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Pandemic Academics: How teachers are preparing for the return to school

Brighton High School

For Brighton High School social studies teacher Jennifer Pacatte, it hasn't exactly been a summer of fun and relaxation.  

"I would say it's been this pervasive state of anxiety for every teacher I know," she said.

Much of that anxiety, she said, is because until a few weeks ago, schools in New York didn't even know if they'd be allowed to reopen.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced on Aug. 7 that students can return to the classroom if coronavirus transmission rates stay below a certain threshold.

Most districts in the Rochester-Finger Lakes region are planning a combination of in-person and remote learning when the school year begins next month. 

Pacatte said every effort will be made to maintain high learning standards, but the normal school experience has been stripped away from students.

"And I'm not sure everybody's ready for that reality," she said. "I think it's gonna be an unfortunate wakeup call when we get back into the school, what it actually feels like."

Pacatte also wonders whether safety measures will be enough to keep the coronavirus from spreading in schools. 

In the Seneca Falls Central School District, classrooms have been rearranged so students can stay 6 feet apart and take their masks off.

"And that's kind of scary as a teacher to be entering the room, 'cause I haven't gone to a restaurant yet and eaten inside," said Barb Reese, a physics teacher at Mynderse Academy.

Despite those worries, Reese is excited to start school.

Some of her classes will likely be taught online; 28 percent of Seneca Falls students are opting to do all of their work at home.

But this will not be like last spring, when schools were forced to abruptly shift to remote learning.  Leeway was given to both students and teachers then because everyone was just trying to cope.

Now classes will be more structured.

"And so, we're trying to make expectations clear that when we have class, it's your job to be there and we shouldn't be so much in our beds with our screens off," Reese said. "We need to be at a desk -- at a place where we can actually do work, not the same place that we actually slept, probably."

Reese is one of about 100 local teachers who was trained in online teaching at Finger Lakes Community College this summer.

Credit provided photo
Barb Reese, physics teacher at Mynderse Academy in Seneca Falls

The free sessions included best practices for synchronous distance learning, where classes are held in real time and teachers and students are interacting with each other.       

FLCC’s Jackie Tiermini collaborates with area school districts.  She said one teaching model, known as "backward design," is helpful in this context.  

That's an approach in which teachers first identify the skills or knowledge that students should have by the end of the term and then plan a course to help them meet those goals.

"It's sort of allows the teacher the opportunity to really focus on the outcomes as opposed to just the activities," Tiermini said.

About 10 to 15 teachers in the Bloomfield Central School district enrolled in the training.  

Karen Soanes, the district's director of technology and professional development, said the educators take their role seriously and worked through the summer on their digital teaching skills.

"I think we definitely have a better sense of where it fell apart for students and families in the spring."

Soanes agreed with Reese that there wasn't enough time for planning and structure then, but she said they're starting the new school year with clear expectations for students who will participate in distance learning.

"For example," she explained, "how to use the 'raise your hand' feature, how to wait your turn to participate, what an appropriate chat response looks like ... all of those we're going to pre-teach ahead of time as expectations instead of floundering through, OK, why didn't that Zoom lesson work so well? It was because everyone was trying to speak at once, and nobody was muted."

Pacatte agreed that there will more accountability this school year, but she said districts haven't been able to fix every problem.

For instance, she believes equitable access for students is still a serious concern.

"Whether it's the ability of students to concentrate in their homes to be online while they might still may be taking care of siblings," she said. "Kids at home without parents because they are working, so they don't have guidance."

Another online strategy teachers said they've been practicing is the use of ice-breakers, not just to get a laugh, but to build a sense of community for students who may be stressed. 

Pacatte said the return to school will be anxiety-provoking for everybody, but teachers, students, parents, and administrators are all trying their best.

"I don't know anybody who doesn't want this to work," Pacatte said. "We just have to be generous and gracious with each other."

Beth Adams joined WXXI as host of Morning Edition in 2012 after a more than two-decade radio career. She was the longtime host of the WHAM Morning News in Rochester. Her career also took her from radio stations in Elmira, New York, to Miami, Florida.