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With Schools In Pennsylvania Closed, Educators, Parents Work Out Best Ways To Finish The School Year

Brian Toth is superintendent of the Saint Marys Area School District, at desk.
Anne Danahy


UPDATE: Gov. Tom Wolf announced today (April 9) that all K-12 schools will be closed for the rest of the school year as part of efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Since Gov. Tom Wolf ordered Pennsylvania’s K through 12 schools to remain closed indefinitely to help slow the spread of COVID-19, school districts, teachers and parents have been trying to make the most of what’s left of the school year.

“If you had a mermaid, which biome would she live in?” Camille-Yvette Welsch posed that question to her 9 -year-old and 6-year-old about the miniature biomes they made.

They’ve also done some writing, along with crafts and bread baking. It was all part of a new adventure into home schooling in the early part of the school closures.

“I have to admit it’s kind of ambitious, and I suspect that will wear off as the weeks go on, but, that’s where we are,” Welsch said.

She said her family is lucky. She and her husband both teach at Penn State, so both are working from home. Still, she was happy school was starting back up, even if it is remote.

Like other school districts in Pennsylvania, the State College Area closed its schools and stopped doing in-person classes.

But, after a hiatus, State College returned to required classes last week. The difference is they’re from home, not in person.

Jackie Saylor, a teacher and the district’s social studies coordinator for 6th through twefth grades, said the best part has been talking with the students and answering their questions. The switch has brought some challenges, but they’re navigating through them and she thinks it will go well in the end.

“I think we have incredible students, parents, administrators. The teachers working hard to provide students with meaningful learning opportunities. I think in the end it is going to go well, but we are working through some of the glitches,” Saylor said.

Still, along with technology are other factors that have to be considered — an older child might need to look after a younger one, for example.

“There’s a lot of concern about students and families in terms of their mental health as well as their physical health, and making sure what we’re asking students is reasonable in this current situation,” Saylor said.

All of this means readjusting expectations. After spring break, for example, some social studies classes would have completed research papers. That could be a six to eight week learning process.

“We can’t provide those supports,” Saylor said. “We can’t provide that same level of instruction. So we are definitely scaling back what we are expecting of students.”

So, to find the best ways to make their lessons work in this new world, teachers have been meeting with each other, along with their students. But they aren’t penalizing students who can’t make a Zoom meeting.

“It’s bigger than just curriculum content. It’s about kids and their families, and we love them deeply. So, for us, if we don’t see you for a Zoom we want to check in … We want to make sure that you’re safe, that you’re fed, that you’re getting all the resources that you need,” said Danielle Ambrosia, an English teacher.

Along with classes in Zoom, teachers are using an app to give students instructional material. One of the units planned for the ninth-graders is on memoirs. She said teachers are expecting many students to have a lot to say about what’s happening now.

“It’s kind of like this perfect storm of your life has completely changed,” Ambrosia said. “There’s a lot of meaning. I have students who have parents doing all sorts of essential jobs right now, and so they’re experiencing early adulthood in this way that’s unprecedented.”

All of the changes can be a challenge for both the students and their families and the teachers and theirs.

“I think it’s different depending on who you talk to. It’s a big shift in how a teacher typically does their jobs and typically interacts with kids. For some, it’s a little easier with change. For others, it’s really difficult,” said Eugene Ruocchio, an Earth Science Teacher at State High and president of the State College Area Education Association.

Ruocchio said the district worked to find a way to give students the structure they need and allow for flexibility for families and teachers. He thinks they’ve struck a good balance. But, that doesn’t mean it’s the same as in-school learning.

“We’d be in labs right now where they’re collecting data and really engaging in science and not staring at a computer screen,” he said. “I can’t think of an experience that we’re doing online that is better than doing it in a classroom.”

Gov. Tom Wolf has closed all K through 12 schools indefinitely. While the state is encouraging all districts to continue offering educational material, districts have a choice in how that’s done: more formal, planned instruction or less formal enrichment activities.

Brian Toth, superintendent of Saint Marys School District in Elk County, said the first step for Saint Marys was connecting with families.

“People first has been our mantra here,” Toth said. “Their health, their safety. For example, getting food out to kids. Kids aren’t going to be interested in learning if they’re hungry.”

The second step is moving to planned online instruction.

“I look at this as an opportunity for us,” he said. “We’ve always complained about cyber charters and say we can do it better, so now’s a way to show we can do things better.”

The district has had training sessions for teachers. And, like other districts, they’re using apps like Google Hangout.

“We were able to round up some of our tech-savvy teachers and they offered to do different sessions throughout the day for their colleagues on these avenues of ‘How do I do any online work with my students?’” Toth said.

They’re working with local internet service providers to connect about a dozen families without service. If that’s not possible, the principal will make sure students get the classwork.

The state Department of Education does not have an estimate for how many districts are offering planned instruction or just enrichment activities. But either way, the state won’t penalize districts that don’t offer 180 days of schooling — what’s typically required.

Carol Stolte lives in Bellefonte, in Centre County, with her boyfriend and her younger child.

She said they’re playing games, doing puzzles and enjoying things together they don’t normally have time to do. She’s a waitress, and that means right now she’s out of work.

“We’re a very on-the-go, always-busy family,” she said. “For us to all be together all the time, is very different. I’m super grateful. It’s almost like we needed this.

Her 7-year-old has autism and ADHD. She said he thrives on a schedule.

“We pick a bird every day to learn about,” she said. “Today’s bird is peregrine falcon. We learned all about the peregrine falcon and watched a couple of YouTube videos on how they hunt. We’re trying to take it day by day, but at the same time maintain some sense of normalcy.”

As the number of COVID-19 cases in Pennsylvania continues to climb, it seems likely Stolte and other families might be helping their children learn from home for the rest of the school year.

Anne Danahy has been a reporter at WPSU since fall 2017. Before crossing over to radio, she was a reporter at the Centre Daily Times in State College, Pennsylvania, and she worked in communications at Penn State. She is married with cats.
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