“Technology is just a tool,” Bill Gates once said. “In terms of getting the kids to work together and motivating them, the teacher is the most important.”
That quote rings true now than ever before. In mid-March — Friday the 13th to be exact if you’re superstitious — Abington schools announced there would be no classes in the near future due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A two-week precautionary closure has now stretched into a month, with Gov. Charlie Baker saying there will be no classes until at least May 4. Abington teachers who left that Thursday afternoon thinking they’d be back soon, are instead communcating with students online and wondering if seniors will have a graduation.
“As a teacher and coach, these last few weeks have been surreal as our everyday lives were put on hold seemingly overnight,” said Matt Campbell, an 8th grade history teacher and the high school girls track and field coach.
Katrina Park, a kindergarten teacher at the Beaver Brook Elementary School, recalls when teachers learned of the temporary school closure.
“That Thursday in mid-March we had a staff meeting right after school. Principal Basta said to us he felt it was safe to assume that a closure was probably going to happen and we should gather some things on Friday so that we could work on from home if we were closed for a short period of time.
“So we all left school that day planning to bring home things on Friday. And Thursday night we received the call that schools were closed for two weeks.”
The sudden change has been tough for teachers and students.
“Usually we have these kids all year, six hours a day, five days a week and then towards the end of the year we know what’s coming,” said Park.
“I always cry on the last day of school. But this is different, we didn’t see it coming, [the students] were just ripped away from us. No hugs goodbye, no starting to plan it in our hearts and our heads, it just happened.”
Teachers spent the first couple of weeks adjusting to new schedules, attending virtual staff meetings, learning the online learning platfiorms and reaching out to students.
Worried about their students’ social and emotional health, Park said the rest of the close knit kindergarten team reached out to parents immediately through private email, phone calls, Zoom meetings, ClassDojo and private Facebook class pages.
“This is all beyond them,” Park said about the town’s youngest students. “They don’t understand and it’s hard for them to understand. All they know is that they are not going to school to see their friends or us and that things are all weird.”
Park immediately sent a message to her kids, showing off her new puppy, as well as reading books aloud on the class Facebook page and doing some word work with them.
“It was just so they could see someone familiar that they know loves them. We’ve all reached out to them one way or another with different resources for them,” she said.
High school teachers have also found navigating the new online schedule of classes a bit of a challenge over the last two weeks.
“We are definitely still adjusting,” said Bridget Wakelin, a math and pre-calculus teacher at Abington High School. “Obviously as teachers we have the ability to make changes and decisions, but it has to be a learning experience for the students.”
“Students just went from an in-classroom, one-on-one with the teacher to all online. In addition, we also try to consider what is going on in their homes right now, a student could be taking care of someone, or working or not have wi-fi to use,” she added. “It’s definitely a learning experience and I only want to see my kids improve and we’ll go from there. We’ve never seen anything like this before.”
Teachers have found it stressful, not having all of the classroom resources on hand as usual. Schools opened the last week in March for a two-hour window to give teachers an opportunity to pick up essential teaching items.
“The kindergarten teachers were grabbing everything. I filled my car with stuff,” said Park. “For every lesson we do there are props or manipulatives, so it’s definitely different that the upper grades where it’s all online. We are doing the best we can.”
During the transition period to online learning, Park received messages from some parents describing how their children were feeling down with the sudden change. Park wanted to do something to lift their spirits. Teaming up with her paraprofessional, Kerri Ranous, the duo put together a mini parade for their students by decorating their two cars, traveled to student’s home and greeted them 10 feet away to brighten their day.
“That parade made me so happy and just filled my heart,” said Park. “Most students made posters for us and were so excited. One my boys is in taekwondo and had his virtual belt testing the night before the parade and he wanted to show us his routine in the middle of his lawn. That right there is what we’re missing, we’re missing all of the stories. It ended up taking us three hours to get to everyone but it was so worth it and so fun.
“I miss my kids so much, it’s brutal. When they send me a little video on my Facebook page, I get all teary eyed,” she said.
In this age of technology, Campbell finds that he is still able to maintain a sense of school culture and community that defines Abington.
“Over the last few weeks, students held a virtual debate in our history class while the girls on the track team, with the help of three creative team captains created a really clever team building/public service announcement,”he said. “Although there is nothing that can truly replace the in-person lessons and practices, I am amazed at how quickly both the students and athletes have been able to persevere through these uncertain times.”
Wakelin, also expresses how she misses seeing her students each day.
“Some of my favorite times of day is when I go on my walk around town and randomly see students. They’ll be driving past with a sibling and it’s so nice to see their faces,” said Wakelin.
As the community awaits for an end to the COVID-19 epidemic, teachers remain hopeful about returning to finish out the school year. On April 8th the School Committee approved April vacation week as remote learning days of school, making the final day of school on Monday, June 15th.
“I want to be optimistic about going back, but no one really knows what is happening at the moment,” said Wakelin.
“Whatever happens everybody is going to end up being ok on the other end,” added Park. “It might be a little different, but the most important thing that we need to focus on is that everyone is healthy.”
“These students of Abington are incredibly resilient and seemingly always find a way to make the most out of what they have,” said Campbell. “Although these last few weeks have brought innovative ways to connect with our students and teams, I believe that like all teachers and coaches we cannot wait for this to be over and to be back in school with these students once again.”
Written by Michele Christian