Educating During the Early Weeks of the 2020 Pandemic: High School Edition

This three-part series explores the contributions of Hawaii educators. In addition to a full week dedicated to serving students, educators paused to share a snapshot of the COVID-19 impact and the implementation of emergency remote learning across the state. Access the full series here.

Joan Lewis, Instructional Coach

Our staff has been working hard to establish contact with our students and provide virtual wellness checks with our families. While education is essential, we know that there may be more important priorities for our families. As part of our work-from-home schedules, our teachers are preparing and delivering enrichment assignments that can engage the whole family. They are also working with individual students to help improve less than stellar grades. Our administration, office staff, and cafeteria crew are preparing and serving over 1000 meals every day while handling the phone and email lines. Our tech team has developed and distributed computers to families that need them even as our custodians and security staff work tirelessly to keep our campus safe. As this “new normal” continues, we are prepared to help our families and most importantly, our students, for the long haul.

Whitney Aragaki, Science Educator

What emerged from the beginning of this experience that is still ongoing is the widening definition and role of a teacher in the community. This pandemic has strengthened my desire to invest in my community, but in a fashion that physically disengages me. Over the past few weeks, my days are split between the needs of my students and my children much more than usual, and it highlights and exacerbates the common imbalance of work-home life. I’ve spent time facilitating discussions for my classes synchronously, sitting with students to address direct grief (loss of experiences, senior capstone showcase, commencement, and cancellation of awards), and moderating discussions between students to allow them to process the events in a brave space. Texts and calls from former students (HS graduates, college students) have upticked as well, hoping for comfort, clarity, and a listening ear. Some of them even relate their current experiences to the scenarios we used to play out in environmental science class – shocked that this is now a reality that seemed too crazy to even fathom. 

This is in addition to working with my colleagues to create meaningful enrichment opportunities for students that can have a glimmer of equity between those with and without technology, internet, printers, and/or supportive home structures. While most of the state is celebrating the cancellation of mandated testing, Advanced Placement teachers like myself are working harder than ever to ensure that our students have access to testing material, structures, and support with an entirely new protocol to test from home. Information from the College Board comes in waves, and it falls upon teachers to absorb, interpret, and disseminate the information to students as quickly and accurately as possible. 

This week also saw the inception of the first virtual State Science & Engineering Fair, the first for Hawai’i and many states across the nation. Great appreciation is expressed to the Hawai’i Academy of Science and Studentcorner.io for the amazing collaboration to publicly showcase the novel science research of young scientists and engineers. While it still raises many questions of equity in STEM and virtual spaces, there still is an opportunity to continue meaningful interactions between career scientists and youth. 

While the public may say that this is pushing teachers to reach their potential as effectors of our community, what it shows is that teachers are and will continue to be vital to the sustenance and progress of our society.

Jonathon Medeiros, English Teacher

So, what is left when the world shuts down? Some say there is nothing. And that nothing grows bigger as we move through time. Some are sure that we spend our days collecting our paychecks, doing “nothing.”

Well, my days of nothing start, as they always have, around 5:15 am, with a cup of coffee before the rest of my house wakes up. In the stillness, I sip and I read and I research and I constantly craft lesson ideas, collect bits of text or song or art, for my students, for my wife, for my colleagues, for my kids, for my own mindʻs curiosity. In the two or three hours between wake up and Roll Call, I also make breakfast and help plan the learning for my daughters’ day. At 8:00, we, the teachers at my school, all log on to say hello and to hear the goals for the day reiterated by administrators. From there, it is back to Google Class to check in with as many of my 125 students as I can. I read their responses to the learning opportunities that I posted earlier. I respond to each, with comments, with probing questions, with a note to take care of themselves and each other. Depending on the day, this connection with students is interrupted once or twice, maybe three or four times, by additional meetings with departments, with academies, with leadership teams, for a 504 or IEP or just some other random unforeseen item that needs attending to. So, the nothing we do while collecting checks is pretty full, and it sometimes overflows with the other minutiae of a day, the checking in on colleagues, on children, on families, our own and others. The crafting of lessons that can live online, that can make it across the void into the lives of all our students, wherever they are right now, as the crafting of face to face instruction, is impossibly intricate but we do it, every day, Sunday through Sunday, July through next July, pandemic or not.

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Sienna Smoot, STEM Teacher

When I go to my physical classroom and see my students and interact with them at school, I can account for them. I can know who’s really here. I can hear the side conversations that give hints on various dynamics that occur in the classroom. These dimensions are student behavior, learning, differentiation, appropriate measurement of acquisition, healthy collaboration, and healthy discourse. I can walk over to them and say, “Hey, did you really understand that?” And merely asking the question isn’t enough. You see it in their eyes and then their hesitation, whether they are engaged in learning or not. I’m able to go directly to my colleagues if something is a private matter.

On Technology: At school, we have technical people who help us in using technology. As an educator, I have a firm understanding of how the technology works and how to troubleshoot minor to middle-size problems. When big things happen, I would call the tech department, and they come to figure it out. By the time I’m back from my lunch break, everything is fixed. Moreover, there is planned professional development whenever we’re learning a new learning tool and ed-tech tool. There are variables to consider beyond just learning how to navigate the platform. Is it appropriate for the age group? How shall I deliver the content? Does it measure acquisition appropriately? These are just some of the factors that we, as teachers, work in groups to discuss before we use a tech tool. 

Think about all the things that I’ve mentioned, and now consider how to do it at home with limited time. And due to the understandable situation of the virus, we all at present, learning as we go while still trying to maintain consistency and accountability for children that we cannot physically see. The advent of technology and Google classroom has been wonderful. Whereas we used it as a supplement piece to our physical classroom, In many cases, it is our only way of accountability and maintaining students in a virtual online class. We are rewriting lessons and planning for activities that still contribute to their learning but does not overwhelm students who may not have adequate internet connection or technology. We have to now think of new ways to address our special needs students. None of this is anyone’s fault, and everyone’s doing the best they can. 

High school teachers have to account and keep track of 100 students give or take. Some high school teachers much much more. Elementary school teachers have to account for smaller amounts of squirmy children who need much more help navigating through online platforms. And what’s challenging is that not every parent can be there.

On Parenting: I am home but not there. It is difficult for my daughter to see me taking care of other children, problem-solving, and helping them all day when she herself needs my help. If I were a parent that had any other job, it would be different. I would not be home; I would be at work and not in her face, two steps away. Or I’d be home and able to help her. 

I’m not speaking from a place of resentment. But as I speak with love for my students and my profession, it is somewhat at the neglect of my own child. I don’t get finished with accounting for all my students, planning new plans, and learning these new tech tools until often 6:00 or 7:00 pm on a good day. By then, I hope she has enough energy that I can help with her work, And I hope she doesn’t notice how tired I am because I’ve given most of myself to others. 

In a short span of 2 weeks, we are not only the educator, but the IT technician, Google liaison, attendance office, digital media developer, and learning the platforms & Ed-tech tools to pull this off with a smile. Where I once worked from 8:00 to 2:30 and spent some time at home grading papers, I now get up at 6:00 am and hope that I’m off by 7:00 pm. 

On Administrators: Leaders are working the same long hours. Children need to be fed while maintaining precautions. They put themselves at risk every day by supporting the schools’ availability of food to feed children in our surrounding community. They are managing teachers who are doing their best to learn by fire. Everyone is working very hard. The janitors and cafeteria professionals are doing all they can to maintain the property so that it’s available so that students could be fed. Not to mention the slew of administrative things that need to be done without teachers being on campus is a huge challenge.

Everyone’s working hard. No one is getting by. No one has it easy. And don’t let posted pictures of smiles make you think that. 

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