The Morning Call (Sunday)
From the classroom
What school looks like in the Lehigh Valley in era of COVID-19
While Lehigh Valley school districts are making the best of the pandemic-impeded year, some are having an easier time than others. Parkland, for example, was proceeding fairly smoothly, with students alternating between in-school and online instruction, until Monday, when COVID-19 infections prompted a one-week closure of its buildings. Across the Lehigh Valley, superintendents have found that moving forward means being flexible.
With the school year nearly a third of the way through, The Morning Call checked in with students, parents, teachers and staff in several area schools to find out how things are going so far.
Here are their stories:
The virtual classroom
Ona rainy Friday morning, 14 fifth graders at Hays Elementary in Allentown join a Zoom call for their online math class.
One little girl, lying across a bed, fidgets with her headphones.
“You hear me?” She asks into the camera. “My mom is sleeping right here.”
“So are you trying to be quiet for your mom?” teacher Lisa Noll asks.
The girl nods. “And my little brother.” Allentown, the region’s largest district, started the school year with all students learning virtually. With three-quarters of the district’s 16,000 students living in poverty and many of them English learners, it’s typical for students not to have their own bedrooms
or quiet offices to do their school work. They’re sitting on couches, at kitchen tables, reclining in beds, often with their siblings and parents nearby.
Noll, who teaches at the new elementary school that replaced Cleveland and McKinley, has 23 students on her roster. Ten minutes into this class, a student joins. Twenty minutes in, another pops on.
In other small squares, younger siblings can be seen walking by, as well as a mom balancing a laundry basket on her hip. One student has yet to turn on his camera, despite Noll telling him she has to see him. Some students angle the camera toward the ceiling because they’re embarrassed to have others see their homes.
One has so many pet birds that when he unmutes his microphone, it sounds like a rain forest. Another became a big sister and was on screen one day feeding the baby a bottle.
“What’s so hard is, we just don’t have control over their households,” Noll said. “We’re trying to keep their attention while the little brothers and sisters are running in or they’re losing Wi-Fi.”
In her 34 years of teaching, this year is by far the strangest, Noll said. She has two computers going — one to Zoomwith the students and the other to keep track of attendance. Her cellphone is always next to her, so parents can text if they’re having issues.
“It’s like I’m an air traffic controller,” she said of all the technology.
Yet in other ways, it is like a typical classroom. When a boy struggled during a lesson on decimal points, a classmate unmuted her microphone and whispered, “thousandth,” as she would if their desks were next to each other.
Sometimes, when Noll calls on students to answer a question, they’ll claim their computer is dying or they’re having internet problems — the 2020 version of “the dog ate myhomework,” Noll quipped.
Noll has converted her dining room into her classroom. When students see her screen, she’s by a whiteboard that says, “Welcome to Virtual 5th Grade!” On a windowsill behind her, Halloween books are propped up, as they’d be in the classroom.
Noll worried that if she wasn’t physically seeing her students, she wouldn’t be able to help them if they were having issues at home. Now she has a glimpse into their homes to see if there is anything alarming. And children can still chat with her privately.
On this Friday, when students took a quick break to get up and dance, a dad joined in, dancing silly and getting some laughs.
In Allentown, where many parents often work long hours or multiple jobs and can’t make it to their children’s school functions, virtual classes offer an opportunity for more involvement.
“There are years where I never saw a family member the entire year because they never came to the school,” Noll said. “And now, I talk to some parents daily on Zoom.”
The physical classroom
This year, everything takes longer.
Barb Resto’s hybrid class at Catasauqua High School begins with a five-minute respite for the 16 students joining through computer screens to rest their eyes, get a drink, use the restroom. Even the
seven masked students sitting before her could use a technology break, as they’ll spend the next hour hunched over their tablets to follow the lesson along with their classmates online. Catasauqua students have the option to go full-time to school or learn remotely, so half of the high school’s 500 students are in school five days a week and the other half are online. But not every class is evenly divided.
Resto boots up her control room of sorts: laptop for the Google slides, tablet for a virtual bulletin board called Padlet, iPhone for a timer, Apple Watch for emails that pop up from students with technology issues.
“It’s This-or-That Tuesday,” she begins, her face shield having an amplifying effect in the cavernous room.
They have five minutes to draw a color they’d like to be — blue-violet, blue-green or red-orange — then join the class through Google Meet on their iPads, navigate the Padlet platform and post a picture.
Just as the five minutes are up, a student chimes in online asking for the directions again.
In her 18 years of teaching, Resto isn’t used to a class this quiet. The students in the classroom are too far from one another to chat. Twomonths into the semester, students are just
coming out of their shells.
Onthis day, technology is slowing them down. The program they are using to piece together a color wheel is stuck. A student in the classroom figures out how to fix it, and Resto shares the fix with those online, but a student at home is still having a problem with it.
“Mrs. Resto, what happens if we get it really badly wrong?” asks Aidan Gerhard, the one whofigured out howto move the program along.
Aidan isn’t talking about the colors or concepts being wrong, but the technology making the art clunky.
This is how a 10-minute activity becomes 20.
“It is exhausting,” Resto said. “This is hard. I feel like I’ve never stepped into a classroom before.”
In the beginning of the year, she tried teaching at the blackboard and having both sets of students watch, but her voice echoed too much, and the virtual students could hardly hear her. Rather than make two separate lessons, she relies on technology.
That means she can’t hold students’ hands to show how muchpressure they should apply with colored pencils. Students can’t work in groups like they used to. And the display case outside her room doesn’t have art, but a giant QRcode that leads to a slideshow of artwork made during this unusual year.
Juniors Gerhard and Bronwyn Pacchioli are glad to be back in school, even with the hiccups. They share three out of four classes and lunch, where they also share a table — only two students are allowed per table, spaced 6 feet apart in the gymnasium.
“It was weird at first, but you get used to it,” Pacchioli said. “I’m just happy to be here.”
So is Resto. But she wonders if she’s providing an equal education to everyone — inevitably, most of her attention is drawn to the remote students.
“They’re not getting the full me,” she said. “They’re getting the best I can do. And that’s sad. That breaks my heart as an educator.”
Making friends over Zoom
On the first day of school, Destiny Iniguez looked at her iPad and realized she only knew about two of the 23 students in her fifth grade class at Hays Elementary, which formed when two other Allentown schools were closed.
So how does a 10-year-old make new friends when she is not near classmates, who are all learning in their own homes? Destiny uses a method that children since the age of one-room school houses have used: note passing — the 2020 version.
“I’ll send a chat, like, ‘Hey, what’s your favorite color?’ But sometimes the teacher checks because that’s not what the chat is supposed to be for,” she said.
Besides making friends, there’s much Destiny is missing out on this year. There are no art classes, which she is bummed about because she wants to be an artist when she grows up. Last year at Cleveland, she enjoyed Girl Scouts and Girls on the Run — a program that empowers girls through running — as well as
soccer, football and basketball. Nowshe only has her brothers to play sports with, and sometimes they’re too rough, she said.
Instead of going to school, Destiny sits in her bedroom and does her work on an iPad given to her by the Allentown School District. Occasionally, she hears her four brothers — who are in grades seven, six, three and kindergarten — doing their Zoom lessons. Her 5-month-old sister is also in the house.
Morethan a month into school, Destiny was still trying to get used to the iPad, which she has to remember to charge every night. Sometimes it freezes up. Other times, she has trouble hearing her teacher, Lisa Noll, through it.
“I just want to go to school,” she said. “I miss having the teacher right in front of me so she can help me.”
There is one perk to the new setup. Destiny has worn a school uniform for her entire academic life, but that rule doesn’t apply when learning from home.
“I get to wear whatever I want,” she said.
The guidance counselor
Shortly after school started this fall, the sister of a kindergarten student at William Penn Elementary School died.
Normally, when a child has a death in the family, guidance counselor Jonathan DeRaymond sees the student daily. But because the Bethlehem Area School District is on a hybrid schedule that has children coming in only two days a week, DeRaymond can only see this child daily on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
“It’s horrible,” he said. “The kid needs to see me every day for a bit.”
DeRaymond, William Penn’s guidance counselor for 26 years, is tasked with checking up on the well-being of about 200 students, which is not easy when 15% of the students are solely online and the others are in the building less than half the time.
At William Penn, where more than three-quarters of students live in poverty and 10% are English learners, children often deal with trauma and need to chat with DeRaymond. This year, the need is greater, he said, because of parents losing their jobs during the pandemic or children being bounced around for child care.
Teachers and students have learned how to conduct school through a computer, but counseling is tougher to replicate through a screen.
DeRaymond, known by
students as “Mr. D.,” has had to be creative. If he feels a student needs to see him in person, he’ll ask the parents to bring the child to school. Then, he and the student will sit outside for a counseling session.
To help DeRaymond meet students’ needs, the district partnered with Lehigh Valley Health Network and Pinebrook Family Answers to provide two extra counselors. But those counselors only come on Wednesdays.
The amount of time that students receive counseling has been significantly decreased this year. It was never an issue to take a child from class for 30 minutes of counseling. But since students are only in school two days a week, time is precious, and DeRaymond may only see a child
for 10 or 15 minutes.
“We have to really get to the problem, solve it and get them back to the class,” he said.
DeRaymond goes beyond just helping children with their mental needs. When a student on the hybrid schedule stopped attending in-person classes because his mother had surgery and couldn’t take him to school, DeRaymond offered. With the principal’s permission, he walks the child to and from school twice a week, a mile and a half round trip.
That was among the easier problems DeRaymond has helped students sort out.
The head cook
Around lunch time on the first day of school at Parkland’s new Veterans Memorial Elementary School, about a dozen kindergartners approach the gym in a single-file line, their arms outstretched so they don’t walk too closely. The cafeteria is off-limits because it isn’t big enough for safe distancing.
Those buying lunch look to head cook Neha Laud, who is boxed in by folding tables next to the gym’s entrance.
“You are shopping with your eyes, and we [meaning Laud and other kitchen staff] are going to use our hands,” she tells the masked children, who are scanning a dozen entrees, sides and desserts.
Prompting the kids to speak loud so she can hear them through their masks, Laud puts their choices into a box, which the children take to their own white folding tables, spaced 6 feet apart.
As the weeks went by, kids got used to the distance and dropped their outstretched arms; and they got a handle on the volume necessary to be heard over the chatter of kids shouting excitedly across tables during their precious few minutes of social time.
When Laud needs to restock, as she did one day when she ran out of hot vegetables, she dashes to the kitchen, which is in the cafeteria next door. As Laud returned that day with the hot vegetables, she took a serving to a third grader whohad missed out.
The student got up to meet Laud halfway. She then stopped abruptly and hustled back to her seat, slipping on the face mask she had left on the table.
Astonished at the child’ s self- discipline, Laud recommended that she get a feather, which students earn for acts of kindness.
“I was so pleasantly surprised,” Laud said.
“When all this was going to start, I was very nervous — howis
this going to work? How can we social distance and serve kids?” she said. “You know what, everything fell into place so well.”
Donna Tercha knew the news
couldn’t be good when she saw Catasauqua Superintendent Bob Spengler’s name pop up on her cellphone on a Saturday, a few weeks into the school year.
A middle school student had tested positive for the coronavirus. Tercha informed the
district’s other two nurses that the situation was handled as planned — with the student quarantined and their close contacts informed.
The nurses chatted nearly every day in the weeks leading up to school, talking over
scenarios, the new rules, the cleaning schedule, the personal protective equipment needs.
So on the first day of school, Tercha, a school nurse for 23 years, walked through Catasauqua High School’s front door — the portal from anticipation to realization — and was reassured by how familiar the new normal already felt. Their planning, so far, was working.
The pandemic has not changed her job as much as added a layer, Tercha said. The job has become busier and more essential over time, as schools accommodate children with increasingly complex medical issues.
There are still immunizations and well visits to track and prescriptions to disperse, but food insecurity is also an issue.
Kids still visit Tercha for anxiety disguised as stomachaches. They don’t know where else to go, so they go to the nurse’s office.
“They know it’s safe here,” she said. “And that there’s going to be someone who’s going to give them a little bit of TLC. And sometimes that’s all they need to go back to class and get on with their day.”
Now add to the job masks, reams of paperwork associated with coronavirus testing, and the label of point-person for coronavirus questions.
Tercha’s office at the middle school, once covered with colorful posters, is largely bare — anything that can’t weather the spray of the nightly disinfectant had to go.
To see the nurse, kids scan a code with their iPads in the classroom and type in their reason.
Then Tercha gets an email and decides to either go to the student — which cuts down on the number of people in the hallway and makes contact tracing easier — or invites them down.
Sometimes kids come because they need a mask break. Sometimes they come with physical symptoms, prompting Tercha to consult a chart of COVID-19 symptoms: more than two from one column, like headache and nausea, means they are sent home.
“Everybody seems to think that no matter what happens, people are absent because of coronavirus,” she said. “But there’s a lot more going on in the world.”
There’s no predictable day, she said.
“That’s not only the story of the pandemic. That’s the story of our lives as school nurses.”