues are reporting the same thing. She said after raising the issue with parents in conferences, a few students’ cameras came online but went back off after parents relaxed.
“Typical middle school,” she said. “The parents start to think they can trust their child to be more independent, but really they need to be on them twice as much.”
“I do force some (students) to speak on occasion, and you can hear chaos in the background,” Evans said. “A lot of them are doing their remote learning with younger siblings running around and other things happening, so a lot of them don’t want to turn their mics on, because there’s a lot going on behind them.
“As much as we’re trying to build a classroom community, I’m not sure that we’re totally 100% there.”
Even without being able to see her students, to say nothing of being in the same room as them, Evans said she is trying to treat them as much as she can as if they are in the same classroom as her. Sometimes when she calls on them, she can hear them running them back to their computer, and they explain that one of their parents had asked them to do an errand. (She reaches out to parents in those instances.)
Nevertheless, attendance in her classes is good overall, and even with the aforementioned issues, Evans said that engagement is “not bad,” either. Her classes’ pacing for where they should be in a year’s curriculum is not too far off, either: “I’m still teaching units. I’m still giving them pretests. I’m giving them a post-test. I’m giving them assessments along the way. We’re doing group activities. I’m surprised, and I’m quite pleased that we’re able to do this.
“Do I think that the kids are going to be right where they should be? Obviously not, because are losing minutes here and there with some transitions. But are we going to be tremendously far off? I don’t think so.”
As of December, only nine out of Evans’ homeroom of 31 students’ parents had agreed to send them back to the schoolhouse in February. “They don’t feel safe yet,” Evans said. “They’re a little worried that CPS really doesn’t have as clear of a plan in place as I think they should.”
Evans’ son has diabetes, and she has chosen to have him continue learning remotely at his CPS school. Evans herself will go back to Bret Harte to teach, but she said in December that she does not feel totally assured of her safety by the plans the district had put into place.
“But I need my job,” she said. “I need to do as I’m told. So if I’m going back, I’m going back.”
Like Evans, John Anderson, who teaches middle school math and social studies at Kozminski Community Academy, said students not turning on their cameras is “one of the biggest challenges right now.” He said students are napping, on their cell phones or watching movies when they should be at school.
“When students do unmute themselves, there’s a lot of noise in the background,” he said. “We try to encourage kids to get in a quiet area so they can concentrate and focus on the lesson, but there are little brothers and sisters, or they’re having to do this or that around the house with chores or whatnot. We’re kind of competing against what’s going on at home. Obviously kids can’t do that when we’re in a classroom.”
Anderson called remote learning “the best alternative, considering this whole pandemic situation, but definitely not ideal.” Education should be done in person, he said.
Like Graves at Murray, Anderson pointed out that his students are a lot more tech-savvy now than they otherwise would be. But he only estimated that 15-20% are verbal and have their cameras on every school day.
“There’s no rose-colored glasses here,” he said. “We need to be back in school.”
But Anderson observed apprehension about the Feb. 1 date, both on the part of students and of teachers.
“I have reservations,” he said. “I want to go back to school, but I am very conscientious about my health, because I know that other cities did in-person learning until teachers or staff started to get the coronavirus. Then they had to shut everything down. I just don’t want that to happen.”
Patrick Papczun, now teaching 5th and 6th grade math at Ray School, said it is much more difficult through online learning than it is in person to build connections as a teacher with shy and quiet students.
“You really don’t have as much say or control in their environment and what they’re doing at the time,” he said.
Over the fall semester, Papczun taught in front of his students much more than he did in the spring, and his students were moving from class to class over the course of a day. While he said that development was good on the whole, he said it made giving individualized attention harder.
“Things are difficult for kids at that age. They’re transitioning into a new stage, and in person, what we as teachers are good at…is not just teaching the kids skills but also being able to mentor them and being able to talk them through their lives,” he observed. “In school, you can pull a kid aside and talk with them one-on-one if there’s something going on. You can find out about it and help them. It’s very difficult to do that now.”
Teachers are either meeting with students alongside their entire classes or in smaller breakout rooms of five or six. They are rarely meeting one-on-one, Papczun said, and are discouraged from doing so.
“It makes it harder to connect with kids who might need that support at that time,” Papczun said. “What I think is going on is that when students have trouble, they start to drift. There’s more reluctance about being willing to share and be present in the discussion or in the class.”
Both of Papczun’s children attend Ray. The return to in-person instruction means that if anyone in his household got sick, Papczun would have to take days off work.
Coronavirus cases in students’ families and among students themselves in both the spring and fall waves heightens Papczun’s concerns, especially if there is an active case in his classroom once students come back.
Papczun said that he and his wife have not decided whether their own children will go back to in-school instruction at Ray in February.
“I feel that the idea that we go remote all year would be very unfortunate, but at the same time I understand where people who work in our schools are very concerned about health, about how exposed we would be as teachers and as staff in a school,” he said. “It’s a tricky, tricky situation, and I don’t have answers.”
This story is a part of the Solving for Chicago collaborative effort by newsrooms to cover the workers deemed “essential” during COVID-19 and how the pandemic is reshaping work and employment.
It is a project of the Local Media Foundation with support from the Google News Initiative and the Solutions Journalism Network. The 19 partners span print, digital and broadcasting and include WBEZ, WTTW, the Chicago Reader, the Chicago Defender, La Raza, Shaw Media, Block Club Chicago, Borderless Magazine, the South Side Weekly, Injustice Watch, Austin Weekly News, Wednesday Journal, Forest Park Review, Riverside Brookfield Landmark, Windy City Times, the Hyde Park Herald, Inside Publications, Loop North News and Chicago Music Guide.