January 29, 2021 | Abby Liu
In August, before the 2020-21 school year started, second grade teacher Melia McHugh, like most teachers, felt anxious. She thought about all of the new technology that she would need to use to support both in-person and distance learning during the pandemic. Seesaw. Zoom. Math apps. Other online learning tools. It seemed overwhelming. Yet once school started, she was surprised that she picked them up fairly quickly. Soon she felt very comfortable using the technologies in her classroom. It helped that there was a sense within the community that everyone’s in it together, learning together. There was a lot of grace.
Today most of Ms. McHugh’s 11 second grade students attend school in-person four days a week, with a few students who are full-time distance learners. The distance learners, especially, enjoy Wednesdays because everyone in the class distance learns on that day. And there is something oddly personal about Zoom, notes Ms. McHugh. The classroom community sees the inside of each other’s homes, including appearances from parents, pets, and/or siblings. She thinks that it brings the class closer to have a window into each other’s lives.
Like pre-pandemic times, every morning, class begins with a morning meeting. Distance learners on Zoom are projected onto the white board in the front so the in-person students can see them. Ms. McHugh pans her laptop around the classroom so that the distance learners can see the in-person students and feel like they are a part of the community. At lunch or snack, she’ll put a laptop with the distance learners on Zoom on a table with other students so that they can all chat.
When the class breaks into small groups to work on subjects like reading, Ms. McHugh might have four in-person students and one distance learner who joins the group through a laptop at the table. She’s noticed that the distance learners like to be able to see her. “Sometimes, I’ll ask if anyone has questions, and no one will. But then if I move around the classroom and am out of the view of the camera, my distance learners will call out for me,” says Ms. McHugh. “It has taken some time for remote students to learn that, just because they can’t see me, I can still see and hear them. They still have to wait their turn, just like they would if they were in the classroom.”
The students have adapted quite nicely, though. Initially, Ms. McHugh anticipated her students would be six months behind in reading because of the remote learning from March through June last year. That wasn’t the case. Her students have all been ahead of where she would have expected, even during non-pandemic times. Subjects like science, which have hands-on components, have also gone well. A recent study of soil and worms had in-person students observing and picking up worms, and showing them to their peers through the camera. Ms. McHugh was surprised at how engaged the remote students were able to be, and that when asked, stated that they felt very much a part of the study.
One thing that has changed with the hybrid model is that students are much more aware of the daily schedule than they used to be. Mapped out on Seesaw, the application teachers use to communicate with students and parents, the daily schedule can feel rigid. Now that students see and follow the schedule on Seesaw, some feel like the schedule has to happen in the order it is written. Ms. McHugh is used to having flexibility in the day, to adjust for the needs of the class. When she wants to make a change in the moment, like switching park and lunch, Ms. McHugh finds that students sometimes object because it isn’t “on the schedule.”
If she could wave a magic wand and change anything right now, she would love to give her students a hug when they are sad or lonely. She would bring back in-person worship and singing, particularly for the students in her class who joined the school this year and have never experienced Mustard Seed’s in-person worship. “They were so happy when we heard singing and music during the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration video,” she says. “They don’t know that in normal times we sing every day!”
Overall, Ms. McHugh is grateful for the support of the parents. Their attentiveness has made the days of remote learning go smoothly. She’s amazed by the organization, flexibility, and support of the Lower School teaching team. She knows that it would be easy to feel lost and lonely during this time, but her colleagues have cared for one another and maintained a sense of connection.
And while this is a very demanding time, it is also the story of a lot of things going right at school. Even still, Ms. McHugh falls asleep by 9 PM most nights. These days of teaching both in-person and remote students simultaneously, and then tending to her own family take a lot of energy!