“Quite honestly, a whole group discussion in the classroom was hard for some kids, so a whole group discussion on a Zoom session is like impossible.”
For many students in the city, having a red jacket-wearing young adult in your classroom is a standard part of your educational experience.
So when coronavirus forced schools to close down in Boston, it was no surprise that City Year AmeriCorps members logged into virtual Boston Public Schools classrooms remotely along with their students.
Lizzy Barbera, a City Year corps member assigned to the Henry Grew School in Hyde Park, and her “close knit” team of five are among the 125 corps members who still have a presence in the classroom.
The teacher Barbera works with students, Emmanuel Fairley, and their class of 16 are among the innumerable groups across the country navigating a new world of remote learning in the time of COVID-19.
BPS students left their physical classrooms on March 17. In the time since, more than 30,000 Chromebooks have been distributed to students, while about half of City Year Boston’s corps members have engaged with students virtually.
Sandra Lopez Burke, the corps vice president and executive director, defines virtual service as connecting with students and supporting teachers. It’s “making sure that [students are] engaged, that they’re logging on to their platform, checking in, and making sure that they’re OK,” she said.
In order to dispatch more than 200 corps members between the ages of 17 and 25 into virtual classrooms, Burke said some retraining was needed. Corps members were reminded of privacy laws, and an assessment was done to ensure that they felt prepared and supported.
“We [didn’t] want to make any assumptions of what our corps members have access to,” Burke said, so those without laptops were given them.
Although all 250 City Year Boston corps members aren’t online yet, Burke said they will all be active before the end of the school year. The Grew in Hyde Park, she said, was one of the 25 schools City Year serves that was “ready on day one” for remote learning with a remote corps member. Specifically, Fairley, a fifth-year teacher, said the Grew was fortunate to have enough laptops or Chromebooks in classes before the pandemic hit.
In other cases, classrooms and educators are still adjusting.
Now in its eighth week of remote learning, the district has set some new requirements for teachers. Attendance must be taken daily, three hours of synchronous teaching is required per day, and no student will be held back a grade going forward.
Generally speaking, Fairley said “attendance is pretty solid.” “Fortunately, we already had quite a robust system,” he said, “not just in my classroom, but also I think across the [Grew]. We just moved more quickly I think than some schools.”
Despite Chromebooks being in use in the classroom prior to COVID-19, the transition from physical learning to remote learning wasn’t seamless. In one example, though large class discussions are typically encouraged in school, Fairley quickly learned that he would have to adjust to smaller breakout groups online. Having Barbera in the class from City Year helps with the facilitation.
“Quite honestly, a whole group discussion in the classroom was hard for some kids, so a whole group discussion on a Zoom session is like impossible,” Fairley said. “It’s definitely a benefit to have Ms. [Barbera].”
One hurdle to overcome was getting students to understand the difference between an academic Zoom chat room and one they use for cross-platform online games like Fortnite and Roblox. Fairley said he quickly shut that down and used various techniques to limit distractions.
“It’s not just students that are causing distractions, it’s literally what’s going on in their homes, which is kind of challenging,” Fairley said. He described some techniques he has adopted, like muting all participants during online classes.
Although Barbera is not physically with the students, she has also adjusted to remote learning. Rather than dealing with behavioral issues that would occur inside of the classroom, or putting out “the little fires” as Barbera would say, her focus is now more on academics. She also works on her group’s energy level and leads stretches, or movement breaks, with students as a way to get their blood pumping.
What is normally done in a hallway is now done on the computer screen, and Barbera said it’s making a difference. Along with others, she said she is able to help students assess how much work they have done, and what they can tackle together during breakout sessions.
“It gives us the chance to tell them you don’t have to be perfect with it, but let’s move forward and let’s keep working on it,” Barbera said.
Like other corps members, Barbera’s 10 to 12-hour work day has been significantly reduced due to remote learning. Days-long trainings have also been condensed to shorter online sessions. With these adjustments, Fairley has been able to help students with reading comprehension and math problems as the class begins to move onto “harder content.” In his opinion, new material is what keeps his students interested.
“The first day was really just, ‘How you guys doing?’ ‘How is life?’ Fairley said. “It was really really limited in what I was asking them to do.”
The class is now on track with its multiplication studies and is working with programs like Google Tour Builder to do creative projects on topics such as immigration.
“If we were just kind of doing the same thing everyday, I don’t think they would see a purpose in meeting with me,” Fairley said.
With a little more than a month left in the semester, Fairley sees the remote learning experience as something that might not be the same for every teacher and classroom. He believes the majority of his students find virtual learning to be a “welcomed distraction” at a time of uncertainty, and also said they understand that they have lost an important part of their educational experience—the daily interactions with peers, adults, other students, and in some cases City Year members.
“Kids aren’t getting any of that right now, so [what] they have it’s so much more limited, and so I wonder what that will mean for them next year,” he said.
No matter what next year will look like, Burke said a new group of corps members will be ready to meet students and teachers where they are at, as they did this year.
“Corps members, much like our students, are just incredibly resilient,” she said. “What they care about first and foremost [is] the students. We’re in a different space and I think we want to embrace that and recognize it and then be prepared to make sure we launch our corps members into a powerful year of service next year.”
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of its Pandemic Democracy Project.
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Jordan is a journalist with 7 News and a past president of Society of Professional Journalists-New England.