With the world still in the grip of a pandemic and millions of children across the United States preparing to begin the 2020-21 school term not by walking into classrooms but by logging on to computers, questions swirl:
When will in-person classes be able to resume? How will districts afford the staggering costs of adjusting for COVID-19? Will children educated in remote or hybrid settings fall behind? How can schools overcome the digital divide? Are school staff adequately prepared for new learning models? How will parents manage child-care challenges? How will schools manage virus outbreaks?
One thing is clear: This will be a school year unlike any other.
As schools reopen, The Inquirer talked to students, parents, teachers, and other school staff from around the region about their thoughts on the year to come.
Justina Bigelow, second-grade teacher, Potter-Thomas Elementary, Philadelphia School District, fourth year, and Amarachi Bigelow, Masterman School, seventh grade
Justina Bigelow loves the first day of school: her second graders walking wide-eyed into their classroom at Potter-Thomas Elementary, searching for their name tags on desks, talking to their friends after a summer apart, sharing details of their summers with their new teacher. But these days, Bigelow can’t help but feel a little melancholy. “We have to do the best for our students, but down within me, I am not feeling happy about the whole situation,” she said. “It’s nobody’s fault, but it’s not going to be the same.”
Abruptly shifting to remote instruction in the spring was a challenge, but at least teachers had more than six months of in-person instruction to build on. “I believe in building relationships with the students and their parents, but this time, we don’t know them,” Bigelow said. “We can still do it remotely, but it’s not going to look the same as face-to-face.”
Bigelow said she’s made strides thanks to professional development offerings and ideas swapped with other teachers but knows so much of this year is going to be about the little things. “I make a big deal each time I hear the little ‘ding ding’ sound that tells me they’ve logged on,” she said. “It’s not all about what you plan in your lesson.”
Like many teachers, Bigelow is also a parent — her daughter, Amarachi, is entering seventh grade at Masterman.
Amarachi “would rather be back in school,” she said, “but I got used to being at home.” On the plus side about virtual learning: Getting work done in advance, so Amarachi’s time is more her own. Learning at your own pace. Leisurely breaks between classes. In the negative column: “I miss that I can’t always ask the teachers things, and that we don’t have extracurricular activities anymore.”
Angela Chan, third-grade teacher, Andrew Jackson Elementary, Philadelphia School District, 18-year veteran
In the hot days of late August, Angela Chan spent part of her days bicycling around South Philadelphia, not for exercise but to meet each one of the 21 third graders assigned to her class this school year. It’s not her standard practice, but what about this year is standard? Masks on, she and her students would stand outside, face each other, and talk — establishing a bond she hopes will carry them through the school year. “I wanted to hear their voices, to get to know them,” Chan said. “I still hope to be able to create that community on screen with them.”
Chan is still hopeful in the ways she always is at the start of the school year — “every year, it’s my kids’ optimism, their hope and their inquisitiveness, that keep me excited; I’m still looking forward to that.” But there are new emotions, too — the uncertainty, the anxiety around things related to the pandemic and digital learning that she doesn’t feel she can prepare for. Chan prides herself on fostering a community of readers and writers, using literature she carefully selected and fund-raised to buy to engage her students. But how will that work now, when she can’t distribute the books to her students? “There are some things that I just can’t compromise. I get to amplify the voices of my students of color and use curricular materials that allow me to do that. Moving all of that to a virtual setting is very overwhelming.”
And though there’s a lot she can’t control, Chan knows what she can do: Be an anchor for her students, who are likely to come to her with their own anxieties and trauma related to the pandemic and to a world shaken by the killings by police of George Floyd and other unarmed Black people. “It’s important for kids to have a safe space to be who they are, and to be honest about what they’re feeling,” Chan said. “Being with people they can trust is so important.”
Christopher Dormer, superintendent, Norristown Area School District
Since he began working as a classroom assistant 25 years ago, Christopher Dormer has always seen the start of school as bringing new possibilities.
“Tabula rasa,” said Dormer, now the Norristown Area School District superintendent, citing the Latin term for clean slate.
He still feels that way, even though school this year will look nothing like before.
Dormer announced in July that his district would not return to in-person instruction until January, vowing to not put “anyone — not one child, not one staff member — in harm’s way.”
After making that decision, Dormer said, he’s been sleeping well at night, noting that Norristown’s positivity rate for the coronavirus has been higher than the rest of Montgomery County’s.
Despite school being virtual, Dormer still wants to provide a personal experience. Teachers will be able to video-conference with students to “have that face-to-face time,” he said. He’s encouraging teachers to approach the fall one day at a time — reminding them they don’t have to be perfect, just their best.
Normally, Dormer would visit classrooms — “where the magic happens,” he said. This year, he hopes to drop in on Zoom lessons.
He does worry about technology. “You’re relying on the internet connection the teacher has, the lighting in the room, the microphone,” he said. “You just want everything to go well.”
Audrey Margolies, senior, Radnor High School
Audrey Margolies isn’t convinced she needs to be starting her senior year virtually.
“I think there is a safe way to go into school” — especially in a district with resources like hers, said Margolies, who attends Radnor High School. Her younger sister, an incoming freshman, recently had in-person summer school where students wore masksand remained six feet apart.
While Margolies was disappointed by the news of a virtual start — a decision the school board made last week after new guidance from local health officials — she wasn’t stunned. She feels “pretty desensitized” by the pandemic.
Zoom classes are “really different” from being in school, Margolies said; in the spring, students often had their cameras off and were muted.
“The most I’m really going to be seeing of my classmates is probably a list of them,” she said.
Margolies had been looking forward to her senior year and all of her school’s traditions — in particular, the week before its football game against Lower Merion, typically packed with activities.
Between decorations and students dressing up in costumes, “just walking through the hallways” is exciting, Margolies said. And with her sister now a freshman, she was excited to share the experiences with her.
Still, Margolies is hopeful, believing Radnor will do what it can to bring students back.
In the meantime, she’s grappling with the “weird division” she sees among peers. Some who don’t seem to be practicing social distancing “are the people who are most upset about their senior year being ruined,” Margolies said. Yet others who have been doing so are taking the news more in stride -- “the people missing out the most,” she said.
Heather McConnell, mother of three, Tredyffrin/Easttown School District and Delaware Valley Friends School
While some parents have been frustrated by the lack of in-person instruction in their school districts, Heather McConnell isn’t sure when she’ll be comfortable sending any of her children back to classrooms.
McConnell’s twin daughters are entering seventh grade at Valley Forge Middle School in the Tredyffrin/Easttown School District, which is operating virtually at least through Oct. 12. While McConnell’s son, a fourth grader, will be at a private school offering in-person classes, she’s keeping him home for now, worried about potential outbreaks.
McConnell said she sees some people on local Facebook pages dismissing the pandemic as a hoax, which makes her uncomfortable with in-person schooling for her children, who have health issues.
“I trust the school to keep him safe — I really do,” said McConnell, who this fall enrolled her son in Delaware Valley Friends School because she felt his learning disability wasn’t adequately addressed by the public school district. “I don’t trust other parents.”
She’s been preparing for learning at home, upgrading her family’s internet speeds. She’s also paid for her son to do virtual summer school and for her daughters to receive tutoring and meet weekly with therapists to address mental health issues from the relative isolation.
“I know we’re fortunate,” McConnell said. “We can afford this.”
Frustrated with virtual instruction this spring, McConnell doesn’t know what to expect this fall. She will likely send her son into school if there’s no outbreak; she isn’t sure about her daughters. She doesn’t have to work and has the ability to stay home with them.
Whatever happens, “it’s a year. It’s not their entire life,” she said.
Lauren Pero, teaching assistant and mother of three, Council Rock School District
How the school year will unfold may be unknown, but Lauren Pero is optimistic.
In the spring, “we had to do this at a moment’s notice, in literally one day,” said Pero, a paraprofessional and mother of three in the Council Rock School District. Now, “I feel like we totally have this. I’m not too worried about it.”
Like many districts around the region, Council Rock is starting the year virtually, with plans to bring students back part time in late September. Pero and other district staff are getting two weeks of professional development before her children — one in third grade, the others a freshman and junior in high school — start school Sept. 8.
When the district announced it would begin virtually, Pero’s older daughters cried. But she thinks the remote start will let students ease into the year after months of staying home. “If my kids did go back five days a week, I think it would be a shock to them,” she said.
Pero expects to eventually be in school four days a week under the district’s hybrid plan, while her daughters would be there two days. Their grandparents live nearby and will be able to help, Pero said.
A former teacher who now works as an assistant to students with learning disabilities, Pero has 16 students assigned to her this fall. She’s planning a “road trip” to meet them in person — socially distanced — before school begins virtually.
Pero hopes sports take place this fall. Children “need some sort of normalcy,” she said.
Fatihah Abdur-Rahman, principal Forest Hill Elementary School, Camden
Forest Hill Elementary School principal Fatihah Abdur-Rahman is on a mission to change the narrative for her Camden students.
She hopes to use virtual learning to reach students on a new level with technology and boost student performance. The district, which is beginning the school year with remote instruction, has equipped every student at her K-through-fifth-grade school with electronic devices.
“We’re closing the gap and leveling the playing field,” said Abdur-Rahman. “Technology is not going to be the barrier.”
Like many Camden schools, Forest Hill is struggling. Most of its roughly 370 students are economically disadvantaged. They lag in standardized state test scores, with only about 20% proficient in language arts and 13% in math.
In her third year as principal, Abdur-Rahman, 45, said she has tasked her teachers with finding ways to engage students who can easily be distracted while learning at home. The district hopes to begin in-person learning in January.
“If we don’t get that right, we’re going to have children check out,” she said.
Known for her hands-on approach, Abdur-Rahman plans to keep students and parents connected with activities such as “Harambee Day” on Fridays to celebrate achievements. Harambee means “pull together” in Swahili.
On Wednesdays, she plans to continue her summertime story-hour afternoons in Farnham Park in the city’s Parkside neighborhood, a few blocks from the school.
She has also compiled “calming bags” to give students struggling to cope with the school changes. The bags contain things such as Play-Doh, slime, and an MP3 player to listen to music to ease any anxiety.
“This is traumatic for a lot of kids, not being able to go to school. Their world has been abruptly changed,” Abdur-Rahman said.
The school day will also be different for Abdur-Rahman, who normally greets students and staff at the front door. She will especially miss hugging students.
“I love my kids as if they are my own. Like any parent, when your children are away, you miss them,” she said.
Marguerite Ruff, classroom assistant, John Marshall Elementary, Philadelphia School District, 19-year veteran
The hardest thing about the pandemic for Marguerite Ruff is not the worry about getting sick or the uncertainty of not knowing when things will return to normal. It’s not being able to touch the young children she works with as a special-education classroom assistant at John Marshall Elementary in Frankford. “I’m a hugger,” she said. “I love my babies.” Ruff, who has worked for the Philadelphia School District for 19 years, is disappointed but relieved that classes will happen fully virtually at least through mid-November. “It really isn’t safe to be in the building,” she said. “Numbers keep going up and down. I want it to be steady for some time before going back in.”
As eager as she is to get back into classrooms, Ruff spends a lot of time thinking about how her students will adjust. She works with younger elementary-age children with special needs, for whom mask-wearing is a challenge. “They’re really sensitive,” Ruff said. “It’s hard to get our kids to wash their hands, and they’re going to have to do that constantly. They don’t understand six feet of distance.”
Ruff doesn’t consider herself tech-savvy, and adjusting to supporting her students virtually has been a challenge, but she’s got several months under her belt now, and feels more confident after a spring and extended school year and summer classes spent online, making sure students were logging on, assisting them when they got stuck, keeping them on task. “In the spring, it was trial-and-error,” Ruff said. “But we got more acclimated, and it got better the more we did it. I enjoyed it. I was amazed at what the teachers were able to do this summer.”
There are things to look forward to, Ruff said. “Although I can’t be with the kids in their space, I can still see them,” she said. “I am looking forward to that interaction. I miss it.”
Lena Talmadge, 10th grader, Parkway Center City Middle College High School, Philadelphia School District
On the cusp of her sophomore year in high school, Lena Talmadge finds herself in an odd place: “I’m scared to go back to the classroom,” said Talmadge, 15, “and I’m scared to not go back to the classroom.”
There are no good solutions right now, said Talmadge, who attends Parkway Center City Middle College, a Philadelphia School District high school where students earn community college degrees while completing high school coursework. She feels she learns better when she’s face-to-face with her teachers, something that won’t happen at least through November given Philadelphia’s all-remote start to the school year. “Being in the class with other kids, it helps with my learning,” Talmadge said. “It’s nice to be around other people — knowing if I don’t understand something, I’m not the only one. I need to be in a classroom.”
But she also knows people who have been sickened by COVID-19, and takes the pandemic seriously. “It’s really dangerous,” she said. “I don’t want to go back and I get sick, then I’m putting the rest of my family at risk. I don’t want anybody to get sick.”
Gregory J. Cappello, veteran educator, West Deptford Township school superintendent
West Deptford School Superintendent Gregory J. Cappello spent months carefully crafting a reopening plan to return more than 3,000 students in his Gloucester County district to their classrooms.
And then came the difficult realization that the hybrid model that called for students to spend two days in school and the remaining days in virtual classes would not work. There were not enough teachers to juggle the hybrid schedule as well as in-person instruction for special-needs students and those who opted for remote-only learning.
“We just couldn’t do it,” said Cappello, a former English teacher starting his second year as schools chief. “Everyone is disappointed.”
The school board decided Aug. 24 to start the school year on Sept. 8 with online classes until the second marking period begins in November. Cappello said that would allow the district time to possibly hire long-term substitutes and make schedule changes to allow in-person instruction to work. The district believes it can meet health and safety standards, he said.
Cappello said teachers, caught off guard when schools shut down abruptly in March, have been preparing lesson plans for synchronous learning that provides more interaction with students. There is also a new program, Schoology, an online platform where students can easily retrieve assignments and submit homework, he said.
“Everybody is very, very much working to open,” said Cappello. “We’re trying to make it the best opportunity possible.”
Cappello said athletes will be able to participate in interscholastic sports, set to resume Sept. 14 with practices and games in sports such as football, soccer, field hockey, and cross-country set to begin in early October. There will also be clubs and activities.
“We’re definitely looking for some normalcy,” he said.
An educator for more than two decades and an attorney specializing in school harassment and bullying cases, Cappello said he will miss welcoming students on the first day of school.
“We’re going to miss seeing the students face-to-face,” said Cappello, the father of four. “There’s no real replacement for it.”
Tessa Kipnis, 11, seventh grader at Rosa International Middle School, Cherry Hill
Seventh grader Tessa Kipnis, 11, misses everything about school, especially her friends and teachers at Rosa International Middle School in Cherry Hill.
Her biggest wish: a sense of normalcy and routine.
She won’t get that immediately when school begins next week. Cherry Hill is bringing its 11,000 students back to school initially for two half-days a week and the remaining days will be virtual instruction.
“When we’re there, it’s definitely going to be different,” she said. “I hope everyone will adjust quickly and it will feel normalish.”
Even with that, school won’t feel quite the same without a lunch period when she normally would socialize with her friends. Classes will let out midday. The district has also canceled assemblies and field trips due to safety concerns.
Tessa, who plays on the school’s basketball team, has her fingers crossed that the team will be allowed to play. She also plays in the Cherry Hill League, but that season has been scrapped, she said.
“It will be OK. I can always play next year,” she said matter-of-factly.
When the coronavirus closed schools in March, Tessa said, her teachers did a good job with virtual learning. But she believes she will fare better in a classroom with about 10 of her peers. Her favorite subjects are math and language arts.
“Being home doing everything on my computer felt weird,” said Tessa. “It just didn’t feel like school.”
She believes the hybrid model was the best decision due to health and safety concerns. Big sister Eloise, 13, will be a freshman at Cherry Hill High School East.
“It was definitely a smart decision,” she said.
But Tessa and her mom, Patricia, worry that Cherry Hill, one of the largest school systems in South Jersey, could change its plans. The teachers’ union has raised concerns about proper ventilation.
“I feel sad for them,” said Patricia Kipnis, a lawyer. “I want them to go to school. They need to go to school.”
Debbie Wash, third-grade special-education teacher, Berlin Township School District
After graduating from Pennsauken High School in 1983, Debbie Wash decided to follow in the footsteps of her favorite teachers. They gave her a love for English and literature.
For more than three decades, Wash, 55, has sought to have the same impact on her students, most recently at John F. Kennedy Elementary School in West Berlin, where she is a third-grade special-education teacher.
This school year will be different and not just because of COVID-19 and a hybrid learning plan that will enroll students at the K-through-third-grade school for a combination of in-person and virtual-instruction days.
Wash, who lives in West Berlin, plans to retire at the end of the school year. The mother of two adult children said she has no regrets about her career choice but wants to travel and spend more time with her first grandchild.
“I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything differently,” she said.
Wash, who teaches math and language arts in a resource center, said uncertainty about the school year has left her and fellow teachers feeling anxious. They worry about their health and safety in a building that is more than 50 years old and about possible last-minute changes to the reopening plan.
“Things are just very scary now. There are just so many unknowns,” said Wash, who helps care for her elderly father. “Who can get sick? Who can carry it?”
Wash said she broke down in tears when she began setting up her classroom for her 21st year at Kennedy. She was unsure about how to decorate, given health and safety guidelines.
The biggest challenge will be teaching students and following social distancing rules, she said. She typically places her students at tables in small groups for team-building and reinforcement activities.
Wash, a tutor during the summer, said she and her colleagues remain committed to teaching. They hope to return soon to having their students in class five days a week, she said.
“It’s not optimal, but teachers always make it work,” she said. “We don’t want to let the kids down.”