Parents, Schools Quickly Adapt In Coronavirus Shutdown

Dave Copeland

DANVERS, MA — The coronavirus shutdown of Massachusetts schools added "classroom teacher" to the long list of roles parents play in a given day.

But for many parents, supervising remote-learning assignments sent home by their children's teacher has increased stress when they cope with job losses or try to work from home. Patch asked parents for feedback on the remote learning assignments they have been receiving from their children's schools. The responses ranged from concerns that their children are getting short-changed to understanding that Massachusetts schools are facing an unprecedented challenge during the coronavirus shutdown of all schools in Massachusetts through at least May 4.

"I feel like system was totally unprepared and has thrown the bulk of the work on parents who are trying to keep it all together," a single mother of a Melrose middle school and an elementary school student said. The comments from the Melrose mother, who asked that her name not be used for publication, were similar to comments several other parents made in interviews and email exchanges with Patch on Monday.

"This is adding an unnecessary stress and burden to all families, especially a single-parent home," she said. "Just dumping work on the kids without proper instruction is not the answer. I don’t have the skills to be a teacher and am not interested in becoming one."

Schools Systems Learn To Be Flexible

Danvers Public Schools Superintendent Lisa Dana doesn't hesitate when asked what was the biggest challenge for her staff and students in moving to a remote learning model in the weeks since Massachusetts schools were closed to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.

"In schools, we're used to planning out 180 days ahead of time. We know we're going to start in September and end in June, and we have these routines that are so ingrained into what we need to do day-in and day-out," Dana said. "Now, everyone needs to be flexible. We think we know where we're going and then there's a new announcement that changes everything, and we need to adapt to the new circumstances."

For Dana, Tuesday was day two of phase two in the new normal. After initially closing schools for two weeks beginning March 15, the state extended those closures until at least May 4. During the first few weeks of the closures, schools primarily focused on keeping students engaged with take remote-learning activities. Now they are developing more structured assignments, with the goal of keeping students focused on schoolwork for about three hours each day through a series of assignments and curriculum materials prepared by teachers.

"At first the focus was on social and emotional connections. The students didn't come to school on a Friday, then it was two weeks into April, and now it has been extended into May," Dana said.

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In Danvers, elementary school teachers have been working in grade-level teams to develop six, 30-minute activities for students to work on each day. Middle and high school students, who generally have five to six classes, are getting similar-length assignments from each of their teachers, who have been developing remote learning materials in curriculum-area teams.

Hanging over the entire effort, however, is more uncertainty. It's not yet clear if schools will be able to reopen as planned on May 4. And while the Massachusetts Department of Secondary and Elementary Education has said schools will not be required to stay in session past June 30, it still hasn't made a decision on whether to delay or cancel the MCAS tests. The state has received preliminary approval from federal authorities to do so, but education officials still need a bill filed by the Baker administration this week to pass the state legislature before it can make a decision on whether to cancel or postpone the tests.

Parents Raise Concerns

In Danvers, Dana was planning to follow an early-morning interview Tuesday by reaching out to a parent who had raised concerns about the quality of assignments that had been sent home for her student. She said other parents have raised concerns that, even with the remote learning assignments, their kids will be behind when schools reopen.

"Even in a normal school year, we have students that come into a class at different levels," Dana said "We regroup, and we may have one or two students who have issues we need to focus on. But in this case, it's not just one or two students —it's an entire district, an entire state and an entire country."

It's why Danvers has added "flexibility" and "compassion" to its core values. And its those two values Dana has been stressing when she speaks with teachers, staff, parents and students.

"We have to be compassionate and flexible for the parents as well," she said. "We have parents who are trying to work from home, and we have parents who have already lost a job. We have parents who still have to leave home to go to work. We have parents who are caring for someone who has the virus."

Other parents have been more understanding of the unprecedented challenges school systems in Massachusetts have taken on. In Mansfield, Candice Costello says her 11-year-old son has been reluctant to discuss his feelings about the coronavirus pandemic, so she has used school journaling assignments in hopes he will record some of the emotions he has been experiencing.

"The first week home was rough because the kids in the neighborhood were still knocking at the door and outside playing football and whatnot. Every day it gets easier for him," Costello said. "I think the Mansfield school system is doing great this far. Implementing an entirely new approach to education in such a short time had to be difficult."

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Dave Copeland writes for Patch and can be reached at dave.copeland@patch.com or by calling 617-433-7851. Follow him on Twitter (@CopeWrites) and Facebook (/copewrites).

This article originally appeared on the Danvers Patch