WINDHAM — As Kristen Tedesco prepared to launch an online science lesson from her living room on a recent afternoon, she surveyed the class assembled before her through the online platform Zoom.
The images of about a dozen second-grade students, some with siblings coming in and out of the frame; a blank screen with a series of angry face emojis; and one video of a cat lounging on a bed stared back at her.
“You guys can see my screen, right?” Tedesco asked the class, signaling to them with a thumbs-up that she was about to start a video.
She reminded the students to mute their microphones as noise from 14 different homes flooded through her speakers, and the video got underway.
In living rooms and kitchens turned makeshift classrooms around Maine and the country, schooldays are unfolding in similar ways for teachers and students in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Forty-eight states around the United States have ordered or recommended school building closures for the rest of the year, according to Education Week, which estimates the number of students impacted to be around 50 million.
The closures have necessitated that students and teachers learn remotely, or at least do the best they can to maintain some educational continuity while families and staff also navigate the bigger challenges that have come with the virus: unemployment, illness, lack of access to food and technology.
For the youngest students, this comes with a unique set of challenges. Unlike middle and high school students who have the ability to read and understand directions on their own and who almost all have some familiarity with digital platforms, young elementary school students often rely on the help of a parent or adult.
They’re unable to self-advocate as easily as an older student, and whereas a teacher might rely on body language in a traditional classroom to pick up on who’s struggling, remote learning has made that almost impossible.
“In a classroom you know the instruction and support each child is getting,” said Mia Morrison, adviser and lecturer in the instructional technology program at the University of Maine.
“It’s a guessing game online. I would say that’s a big difficulty. You don’t have any idea what’s happening around the students and how much support they’re getting. They may be getting none.”
As a second-grade teacher at Portland’s Lyseth Elementary School, Tedesco’s approach has been a mix of maintaining normalcy, continuing to provide educational opportunities and at the same time trying not to overwhelm families.
Every morning since Portland schools closed and remote learning started on March 18, Tedesco wakes up around the same time and sends a message to her students.
“Good morning, Ms. Tedesco’s class,” she says cheerfully in the daily videos, often shot from a corner of her living room that has been transformed into a mini-classroom with a calendar, easel and other items brought home from school.
On Mondays and Wednesdays she holds group Zoom sessions on math and on Tuesdays and Thursdays she teaches science, often using a program called Go2Science, a series of videos that take students on science adventures around the globe.
She also gives her students reading and handwriting assignments, posted in Google Classroom, to do on their own.
In between group Zoom sessions, Tedesco holds one-on-one meetings with students who need extra help and communicates with their parents using an app on her phone that allows them to message back and forth.
In her spare time she films more videos of herself, either reading comics or demonstrating handwriting lessons. (Students left their handwriting books in her classroom when schools closed, so Tedesco has been sharing individual pages and showing them how to write letters and words in a series of videos.)
On Fridays she offers a social time on Zoom that students can use to talk with one another at the end of the week, with the aim being to keep them more focused during regular lessons.
It’s now been eight weeks since students were in their classrooms, and while Tedesco seems to have mastered their new routines, it hasn’t been easy. She estimates that setting up Google Classroom, something she had never used before, took six to eight hours.
Her class was piloting a new math program when the closures started, one that relied a lot on communication and conversation, and she’s had to adapt the curriculum and make it a little easier. While she’s used to being able to take individual students aside and guide them if they’re struggling, that’s not possible on a Zoom call with 10 or 12 other students.
“As we’ve moved along the families have been absolutely amazing,” Tedesco said. “They have given me such great feedback, like, ‘This isn’t working.’ or ‘This is great.’ or ‘Wait, we have questions.’ That’s how we’ve been able to evolve.”
At the same time, Tedesco also realizes parents have other things going on in their lives. They’re not trained as teachers. She tells them that if they run into problems, to come to her.
“The biggest piece I’ve said to parents is, ‘You don’t have to be the teacher,’” she said. “As soon as there are hard feelings or someone is feeling overwhelmed or agitated, just stop right there and come to me.”
Some parents are working, some stay at home and some are out of work because of the pandemic. Some families spend two to three hours a day on school while for others it takes longer. Siblings can be a partner in schoolwork or a distraction.
“It’s a struggle to get the remote learning done, get her on and present and just get everything moving for the day,” said Andrea Campbell, whose daughter, Isabelle, is in Tedesco’s class.
“She’s a hands-on learner so she’s definitely had struggles and she’s very social, so her not seeing her friends has also taken a toll.”
Campbell, who has been out of her job as a jewelry sales associate at the Maine Mall because of the pandemic, also has a 3-year-old whose day care has been closed. “It’s been a struggle doing everything myself with the two kids,” she said.
“It’s been really hard,” said Chantel Ruzindana, whose daughter, Lael, is also in Tedesco’s class. She also has a son in kindergarten and a 9-month-old baby and is on her own with them while her husband works.
“My daughter, she needs to be supervised, meaning I have two kids (whose schoolwork) I have to supervise at the same time,” she said.
The family usually starts school around 9 or 9:30 a.m. with second-grade and kindergarten work going at the same time. “If they have Zoom, that’s amazing for me,” Ruzindana said, because it’s like she has an extra person to help guide her children’s learning.
Mindy Andrews, whose son Bryson is in the same class, said there have been ups and downs with remote learning. Bryson’s brother, Zachary, is in first grade at Lyseth, and so the two often do schoolwork together.
“The first half before April vacation I think was a little rough,” Andrews said. “Teachers were trying to figure out things to do. The parents were trying to figure out kind of what routine works and trying different things every day. For us, I think we’ve gotten into a pretty good routine in terms of when breaks can happen and what the expectations are.”
John Sayles, whose son Ezra is in Tedesco’s class, said he usually starts school for Ezra and his older sister, a fifth-grader, around 9 a.m. They stick to schoolwork in the morning and then make time to get outside, go for a small hike or a bike ride in the afternoon.
“Not knowing what the final end of the year was going to look like was a little bit strange,” Sayles said. “It was kind of a relief when they decided the rest of the school year was going to be done this way, remotely. At that point we could say, ‘This is the new normal.’ It’s going OK. We’re getting used to it and we’ll be fine.”
In Tedesco’s class of 20 students, participation has largely mirrored what it did in her traditional classroom. The students who were present and engaged before continue to be present and engaged. Those who were only somewhat engaged continue to be somewhat engaged.
Students take photos of their work and submit them to Tedesco on Google Classroom, though the grading mechanisms have changed. Instead of numerical grades, students at the end of the trimester will get a report card that says only whether they have met or not met standards.
“I want to tell you I don’t see that they’re falling behind, but I really can’t,” Tedesco said. “I can’t say that with 100 percent certainty, and then I can really only speak to the students who are participating on a daily basis and showing me their work. My hope and my belief is they are mostly maintaining what they have.”
A fellow teacher at Lyseth, Ben Moher, said not being able to get in touch with all students and their families has been one of his biggest challenges. In an interview Thursday, eight weeks after schools closed, Moher, a first-grade teacher, said he finally connected that day with a student he had been unable to reach.
He worries about whether the student, an English language learner whose family is new to the country, will regress. Other students don’t have parents who are involved in their learning, and it can be hard to get a sense of whether the students are using and retaining the materials he provides.
“It’s been difficult for me in terms of academics to monitor what the kids are truly doing for work and also what are they actually learning,” Moher said. “I put things out there and I tell people, I feel like half of me is running a blog. I’m just putting materials out there and don’t get to see a follow-through.”
Tedesco talks about similar feelings of worry and guilt. Is the work she’s providing interesting? Is she overloading the families?
“I know how hard this is for families and I feel like I’m doing it to them,” she said.
Some families, though, are grateful.
“For us it’s been pretty smooth and pretty doable,” Sayles said. “Both kids for the most part are still doing their work and still engaged. That’s a huge credit to the teachers.”
After their science lesson last week, Tedesco coached her students on delivering short “thank you” messages to their families. She records the messages and compiles them into one video. At the end, she adds her own message of encouragement to parents.
“Thank you so much for participating in remote learning with me,” she said. “You guys are the best co-teachers I’ve had.”