By Elena Cleaves
The COVID-19 pandemic forced local schools to shut their doors and sent teachers into a panic about what would happen next. Since March in Kansas, restrictions continue to change and return dates are infinitely pushed back. Virtual teaching is the answer for now, but it brings unique pros and cons to the classroom. Kindergarten teacher Amanda Sellers makes it work—but stresses the importance of adaptability for everyone navigating classrooms right now.
In-Person Teaching Comes to a Stop
Sellers’ last day of teaching in Topeka was March 6. She and the kids had a dance party while cleaning the classroom before they headed home for spring break. “It was so quick because it was normal for us. I didn’t think we wouldn’t ever come back.”
Before the end of the week-long vacation, Kansas Governor Laura Kelly ordered local businesses and schools to close in an attempt to control the virus’s spread. Virtual classes started the first week of April, though returning was not required, she said, because most grades were on track to pass without issues.
Sellers jokes that while many teachers may have been initially relieved with an extended break, her decision to move to Kansas City made the abrupt end to the school year that much harder. “My first thought when I was watching Governor Kelly announce that we weren’t going to return for the remainder of the school year, was I wish I had hugged them or made a point to say goodbye to each of them.”
The Shift to Virtual Teaching
One of Sellers’ most important roles as a teacher is assessing what level the students are at and adapting to their learning needs. In person she can see if someone is struggling to hold scissors or writing letters backward and jump in to help. She is now struggling to observe her students’ fine motor functions “from the neck-up” over Zoom.
Kindergarten students specifically face a heightened challenge because they miss out on their first hands-on school experience. Pre-school and kindergarten are not required in Kansas and children and families are now attempting to establish that at home.
“This is their first school experience, which is kind of sad,” Sellers says. “They don’t even know what it’s like to normally attend school and have those routines, rules, and expectations from their teacher and get to spend time with their friends. Being virtual with five-year-olds there’s a lot of factors they aren’t getting that they would in a normal school year.”
Because her new school district in Kansas City had the summer to prepare, virtual teaching has gone as smoothly as it can with the help of strict guidelines. Children have asynchronous times scheduled for individual work offline and synchronous times where they are instructed live by a teacher through Zoom. Sellers says her kindergarten students are on Zoom for about four and a half hours. They take breaks for lunch, as well as to get up and move away from the iPad screen.
While technology has certainly helped ease the transition to online learning for students, it also presents new challenges.
While many of the technological difficulties are minor inconveniences, Sellers explains that they add up significantly over the course of a nine-week quarter. Each morning, students are reminded of Zoom meeting expectations. They are not required to have the camera on, but they will need to unmute themselves to share, which can be understandably difficult for one teacher and 20-something five-year-olds in her kindergarten class.
She and her students frequently experience internet issues. A district-issued WiFi hotspot kicks out often. Sometimes the connection is interrupted when she passes classes over to different hosts, such as physical education or art teachers. Calls may be accidentally ended, forcing teachers to quickly scramble to communicate the issue to all students and families and get everyone back on track.
Clear communication is an especially heightened concern for teachers, students and their families, especially those who do not speak English as a first language. For example, changing and updating schedules for non-English speaking families is a challenge. Even though she uses an “amazing” translation system and has had success especially during conferences, it does not improve all forms of communication, especially virtually.
Home environments also affect the quality of communication. A student can attend class at home with parents one day and be at work with grandpa the next. Background noise from others in the room, especially siblings on Zoom with their teachers, can be a distraction.
While internet connection and other home environment issues bring challenges to teaching, no one is at fault, says Sellers. “Being a teacher, you have to be flexible. We’re inviting ourselves into their homes and they’re inviting us into theirs by being on Zoom.”
Surprises and Support
Despite the challenges of virtual teaching, technology has also brought pleasant surprises. While gripping crayons and paper helps to develop fine motor skills, when students use a drawing tool on their iPads for coloring assignments, elaborate details emerge, which is often advanced for their age level. Even students’ writing skills have surprised Sellers after the first quarter, despite her concern that not being able to closely observe their lettering would cause problems.
Most surprising of all has been the ability to keep a “family aspect” among the class even though they are only connected virtually. “There have been times I’ve been proven wrong,” Sellers says of her fear that the distance would shut out kids from each other. Instead, they have been cheerfully unmuting themselves to greet friends during class. She hopes that when schools do reopen, currently slated for January 2021, children will have become so stir crazy and eager to play with classmates that parents will have a much easier time getting them back into a school routine.
Support has shown up in the form of coworkers and school and district administration. Sellers speaks highly of team spirit as educators navigate uncharted waters. Administration frequently checks in with teachers to see where support is needed. Staff meetings stress that no one is alone, that everyone is struggling, and that we are in this together.
“No one’s done this before. No one’s ever taught half a school year online due to a pandemic,” says Sellers.
Parent support has been the greatest blessing, says Sellers. Even without the relationship-building that happens between educators and families during student drop-off and pick-up times, anytime there is an issue with internet or a hurdle to overcome, parents are quick to reach out with words of reassurance. Sellers was overwhelmed with support even before starting the semester, receiving kind messages after sending out her introductory email covering classroom expectations. She reminded everyone this was not her ideal situation, but she would do her best. “I had a parent I had never even met message me and tell me that her and her student have my back and will support me through everything this year.”
Teachers who have moved to virtual classrooms are making the best of their current situation, with no end set in stone as the state remains in a state of emergency due to COVID-19. While flexibility and “breathing room” were rampant during the chaos in March, school administrators are now expecting teachers to be on track with regular curriculum, despite starting six weeks late this year.
Sellers stresses that no matter how creative or innovative educators are with their assignments, the experience is never going to be 100% the same, especially for kindergarten and younger grades. “While I understand the need to be online and the risks and want to keep us and students safe, as far as them soaking up the information, I feel it’s slightly delayed.”
As devastated as she is being away from her class, Sellers believes it’s the right call to protect everyone. Students and teachers alike will learn to adapt. Peers who have returned to classrooms have been shocked at the resilience of children to wear their own masks properly and follow safety precautions.
As for students and their families, Sellers understands their frustrations about the challenges they face right now but virtual learning and teaching is new territory for everyone. “Teachers are quite literally building the plane as we fly it,” says Sellers, quoting a message she saw online in support of educators. “Teachers need and deserve understanding and patience right now.”
They will make it work. Sellers once started a class late when the smoke alarm went off at her home. In those moments, she reminds her students and parents of this year’s motto: “In Ms. Sellers’s class, we go with the flow.”