Online school, in-person kids lag

Phaedra Simon, a single mom of three from Opelousas, Louisiana
I’m not trained to teach them how to read. It’s totally different from how I learned.

Simon worked hard to keep her children — ages 9, 8 and 7 — on track when they started the year virtually like everyone else in the St. Landry Parish school district. She even quit her job to give her youngest the attention he needed.

As soon as the chance came to return to in-person learning, she seized it, even as she worries about their health. “I’m not trained to teach them how to read,” Simon said. 

She’s continued working with them, reading at home together every night. “I’m still nervous, waiting to see their new report cards,” Simon said. 

School looks different for kids and parents during the COVID-19 pandemic

Kindergarteners and their parents explain what school is like a year into the COVID-19 pandemic.

USA TODAY

Nearly a year into remote learning, instilling good learning habits remains a daily mission for Pam Bowling, a first grade teacher at Allen Elementary School in eastern Kentucky. She peppers every virtual lesson with positive narration – “Good job! I hear reading books being opened!” – a management technique usually reserved for kids off-task in an actual classroom. 

Only now, the 6- and 7-year-olds in Bowling’s class log on from their homes, many still donning pajamas.

Pam Bowling, a first grade teacher at Allen Elementary School in Allen City, Ky., reviews sight words with her class during a Feb. 15, 2021 virtual lesson.

Pam Bowling, a first grade teacher at Allen Elementary School in Allen City, Ky., reviews sight words with her class during a Feb. 15, 2021 virtual lesson.
Floyd County Public Schools

“Make sure we’re sitting up,” Bowling trilled at the start of her daily 9 a.m. reading session. “I want you to be comfortable, but I don’t want you to be too comfortable, right? We don’t want to fall asleep. We want to make sure we’re sitting up, paying attention, just like we were at school.”

On a mid-February morning, one perched at a desk, another sprawled on a couch, a third sat cross-legged in her bed, a stuffed Olaf, the snowman from the movie “Frozen,” at her side.

“I’ve got ’em with hair that looks like they’ve been shot out of a cannon,” joked Bowling, an educator for 25 years. “They’re getting up, and their hair is every which way. And you can tell they’re sleepy.” 

Even for veterans such as Bowling, teaching students to read over a videoconference call is an unprecedented challenge.

Laura Taylor, early learning professor from Rhodes College
It’s particularly hard for teachers right now. I don’t think you can make the same connections, give the same in-the-moment feedback or at least as often as you might be if you had all of your students in a room and you could walk around to them and listen into them reading for a minute or two.

“It’s particularly hard for teachers right now,” said Taylor, the early learning professor from Rhodes College. “I don’t think you can make the same connections, give the same in-the-moment feedback or at least as often as you might be if you had all of your students in a room.”

In Floyd County, a community of about 36,000 in Kentucky’s rural Appalachia region, Bowling’s pleas for focus and participation are motivated by an unsettling reality: Poverty rates are high, and educational attainment is low. There is no time to waste.

Except for a brief return to in-person classes in the early fall, Bowling, 50, has been teaching from her dining room, a “focus wall” displaying weekly spelling words and reading skills affixed to a wooden hutch behind her seat.

“I was very skeptical (of remote learning),” Bowling recalled. “I said, ‘I don’t know how we’re going to read through the camera. I don’t know how that’s going to translate.’”

There was no sign of her early skepticism during the class’s mid-February lesson as Bowling and her students tackled sight words, spelling with the short “e” and nonfiction reading comprehension. Bowling, who said she can be her own worst critic, said she tries to remember the setup is only temporary.

“It’s just swallowing the fact that ‘Hey, this is what I’ve been dealt with,’” she said. “It might not be the best, it may not be the easiest approach, but – and I say this almost every day to my parents and kids – we’re just going to roll with the hand we’re dealt.”

The next day, a brutal snow and ice storm knocked out power for nearly 48 hours. A few days after that, another momentous challenge loomed: With little time to prepare, Bowling and her kids eased back to in-person classes on a hybrid schedule, a litany of health and safety routines added to her charge. 

“We’re just going to gonna roll with it,” she said.

WATCH: Three third grade teachers, three perspectives

Learning letter sounds behind a mask

When schools shuttered in March, Sydney Tolbert was a preschooler at the Libertas School of Memphis, Tennessee’s only public Montessori charter school, and starting to make strides in reading, her mother said.

“She was just right there. And then all of a sudden, we just stopped,” recalled Stephanie Tolbert, who felt relief that Libertas was one of the few public schools in Memphis that offered in-person classes beginning in the fall. 

“I knew that if we could get her back in school, that she would just take off,” Tolbert said. “And you could just see her. I watched her just, like, flourish. It was awesome.”

In-person learning isn’t a pandemic panacea, especially for youngsters learning to read. In Sydney’s multi-grade classroom, teacher Toni Sudduth, a classroom assistant and the 15 students practice social distancing and wear masks even when outside. 

Second grader Skylar Tolbert, 7, peers over the shoulder of her younger sister, Sydney, 6, a kindergartner at Libertas School of Memphis. The sisters read at home each night after school.

Second grader Skylar Tolbert, 7, peers over the shoulder of her younger sister, Sydney, 6, a kindergartner at Libertas School of Memphis. The sisters read at home each night after school.
Courtesy photo

Although it helps that the curriculum is individualized for each student, group reading lessons, such as reviewing letter sounds, have had to be abbreviated. It’s a challenge for students to be able to watch how their teacher’s mouth moves while sounding out letter combinations and words. Sudduth started the year with a face mask with a clear window, but it kept fogging up. She switched to a clear face shield, so she can pull down her mask behind the shield to demonstrate how a sound is made, then pull her mask up as the class makes the sound together, placing their hands to their throat to feel the sound as well.

Sounding out words is one area where online learning platforms provide an advantage, said Emily Wakabi, a reading interventionist at Libertas. “I used to cue (students) every time, like, ‘Watch my mouth,’” she said, “and that’s not helpful this year.”

Most of Wakabi’s work with about 40 children is done in person, but she meets online with students whose families don’t want to take the risk of returning to school. During a virtual session in February with second grader Jada Guy, they worked on blending letter sounds to make words, and learning the new letter sound “ph.” The computer froze, and an animated presentation to guide Jada as she pronounced the words lagged.