It’s been a year: how are our kids? The academic effect of pandemic-era education.
This is the first in a three-part series looking at the varied experiences of the children in our community during an unprecedented year of change. In part one, North Salem parents share how their children have fared academically one year into a completely changed educational landscape.
When schools shut down in March of last year, few people could have imagined the length of time many students in this country would be without full-time school. Now, almost a year later, some school districts are slowly returning back, while in others, students have not seen the inside of a classroom in twelve months.
In the North Salem Central School District (NSCSD), Pequenakonck elementary school (PQ) has slowly brought back its students for daily, in-person instruction in phases starting with the youngest learners. The last group, fifth graders, returned to school full-time on Thursday, February 25. While this completes PQ’s full return to school for all students, the North Salem Middle School/High School (MSHS) remains in a hybrid model (split cohorts attending school on designated days) with the option available to go fully remote.
North Salem families have had to make big choices and adapt to many changes this school year. Some families have chosen to attend school completely remote, while others have opted for the hybrid option. Still others have flip-flopped back and forth. Some families have opted to drive their children to school while others have struggled with their decision to allow their children to ride the bus. For some families with two full-time working parents, the new model of learning has been nothing short of impossible.
The one constant amidst all of this change is that the experience for every family, and the students within these families, has been unique to their own set of circumstances. Some students have adapted seamlessly and have experienced few negative effects. Other students have suffered both emotionally and academically from the sudden shift of the education landscape.
Even within a single family, the children's responses often varied widely. For Fran Havard, who has children in Kindergarten, 2nd, 4th, and 6th grades, seeing how her children responded to shifting learning demands has been eye opening. “My eldest could not cope at all with the way the middle school was orchestrating remote instruction,” Harvard said. “She had a very hard time tracking on a screen and the constant switching between screens was a hardship.” According to Havard, her eldest was often weepy at the end of the day and completely drained. Havard ended up pulling her sixth grader from the MSHS and enrolled her in a private Catholic school where she is now thriving. In contrast, her fourth grader has done remarkably well with distance learning. “She is a visual learner and remote learning is incredibly visual. She has adapted wonderfully and has been mostly resilient to the shifting landscape.” Meanwhile, Havard’s second grader was incredibly unhappy and required the most consistency in order to feel safe. “The ever-changing unknown was hard for him, Havard said. “He was incredibly happy when in school, but unfortunately, when he was home, he was annoyed by his little brother in Kindergarten.” Havard’s youngest child could not handle the remote learning demands at all and had zero interest in large group meetings, although he seemed to do much better during one-on-one sessions.
Having taught marginalized kids for many years as a remote learning teacher in multiple states and as an executive function coach for a private coaching company, Havard understands that this new model of learning is a real hardship. She emphasized the importance of seeing each child as an individual. “You have to listen to what your child is saying. In listening to my four kids, I realized that their responses to the pandemic were unique from each other and, as such, their demands were different.”
Harry and Ollie Havard at home in North Salem. Photo by Fran Havard
While it is undeniable that each child is an individual with unique experiences, on a whole, the pandemic seems to have dealt a milder academic blow to older students, who were better equipped to handle the shift to school via screen. Heather Dipaola, who has a fifth grader at PQ and a ninth grader at the MSHS, feels that her high school student is doing very well academically. She attributes this to the fact that high school students are more capable of staying online all day. On the other hand, she feels that her fifth grade son has missed a lot academically. “The teachers in elementary are trying very hard. It is not their fault, but students at PQ need to be in school,” Dipaola said. She emphasized that her son wants to be in school and thrives when he is in school. “It is hard for younger students to focus on Zoom and get what they need, not to mention the social aspect. They need to be with their peers to learn from them.”
Maryanne D’Amato, parent of a senior and a sophomore at the MSHS, chose the hybrid model so that her children could have a little bit of each experience while reserving the choice to change to remote learning at any time. Recently, they chose to stay home full time due to the rate of infection in town and the fear of another quarantine.
D’Amato says that because her kids are older, self-sufficient and technologically savvy, they are fine with virtual school. “They are completely autonomous and it’s really like we just have four adults working from home. I think meeting deadlines, arranging their day, and handling workload helps to prepare them for college and beyond.” Not only have D’Amato’s children easily adapted to virtual school, but she has also found that they prefer staying home over going to school. For D’Amato’s kids, attending school in person has lost some of its appeal because of all of the restrictions and the lack of extracurricular activities.
Melissa Reiss has a second grade son, Tyler, who is fully remote at PQ and a daughter, Krissy, in her senior year at the MSHS. Reiss allowed Krissy complete autonomy over how she would attend school this year, resulting in her daughter switching back and forth multiple times between hybrid and fully remote. Reiss says that while her daughter does not feel that she is falling behind her peers, she wonders if she is falling behind where she should be. According to Reiss, her daughter acknowledges that it is no fault of the district and that this is just as much of a challenge for her teachers. "It's difficult to make material engaging with remote learning," Krissy said. One of the perks of being older is that Reiss’s daughter proactively engages in a lot of supplemental learning in areas of interest, such as watching documentaries, reading articles, and baking.
The academic experience for elementary aged students has varied with most children struggling in some ways and thriving in others. Unlike the older MSHS students, who are more autonomous, the elementary students have faced academic challenges unique to their inexperience and youth. Jennifer Logan, who has a daughter, Isla, in first grade at PQ, opted for the remote model at the beginning of the school year and her daughter is currently “all in. Logan says that she and her husband have been very concerned about their daughter falling behind academically as they see first grade as an important year of growth. While there have been struggles throughout the school year, she feels her daughter is doing well, all things considered.
Isla at home in North Salem. Photo by Jen Logan
One of the biggest challenges for Logan has been taking on the role of educator in addition to her role as mother. “Isla struggled with me being her teacher at home because usually we can just play together. That’s still a struggle and she doesn’t do her best work with me,” Logan said. Logan says that the home environment itself also was a big impediment to learning, a sentiment echoed by many other parents. “It’s hard to focus when your baby sister is crying and your Barbie Dreamhouse is in the next room.”
As for the remote model of learning, Logan feels it was detrimental but necessary and she and her husband have done their best to try to fill the gaps at home. “The remote curriculum was fine, but I do wish there were more opportunities for small group work and one-on-one time with the teacher,” Logan said.
Logan notes that her daughter definitely does not enjoy logging on for school on days she is remote and that her interest in school has definitely waned since last year. “Every day she tells me she would rather stay home with me and her sister. In kindergarten, my daughter was excited to go to school every day. These days she asks ‘How many days until the weekend?’ and is rarely excited to go to school.”
Isla at home in North Salem. Photo by Jen Logan
Jillian Abisch’s son, a second grader at PQ, opted for hybrid at the beginning of the year but has been all in since November. Overall, she has been impressed with her son’s ability to independently maintain a schedule. “He knows the times for his live instruction and will often log on without being told,” Abisch said. She is also impressed with his use of technology. “He knows how to use Seesaw and all of its tools, he can access his assignments, submit them and review feedback from teachers.”
Abisch says her son does not argue about logging on to his Google Meets. However, like Logan, Abisch has noticed that her son’s ability to focus during the live instruction is hampered by the many distractions in the home, such as his three younger siblings, a parent working from home, and pets walking by.
Abisch feels that this remote model of learning is very challenging for a child who is young, not independent or who has emotional and academic needs. “In the home environment, they are not with professionals who are trained to handle specific weaknesses and provide appropriate support,” Abisch said. During remote live instruction, Abisch has noticed that her son is less willing to ask clarifying questions if he doesn’t understand something. This often leads to him becoming more frustrated with his schoolwork than he would be if he was in school.
Like Logan, Abisch wishes there were more opportunities for small group work and one-on-one time with the teacher. She believes her child would have benefited from separate live lessons for math, Fundations, and reading/writing each day, with small group support after the whole class instruction.
Another unique challenge of the remote model of learning, Abisch discovered, is that it does not always give the teacher an accurate assessment of a student’s abilities and comprehension, especially when they are younger. “Since my son completes his work off camera, an adult at home is helping to explain the assignment and support him in the completion of it,” Abisch said. She feels that this format makes it challenging for the teacher to see the amount of assistance that is required to complete the assignments. “He will submit work that is accurate because I have done all of the work with him,” Abisch said.
In this remote format, Abisch also believes her son seems to have a bit of a false impression of what others can do and she wonders if the camera hides a lot. “There are many times that he says things like, ‘Everyone can do that except for me’. On camera, all looks good to him and it appears that everyone is doing the work without difficulty- kind of like those glamorous Facebook and Instagram posts. He is seeing the glossy image and not the behind the scenes." Abisch wonders if it would be easier for her son to see that other children sometimes struggle (as he does) if he was in the classroom.
In contrast, Abisch says her son shines when he is in school for in-person instruction. Recently her son came home with a science project that he had completed in the classroom. “He was beaming with pride when he told me that he came up with the idea and the other kids followed his suggestion. He interacted with peers, they worked together and he saw himself as a leader. I was so happy for him that he had this experience since it was not something he could experience through the remote model.”
Ted Grady, who has one son in Kindergarten and another in 3rd grade, says that while there have been some challenges, overall this has been a good academic year for his sons. He specifically saw a huge benefit from having unlimited access to their day-to-day schoolwork, which Grady acknowledges would never have happened if not for the forced periods of homeschooling. “Refereeing all of their in-school activities has really let me see exactly what the expectations are, where they need a little explanation up front to make sense of things and what they are good at,” Grady said. “It's let me really help them out, in other words, far more than would be possible if I was just reacting to communications from the school and reviewing their take-home folders.”
Jack Grady with his father, Ted Grady. Photo by Benjamin Allen, HudValley Photo
With that being said, Grady acknowledges that there are definite advantages to being in school over learning from home. One of these advantages, according to Grady, is that teachers are better equipped than most parents to educate their children. Another, Grady says, is that the act of going to school puts the kids in a "ready to learn" state of mind. “On days that the kids (or us) are easily distracted, moody or bored I'm sorely jealous of the infrastructure that a day-in provides them,” Grady said. “Just the act of changing classes, having a special class teacher or even switching up group assignments is a powerful mental reset tool that isn't easy to reproduce at home.”
In a similar vein, the year has presented few struggles and has overall been a success for Reiss’s second grader, Tyler, who is fully remote. According to Reiss, her son has a very strong interest in learning which hasn’t been dampened by the uncertainties thrown at him this past year. Furthermore, he has taken the opportunity to dive into some of his special academic interests such as mathematics, geography, and coding. “Tyler has made great strides this year, and we have been very happy with the format,” Reiss said.
Reiss says that in spite of all the positives, they have faced two specific challenges with this new format of learning. The first is one that seems to plague every elementary-aged student, no matter how well they have adjusted to distance learning: the many distractions in a home learning environment. According to Reiss it is hard for her son to stay focused while he is in the comfort of his own home. The second challenge has been finding activities that inspire creativity. “As a non-professional, it's hard to know how to spark creativity,” Reiss said.
Students who receive special education (SPED) services have been uniquely affected by the changes. Havard has two children who receive SPED services. One of them has excelled at remote learning, but the other one did not. According to Havard, this discrepancy has to do with their processing needs, and how developed their visual processing skills were to manage a remote/hybrid learning environment. “The younger the child is, the less developed their visual processing skills are and the harder it is for them to cope with screens that have multiple images on them,” Havard said. For Havard, this is why it was so important for PQ to bring back the youngest learners – visually, remote learning is a hardship.
Harry Havard at home in North Salem. Photo by Fran Havard
Havard believes that due to the challenges of the youngest with screen work, PT and OT did not really happen the way it should have. “The learning needed for PT and OT is really in person and did not translate well on the screen, Fran said. “Back in May of last year, I spent many of my kindergarten son’s PT sessions, running behind his bike with Facetime on for his physical therapist. It was kind of hilarious in retrospect.”
In part two of this series, North Salem parents will share the effect of pandemic-era education on their children’s emotional and mental health.