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What It's Like For One Vermont Third-Grader To Go To School, At Home

A child makes a heart shape with their hands into a laptop screen.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
McKinley Bertram, 8, communicates with her clasmates at NewBrook Elementary School in Newfane during a remote learning session.

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools were closed with very little warning or preparation. And over the past few months, school districts, parents and students have been learning on the fly how to do remote learning in a state where internet service can be spotty, or not available at all.On a recent Monday morning, third-grader McKinley Bertram was sitting on the floor of her playroom in Newfane, waiting for her morning meeting to begin with her classmates from the NewBrook Elementary School.

The screen flashed and her mother said, “There it is,” as her teacher opened up a Zoom meeting.

More from VPR: Tips From A Home-Schooling, Remote-Working Mom

“Good morning everyone,” her teacher said. “We’ll hold off a couple of minutes as more peers enter our classroom.”

It was McKinley’s turn for show-and-tell. She was surrounded by a group of Lego buildings, which she had worked on this past weekend for her presentation.

But as the meeting started, the audio grew increasingly hard to understand. It was garbled and impossible to understand.

“Sometimes it’s better,” McKinley said. “But sometimes it’s also like this, sometimes it’s worse though.”

"I miss being with my friends, and learning together with everybody, and being able to play at recess with them." — McKinley Bertram, third-grader

Just like everybody else in Vermont, McKinley’s life has been turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic.

There’s a lot of routine in being a third grader. In getting out the door in the morning, in seeing your best buddies every day, and in working your way through the math and literacy lessons your teacher puts together for you and your classmates.

McKinley says even though it’s kind of nice to do the school work on her own schedule, and spend extra time outside in her yard, it’s just not the same.

“I miss being with my friends,” she said. “And learning together with everybody, and being able to play at recess with them.”

McKinley has a brother and sister who are also at NewBrook Elementary, and so that means her mother, Lindsey Bertram, has had a lot to think about since her three kids started remote learning from home.

More from VPR: 'It's Intense': High School Teachers On Working From Home

“And so my kindergartner does videos that he gets every day," Bertram said. "McKinley has Zoom meetings on Mondays and Tuesdays and Thursdays, and Friday is her small group day. And then my fourth grader alternates between Zoom or Google Hangout meetings because they’ve had a lot of connectivity issues with kids. And some kids have a better connection with one versus the other.”

Bertram is a stay-at-home mom. She has time to help her kids through this, and she says it’s been nice having them home and feeling like she has more of a stake in their education.

Even if there’s a feeling like everyone is trying to work their way through this strange experiment in remote learning.

“It’s fun and crazy,” Bertram said. “I feel like it’s sort of in-between all of the things. So we’re not really home-schooling and we’re also not really doing an actual public school, right? So, it’s a very in-between world right now.”

"It's fun and crazy. ... So we're not really home-schooling and we're also not really doing an actual public school, right? So, it's a very in-between world right now." — Lindsey Bertram, Newfane mother

This in-between word has been going for about eight weeks now since Vermont’s schools have been closed.

And in some ways teachers are just settling into the second phase of this new way of learning.

There was mad scramble at first to find out which families had internet service, and how to get computers to kids that didn’t have them.

Teachers had to do some quick learning themselves on which online platforms and education programs they wanted to use.

Now they’ve shifted into their new reality and are introducing concepts to their classes and working out how to assess their students.

Heather Bouchey is Vermont’s Deputy Secretary of Education and she said families and school districts are still figuring it all out.

“It certainly has not been, what I would consider or anyone would consider, an easy transition to remote learning,” Bouchey said. “We were forced to make some really quick decisions, and that’s not usually the way we have done things as a state. Usually we’re a little bit more thoughtful and planful, and also engaging I would say, in terms of stakeholder feedback. We just didn’t have a lot of time for some of that in the earlier parts of this COVID-19 event.”

The state doesn’t want students sitting in front of their screens all day, and the Agency of Education is encouraging districts to reach out to families in other ways when it’s possible.

A person in a face mask holds up a package.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Danielle Crabtree, an academic support teacher in the Windham Central Supervisory Union, holds up one of the academic support kits the district is making for students.

In the NewBrook Elementary School’s supervisory union, the support staff has been packaging up paper bags with workbooks and learning materials and giving them out at one of the school lunch drop-off spots.

Danielle Crabtree, a member of the support staff in the district, said some parents feel like the online learning has been too much, while others say there’s not enough academic instruction going on.

So the learning packets, she says, are one more way to try to reach out to families who are struggling through this imperfect situation.

“There’s a balance,” Crabtree said. “There’s always a balance to it, right? You can only work at that so long on a screen. So if they need something for the hands-on learning part, or if they need, you know, a different way of seeing what the teacher’s learning, then that’s what we’re doing here. We’re providing these kits so that there’s just another way that we’re supporting our families. We’re just making sure they’re okay at this point.”

And so maintaining those connections, and creating some kind of normalcy are at the core of what schools are trying to provide right now.

Heather Sperling is the third grade teacher at NewBrook Elementary School, and the one who struggled with the broadband service for McKinley.

Sperling is not tech savvy. And she says it took a little time for her to figure out how she wanted to reach her students during the pandemic.

She learned quickly that it was important not to overwhelm her kids, and their families, and herself, with too much screen time.

A person smiles from behind their laptop.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Heather Sperling, a third grade teacher at NewBrook Elementary School in Newfane, leads a remote learning session from her home in Marlboro.

This is not an ordinary year. Her kids will not get the same education they would have in the classroom.

And so she’s mainly working to make sure the students and families feel supported and have some kind of structure and routine during the school days.

“That’s the biggest thing right now, is that we’re staying connected with our families and students and that, that everybody’s health and well-being is at the forefront here,” she said. “Even with the glitchy internet, no audio, everybody’s frozen on the screen, yeah. Just trying to do our best.”

Sperling says she can’t think right now what next year might look like, or what kind of special services might be needed for the students who are sure to fall behind.

And she hopes there will be a class picnic or real get together, at some point, to bring closure to this very strange and challenging school year.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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