Samantha Link, a Detroit Lakes High School English teacher, describes the COVID-19 distance learning orders as “heartbreaking,” since she can’t see or talk to her students on a regular basis. While there’s still daily contact online, she said, it’s just not the same.
That’s a feeling shared by many teachers.
“The teachers miss having contact with the kids,” said Roosevelt Principal Trisha Mariotti. “Teachers say they want to work directly with students, and this isn’t what they went into teaching for. They miss the interaction.”
Like almost all the teachers in the district today, Link is working from home instead of a classroom, and her routine has vastly changed. She spends her days uploading videos, assignments, tests and other documents to the web, creating websites for future lessons, exploring all the online resources available to teachers, grading past assignments, and communicating with her team and other school staff, all via her computer. There’s no more walking across the hall to have a quick chat with a colleague, or visiting with students at their desks to see how things are going.
Her hours have changed, too. Her days still start before 8 a.m., like they did before, but now, she’s answering emails, phone calls and texts from students and parents throughout the day and into the late night hours, as they’re working on assignments at home, on their own time, and have questions they need answered.
“Our day does not end at 4 p.m. now, because a lot of students are working extra hours during this (school closure), or babysitting or helping their families, so sometimes we don’t get submissions until 10 p.m.,” she said. “Which is fine, we’ll accept it. It’s just a constant, being available for our students.”
For teachers such as Mary Von Ruden, the long days are blurring the line between home life and work life. With a sixth-grade son at home with her now doing his own distance learning, Von Ruden is struggling to balance her teaching and parenting duties.
“I get calls, texts and emails from 7 a.m. until late at night,” she said. “My own kids sometimes ask me, ‘Mom, why are you still working?’ I want to be there for parents and make myself available, but I also have a son who ... needs a parent to keep him on task … It’s not the ideal situation.”
Middle school teacher Justin Horne is also in that situation, working from home while having his own kids in the house with him, three of them school-aged and doing distance learning. They’re in fifth, sixth and 11th grades, and Horne said he's fortunate that they get their schoolwork done without too much trouble.
“I feel like I don’t have to be super involved in their schooling,” Horne said. “It’s just holding them accountable and making sure they’re getting their stuff done, that they’re working … The first step is making sure they know what they need to do, creating a checklist or even just talking things through with them. And then throughout the morning, to just periodically check on them.”
Justin’s wife, Katie, runs a home day care and thus is also at home all day with their kids, plus several other preschool-aged children that are in her care.
“I was kind of nervous about trying to balance having Jaxon and Indie here (she and Justin’s two youngest kids, ages 3 and 5) and still having day care and having the older kids here doing their schooling, but they’re doing really well with it,” she said. “I don’t feel like the teachers are overwhelming them with work to do; they make it very easy for the kids to get their work done. The assignments are short, and if they have to read, it’s not this crazy amount of stuff. They’re making it very student-friendly.”
“As far as being separated from their friends and things, that’s a little more difficult,” she added. “That’s not easy for them. It took a long time, a couple weeks for me, to drill it into their heads that they can’t have sleepovers or friends over to play. They don’t ask anymore, but it was every day for a while.”
Now that the family has its new online learning routine rolling, Katie said she spends about an hour a day helping her older kids with their schoolwork, or even just checking in on them.
“It’s not bad at all,” she said. “But it’s different for each kid.”
Some students are more independent and like the freedom and flexibility of at-home learning, teachers said. Others, as Von Ruden explained, “have more trouble concentrating at home — there’s a lot of distractions with mom and dad working and brothers and sisters in the house. It’s not the best place to try and learn.”
Mariotti acknowledged that it's also more labor-intensive with younger students, who need almost constant parental supervision to stay on task. The elementary schools have tried to design their online programs with reasonable expectations in mind; they're not trying to make parents mimic an eight-hour day in the classroom, at home on Seesaw: “We’re trying to be flexible with families, to have them just do what they can. The school will work with you.”
High school Principal Darren Wolf encourages families to try and not get too stressed out about the situation.
“We’re really proud of the work that kids are doing, and we're really proud of the work that parents are doing,” he said. “Our goal here is to get to the learning; we’ll figure out the grading and the credits and stuff when the dust settles … We tell the kids to keep trying, keep learning, and we’ll figure out how to make this all fit together when we get to the end.”
When that end comes, Wolf said, one thing seems almost certain: “Everybody’s going to appreciate each other a lot more.”
Of all the feedback that the schools have gotten on distance learning, the overriding sentiment is that kids are missing their classmates and teachers. The schools sent out surveys to parents last week to get a better idea of how things were going at home, and that was the comment most often made. Teachers also hear it all the time in their online hangouts with the kids.
“The kids reactions are mixed,” Link said. “Some love having their own schedules … However, there are other students who say, ‘I never thought I’d say this, but I miss school.’”