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Education in a quarantine is full of sharp learning curves

Parents, students, and teachers are helping each other grapple with coronavirus classrooms. But it’s more challenging for some than others

Education in a quarantine is full of sharp learning curves

Helen Van Suitial and Bathsheba Darmenpar study their lesson plan during their Brookstone Schools hours at their home in Charlotte, N.C. (Marc J. Kawanishi/Genesis Photos)

FOR RUTH TIALPAR, learning that her children’s Christian school would shift to online instruction during the coronavirus shutdown wasn’t the first time she had faced educational adversity: Growing up in a village in Burma, Tialpar suffered crippling polio and sometimes literally dragged herself to school.

Polio wasn’t her only struggle. Like other Burmese Christians, Tialpar also faced persecution. She and her sister received refugee status to come to the United States in 2008. Tialpar married in 2010. Her sister married a year later. Each couple has three young children, and they live near each other in Charlotte, N.C.

These days, they live very nearby. 

After the Christian school their children attend went virtual in March, Tialpar’s sister and family moved in: The internet works better at Tialpar’s house, and it makes online schooling easier. They also pool other resources. Within days of the coronavirus shutdown, all the working members of their family were laid off, at least temporarily. 

The bustling household now includes Tialpar’s parents, who moved to the United States last year. The days are filled with completing school lessons, helping neighbors, hoping for work to resume, and trying to keep aging grandparents safe. 

It’s one snapshot out of the millions of families thrust into coronavirus uncertainty. For many, the colossal upheaval includes the sudden task of educating children at home. 

At least for a season, home education has gone viral.

In the United States, some 50 million public school children shifted to online learning in March. Nearly 6 million children attend private schools, with many now learning from home. Even for the estimated 2 million or more students in homeschools, the adjustment can be steep, as outside activities screeched to a halt. 

For both teachers and parents, it’s a massive project that’s worked better in some corners than in others. (Public school officials in Los Angeles reported 40,000 high-school students weren’t checking in daily for online classes. Some 15,000 hadn’t logged on at all.)

It’s also a process that challenges some families in particularly acute ways: It’s often tough to work from home and manage a child’s online lessons, but for lower-income families now out of work, it’s sometimes challenging to figure out how to manage life in general. 

And as summer approaches, so do vexing questions: Will schools reopen in the fall? If they do, could they face another mass disruption during a potential second wave of COVID-19 outbreaks? 

For Tialpar and her family, the uncertain season has its difficulties, but their past experiences help with present trials. “Even worse scenarios than this we have been through,” she says. “God’s mercy never misses. Even with big problems, He lifts us up.”

Marc J. Kawanishi/Genesis Photos

Olivia Nguntintial works on her assignment from Brookstone Schools at her home in Charlotte. (Marc J. Kawanishi/Genesis Photos)

BY MID-MARCH, the United States faced one of its biggest educational problems in a century. With many states shutting down public schools and banning gatherings of more than 10 people, millions of schoolchildren went home indefinitely.

Kathryn Lewis was on spring break from her teaching job at Brookstone Schools when she realized the crisis likely would send her students home too. Lewis is a second grade teacher at the K-8 Christian school that primarily serves low-income families in Charlotte. Tialpar’s daughter is in her class.

As Lewis and other teachers considered how to teach some 185 students staying home, Steve Hall, head of school, started thinking through logistics: Livestream instruction wouldn’t work, since many families had more than one student enrolled. How could multiple siblings get online at one time with a limited number of devices? And for single parents who work, the class schedule needed to be flexible enough to fit each family’s needs. 

Over an intense four days, Hall and Principal Debi Preston worked with teachers to hammer out a plan: Teachers would record three or four short lessons for each day and upload them to a digital platform parents already used to access information from the school. 

Students would watch the videos when they could get online, and parents would have flexibility helping younger students upload their work. Teachers would take attendance based on students’ turning in the day’s assignments. 

Within days, kindergarten teacher Shannon Montgomery held up a whiteboard in a video and rehearsed the sounds of the alphabet. Before she started, she encouraged her students to repeat from home: “I have the mind of Christ.” 

Physical education teacher Dale Similton uploaded a video from a gym, leading students through a series of lunges and hops and stretches they could do at home. “Are you feeling the burn?” he asked. He included a Bible verse for the children to remember: “Keep vigilant watch over your heart; that’s where life starts.”

Meanwhile, Lewis wanted her second graders to continue what they had started when school began. Her classes had been going well, but she knew a handful of students were in danger of falling too far behind to pass. Being away from a structured class environment wouldn’t help. 

Marc J. Kawanishi/Genesis Photos

Kathryn Lewis, second grade teacher at Brookstone Schools, teachers her student Elijah in the educational building of First Baptist Church. (Marc J. Kawanishi/Genesis Photos)

SOME OF THEIR PARENTS faced plenty of challenges too. One mom had trouble helping her second grade child with math class. When online instruction started, she’d call Lewis and get her to walk through the word problems so she could help her child complete assignments. 

Lewis gained permission to meet with a few students to help keep up during the quarantine. Most weekdays, she meets with a different child, one-on-one, and works through assignments while seated a safe distance across the room. 

She says one single mom goes to work early at Walmart, taking her lunch break at 10 a.m. to pick up her son and bring him to the school for tutoring. It’s the kind of commitment that makes Lewis long to help the students succeed. “These are people you want to see thrive and do well,” she says. “And these are people who can be just pushed off the edge in the event of a crisis.”

Hall, the head of school, knew what a crisis of COVID-19’s magnitude could do to families already struggling to make ends meet. As the shutdown began, many parents lost jobs almost immediately. 

Tialpar’s husband and sister worked at a clothing warehouse that closed in March. Other parents worked in food and service industries that were hit hard fast.

Hall launched a survey to assess how the school could help. Through donor funds, the school purchased some 80 laptops so students could have what they needed to keep up with school online. 

Some school districts around the country launched similar efforts, but results have varied, particularly in sprawling districts: In some cases, students said they still didn’t have needed equipment weeks after going virtual.

Leaders at First Baptist Church of Charlotte, where Brookstone conducts its classes, started a food pantry for students’ families that includes fresh vegetables and meat. On weekdays, Hall greets parents sitting in cars under a portico. He hands them a pantry inventory to check off what they need. He then goes back inside and fills a cardboard box. One recent shopping trip yielded spaghetti noodles and sauce, canned fruit, cereal, pancake mix, and toilet paper. 

A flurry of donations has also helped the school give Walmart gift cards to parents to help meet basic needs. 

For some families, the needs are significant. (Parents at Brookstone pay tuition based on what they can afford, but less than 6 percent of the budget comes from student tuition and fees. The rest comes through donations.)

Hall thinks about the single mom who spent a few years homeless but recently got a job and an apartment. It was a major milestone. During the first week of the shutdown, she lost her job. Hall’s encouraging her to hang on to her apartment, as many families wait on stimulus and unemployment checks that could help.

Sometimes, even having a job can be a mixed blessing. Ayana Carpenter has a son and a niece in kindergarten. She works for an airline and hoped for a leave until the worst of the virus had passed. Instead, she was one of the few who weren’t furloughed. 

She’s glad for the job, but she worries about her own mom: Carpenter helps take care of her needs, even as her mother helps watch the children. Carpenter worries about contracting the virus and falling ill or giving it to her mother.  

Like other parents at the school (and millions across the country), an interconnectedness with grandparents who fall into high-risk categories can make figuring out a safe path forward a complicated prospect. 

Lewis knows families who need help in her class too, and she’s struck by the response she often receives when she offers the school’s assistance: “If someone else needs it more than us this week, please give it to them instead.” 

Marc J. Kawanishi/Genesis Photos

Steve Hall organizes food items in the temporary food pantry at First Baptist Church. (Marc J. Kawanishi/Genesis Photos)

MOST STUDENTS AT THE SCHOOL have adjusted well, despite other challenges. Amy Beigel teaches a fifth grade class, and says for parents who don’t speak fluent English, communicating plans can be a challenge.

Aaron Al, a Burmese pastor with children attending the school, says he encourages parents without English fluency to make sure their children complete every task on an assignment, even if the parents can’t understand the questions: “You have to sit with them again and again.”

Beigel says she’s been able to communicate with the parents through students, who speak English well. 

She records her lessons at home, while making sure her own children complete their assignments. Beigel and her husband, Duffy, who teaches the other fifth grade class at Brookstone, have four children: a 10th grader, eighth grader, sixth grader, and kindergartner.

The couple’s sunroom is now a math classroom, where Duffy uses a whiteboard for daily lessons. Beigel’s bedroom wall is covered with posters with the day’s goals, tips on how to write a good paragraph, and the class poem of the month. 

Beigel says she’s encouraged by her students’ progress. And she’s thankful for parents who are making sure their children turn in assignments, even if it’s 10 p.m. when a parent gets home from work. 

She’s also encouraged to see her students stepping up and doing things they struggled with before. At first, some in the class struggled with reading and writing assignments from a distance. She’s happy to see them improve: “I told them, ‘You can do hard things.’”

MORE HARD THINGS will likely come in the months ahead for schools of all kinds. As summer approaches, it’s unclear whether schools will resume as scheduled in the fall. Even if they do, some experts worry about a potential second wave of coronavirus outbreaks that could shut down schools again. 

Vernard Gant of the Association of Christian Schools International says the summer will reveal more about the well-being of Christian schools across the country, including ones that serve lower-income children. 

One potential scenario: If parents are frustrated with their experience of distance learning in public schools, they might try to enroll their children in private schools this fall. Another scenario: An economic collapse could tank the number of parents able to consider private education. Some of those might homeschool or look for charter school options with more parent involvement. 

At the moment, Gant is encouraging schools to engage in “scenario planning” instead of strategic planning. For example, school leaders might ask, How would we need to operate if our enrollment drops significantly in the fall? Gant thinks that’s a real possibility schools should consider, but he says it’s hard to assess the damage yet: “We’re still in the middle of the hurricane.” 

For now, many students, parents, and teachers are trying to make it through this phase of the storm. For Tialpar, the difficulties have been mixed with many moments of gratitude. She’s thankful to donors who make the food pantry possible while her family members wait on their work to resume.

She’s thankful for evenings with family worship in her home, when the children read Bible passages and sing Christian songs they’ve learned in school. She’s encouraged to see how they are learning, and “how they are learning about the Christian life.” 

Indeed, heavy months bring reminders of the poem by Emily Dickinson that Beigel’s fifth grade students were memorizing in April: “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers— / That perches in the soul— / And sings the tune without the words— / And never stops—at all.”  

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is WORLD’s national editor based in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.