Editor’s note: As businesses begin to re-open and COVID-19 restrictions ease, many teachers remain at home working to salvage the school year for their students. Today we offer an essay from Ginny Clayton, who teaches English Language Learners at Cary High School. Her first block class, ESL Applied, is a year-long class designed for newcomers with interrupted formal education.
In this first-person account, Ginny discusses some of the challenges in transitioning to online learning as well as reasons for hope. Her students are represented by their first initial to protect their privacy.
Hello and Goodbye
K.’s first day in U.S. schools was March 11, three days before closure due to COVID-19.
Because the factors that uproot children and families from rural Central America do not operate on an academic calendar, adding students late in the school year is not uncommon. It’s challenging but has its benefits: The whole class gets to review the basics, and there are enough helper jobs to make everyone feel needed.
K.’s classmates happily gave her tutorials on many tasks: from annotating handouts to checking grades online to operating the classroom coffee pot. A minor miracle occurs when students take on such roles: In a flash they jump from believing they know nothing to realizing how much they’ve actually learned in the short months they’ve been at school. They tell the newcomer not to worry, that she’ll get it soon, that she’s in a safe place now. K.’s first week was going well.
It had also been a good week for my second- and third-year students. For the first time, we had a 100% pass rate on the weekly vocabulary quiz. Three students had gone after school to the big new public library nearby and gotten their own library cards. They were proud of themselves and excited to start visiting regularly.
Now it feels like all the progress we were making has been pushed over a cliff.
Friday, March 13, was a whirlwind. Gov. Cooper had not made an official recommendation to cancel schools, but the writing was on the wall and a buzz was in the air. Two pre-service teachers who were visiting that morning were kind enough to run my lesson so that I could scurry around to various classrooms collecting current student cell phone numbers. (Teachers know how ephemeral those things are.)
The ESL team and school staff at-large tried one last time to make sure all our students were signed up for Remind, Google Classroom, Khan Academy, whichever apps we were putting our faith in to carry us through in case of closure. For me it was Duolingo with its cute owl mascot who sends insistent push notifications if students aren’t meeting their points goals. “If we don’t come back Monday,” I told the class, “then the owl is your teacher. Obey the owl.” It felt like a lot was riding on that little bird.
Our first two weeks out of school were consumed with reaching out to students. Are you OK? Are you still here? Do you have food? Are you washing your hands? Is anyone in your family sick? What are their symptoms? Are you working? Where, and how many hours, and how far apart from other people? Have you heard from so-and-so? Do you have a computer? How many people use it? We shared information as we learned it from all the wonderful community organizations who were jumping into action to provide food, health care, and emergency aid.
These conversations with families underscored for me the fact that immigrants, already an important part of our community’s economic bedrock, were keeping it going. I talked to people working in childcare, cleaning, construction, landscaping, retail and food service who did not have the luxury of staying home. Read more