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‘We’re forever changed’: Schools share challenges and lessons from the pandemic

“It was evident that the pandemic affected everyone differently, and kids who needed the most support often felt the hardest to reach," said Angela Chan, a Philadelphia teacher.

Justina Bigelow, a 2nd grade teacher at Potter-Thomas Elementary School in North Philadelphia, spent part of her year simultaneously teaching students in person and remotely. Virtual learning would never be her first choice, she said, but she and her students made the most of the year.
Justina Bigelow, a 2nd grade teacher at Potter-Thomas Elementary School in North Philadelphia, spent part of her year simultaneously teaching students in person and remotely. Virtual learning would never be her first choice, she said, but she and her students made the most of the year.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Students struggled with making connections virtually but picked up real-world problem-solving skills. Teachers mastered new technology on the fly and worried about kids they saw only inside a black box on a screen. Superintendents wrestled with public health decisions and faced intense scrutiny over when and how to bring children back to classrooms.

COVID-19 challenged schools in ways no one could have imagined. In 2020, The Inquirer asked a group of educators, parents, and students across the region about their hopes and fears for the coming school year. As the final bell rings this month, we returned to them for an update on how the year went, and with one more question: What did you learn?

» READ MORE: A school year like no other

Justina Bigelow, teacher, Potter-Thomas Elementary

Even though the year threw curveball after curveball at educators, Justina Bigelow felt ready to handle them.

She used small-group instruction to bond with and tailor lessons for each of her students in the North Philadelphia school. She got through more of the second-grade curriculum than she ever has before, she said — because of the virtual setup, she spent much less time correcting behaviors and transitioning children from activity to activity.

After bracing for the worst, “things turned out much better than I expected,” Bigelow said. And there were memorable moments.

She recalled the little girl who each morning logged on to Google Classroom early, eager to connect with her teacher.

» READ MORE: Teacher by day, panther by lunchtime: how one school kept students engaged

Bigelow was usually busy with last-minute prep when the child showed up. But she knew the little girl needed something; remote instruction made building community tougher, with most Philadelphia students learning virtually all year.

“Once I said, ‘Good morning,’ she just brightened up,” Bigelow said.

Remote instruction wouldn’t be her first choice, Bigelow said, but the year has taught her a lot, from technology tricks to new ways to engage reluctant students.

“Now, I’ll appreciate things I’ve taken for granted,” she said. “And if I can do this remotely, I can do it better in person.”

Christopher Dormer, superintendent, Norristown Area School District

As neighboring districts brought students back in person and the school reopening debate intensified, Norristown was one of the last to return to classrooms. Students didn’t come back until April.

Christopher Dormer still feels good about the decision.

“My primary focus was on health and safety,” he said. “With so much unknown, I said I’m not going to be cavalier here and push the envelope.”

Data emerged suggesting schools had not played large roles in spreading the virus. Parental worries and frustrations boiled over at school board meetings. Researchers sought to assess the academic fallout.

“Could we have done this a month earlier, two months earlier? Probably. But at the end of the day, we kept everybody safe,” Dormer said. “We didn’t lose anybody to hospitalization, or long-term effects.”

The district will strive to meet other student needs this summer and next year, he said. Norristown is using some of its $20 million in federal relief aid for an expanded summer program open to all students.

Come September, when the district plans to be open full-time, all 12 of its schools will offer afterschool tutoring three days a week.

Norristown is also continuing to focus on safety, with upgrades planned to its HVAC system, Dormer said. He anticipates rapid COVID-19 testing will help keep kids in school, enabling close contacts who test negative to stay in class.

“Are there going to be nerves? Sure,” Dormer said. “The pandemic’s not over.”

Jordan Hawkins, 12th grader, Charles E. Brimm Medical Arts High School

Jordan Hawkins, 17, was determined to get good grades her senior year at her Camden school, even if it meant attending online classes through the tiny screen on her cellphone.

She hadn’t received a district laptop, and for two months she was the only student in class without a computer. She worried she would get marked absent because she couldn’t be seen on camera.

Her academics got a boost when an Inquirer reader gave her a state-of-the-art laptop after reading her story.

“When I got the computer, life was easier,” Hawkins said. Camden high school students never returned to in-person learning, so the laptop was a lifeline.

» READ MORE: Bridging the digital divide for the ‘have’ and ‘have nots’: How schools are meeting the need during remote learning

Still, there were other challenges for Hawkins, the eldest of five. Her family was temporarily homeless after a fire severely damaged their home; they stayed at a motel or with relatives. And she often helped her siblings with their schoolwork in the same room, where it could get noisy.

“The year has been very, very tough,” said Sherie Person, her mother. “She was so dedicated.”

An honor student, Hawkins worked to maintain her straight-A record. After attending school virtually each day until 1 p.m., she also worked at Kohl’s.

Hawkins desperately missed attending school in person and seeing her friends. Her class had no senior trip.

But there were bright spots at the end: Thursday was Brimm’s prom, the first time the class met in person this year. Hawkins was crowned prom queen.

And after graduating on June 21, Hawkins is headed to the University of Arizona, where she will major in biology. Living through a pandemic year hasn’t altered her dream: She wants to become a doctor.

Heather McConnell, parent, Tredyffrin/Easttown School District and Delaware Valley Friends School

The changes brought on by the pandemic affected children in different ways. Heather McConnell saw the contrast in her own family.

While one of McConnell’s twin daughters — both seventh graders in Tredyffrin/Easttown — flourished in virtual school, the other struggled. “Mentally, it was a really tough year for her,” McConnell said. Middle school, already a difficult time for many, presented new challenges on the computer.

“She didn’t want to put her face on Zoom meetings,” McConnell said.

McConnell kept both her daughters home until March. She was more comfortable with sending her son, a fourth grader, back to the classroom at Delaware Valley Friends. “There was never a COVID scare,” she said. “He did fantastic.”

When her daughters returned in person, the school year still felt in limbo. Friends decided to stay virtual, and one of her daughters “kind of lost her support system,” McConnell said.

And even though McConnell was able to stay home with her children, the year was still tough.

“I was barely scraping by, and I didn’t have that additional pressure of a job,” she said. “It’s really overwhelming for parents.”

She’s hoping fall brings more normalcy. Her daughters have been vaccinated, and McConnell hopes her son will be soon.

“I’m excited for all of them,” she said.

Angela Chan, teacher, Andrew Jackson Elementary

Angela Chan’s students showed up for class and turned their cameras on. But she still worried about her third graders at the South Philadelphia school.

“It was really hard to engage quite a few of my students,” Chan said. “It was evident that the pandemic affected everyone differently, and kids who needed the most support often felt the hardest to reach. They were there physically, but their minds weren’t always with us.”

She felt limited in the ways she could reach them.

But Chan, who was named one of Philadelphia’s 60 top teachers this spring, made sure to find joy in the challenge.

“Everybody was so patient, so flexible,” Chan said. And her 20 students certainly advanced in technological skills — even stepping into the role of teaching their teacher, showing Chan how to crop a picture on Google Slides, for instance. “It’s showed that it’s OK not to have all the answers and to ask for help,” she said.

Ten of her students returned for in-person instruction this spring, and Chan said she saw them blossom. Many told her they didn’t want the school year to end.

“That really touches me,” she said. “The time that we have spent together really is meaningful.”

Audrey Margolies, 12th grader, Radnor High School

It wasn’t what she hoped her senior year would be, but Audrey Margolies tried to make the most of it.

Radnor began hybrid instruction in the fall, and Margolies went to school in person as much as she could, though others took a different approach.

“A lot of people would Zoom in for one class, then come in later in the day” so they could sleep in, Margolies said.

She tried to stick to a routine. But the year brought uncertainty. “Schedules were constantly changing, and everybody was just on edge,” Margolies said. Her outlook began to improve once she knew when she could get vaccinated.

“The hardest part this year was just not knowing what the future looked like at all,” she said. Now, “there’s a sense of relief. The end is visible.”

While she missed out on some traditions she had been looking forward to, like Radnor’s rivalry week with Lower Merion, her final days in high school have been fun. She attended prom and a senior carnival.

She’s excited to head to Emory University in Atlanta this fall, and — because the college is requiring students to be vaccinated — for fear of the virus to subside.

“Hopefully, it will be as normal as possible,” she said.

Fatihah Abdur-Rahman, principal, Forest Hill Elementary

For Fatihah Abdur-Rahman, a Camden principal, the year was about finding an alternative to her hands-on approach to reach students learning remotely.

She told teachers to find new ways to connect with students and encouraged them to embrace new technology. She launched “Harambee Day” on Fridays, a virtual celebration to recognize achievements by students and their parents, a nod to the Swahili word meaning “pull together.” It was such a success she intends to continue it.

Forest Hill was among the first Camden schools to reopen for in-person instruction in April when the district allowed younger students to return. But enrollment dropped from nearly 400 students a year ago to about 300. Some parents, overwhelmed by remote learning, opted not to have their kindergartners participate. Others transferred their children to charter schools, she said, which fully reopened in September.

Her students, already lagging in language arts and math before the pandemic, have fallen further behind.

Abdur-Rahman knows she has her work cut out for her for next school year. More students are arriving in September, when Camden closes three schools.

“We’re not going back to business as usual,” Abdur-Rahman said. “I’m extremely hopeful that we’ll get better and stronger.”

Lauren Pero, teaching assistant and parent, Council Rock School District

It was a juggling act for Lauren Pero: First she was home as her two teenagers, one of their friends, and her 8-year-old attended school remotely while Pero worked online with her own special-needs students in the Bucks district.

Then came hybrid learning. Pero’s children returned to school Mondays and Tuesdays, while she was back Thursdays and Fridays. Pero’s mother helped out at home but was also helping Pero’s brother with his children. By January, Pero and her kids had returned to school five days a week.

“I kind of embraced it,” Pero said of the ever-shifting situation. “I felt like it was an adventure.”

Simultaneously teaching students in-person and remotely was “certainly a challenge,” she said.

But Pero is proud of how students — and their teachers — adapted. “There were times on a Saturday night when I was Zooming with a kid, and another teacher was Zooming with my children,” she said. “They just did a tremendous job.”

Next year will be more normal, she predicts, but will still require adjustments.

“It’s going to be a hard transition,” she said. “We’re all forever changed from this.”

Marguerite Ruff, special-education assistant, John Marshall Elementary

Even after two decades as a paraprofessional, Marguerite Ruff relishes student interactions — she thrives in the one-on-one, the connections.

So the year at her Frankford school was “very, very taxing.”

Before school buildings reopened, Ruff mostly spent virtual lessons in breakout rooms with students. Attendance was a struggle for the children in her autistic support class, who needed parental support to complete lessons.

“A lot of children very rarely showed up,” Ruff said. “And some, if they do come, they’re in and out, they might come in for a few minutes and log off, or they’ll come in and won’t be on camera, so you don’t know what they’re doing or even if they’re there.”

She was thrilled when students were allowed to return to school in March, but most of hers remained fully virtual, as did about 70% of Philadelphia children eligible to return.

“You do want to be safe, but I wish they all could have come back,” Ruff said. “It really was a disservice, being virtual. A lot of our children need to be seen.”

Lena Talmadge, 10th grader, Parkway Center City Middle College

Lena Talmadge struggled with some courses at Parkway Center City Middle College, a Philadelphia high school. But often she couldn’t bring herself to log on for her teachers’ office hours, after eight hours spent in front of a computer.

“This year was definitely challenging; I had a lot of breakdowns,” Talmadge said. “Talking through a computer felt weird — we just didn’t connect as much as we would have if we were in school. It was just really hard to focus.”

Talmadge spent most of her time in her room. She felt isolated. She mostly used her phone to complete work. The one benefit she can see to a year of remote schooling?

“It did improve my sleep schedule,” Talmadge said. Instead of having to wake every morning at 5:30 a.m., she could sleep until 8.

Debbie Wash, third-grade teacher, John F. Kennedy Elementary

There were times when teacher Debbie Wash wondered whether she would make it through the school year, between remote learning, returning to the classroom, and her own battle with COVID-19.

“The changes were happening so fast,” said Wash, a third-grade special-education teacher at the school in West Berlin. “You were never really comfortable with what you were doing.”

The Camden County school began the year with a hybrid learning plan. In April, students returned to the classroom four days a week.

Wash said she wasn’t well-prepared to teach remotely, but she improved as the year progressed. Her students mostly adjusted, though some struggled with remote learning and recent exams showed that not all students excelled academically, she said.

“As the year went on, it never measured up to what a school year could be,” Wash said. “Kids really do need that interaction.”

As the year ends, so will her career. The 55-year-old plans to keep a pledge she made in September: retirement, after 34 years in the classroom.