‘Trying to keep sane’: Educators balance online learning, parenting; urge patience

‘Trying to keep sane’: Educators balance online learning, parenting; urge patience

Teachers share struggles, triumphs through first days of remote education

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Rachel Lunsford, a world studies teacher at Takoma Park Middle School, works from home while her three children do school work.

Photo courtesy Rachel Lunsford

Sitting at her dining room table during a recent video conference, Rachel Lunsford was strategizing with two colleagues about Montgomery County schools’ transition to online learning.

To her right sat her 4-year-old son, Nathan, who decided it was the perfect moment to yell, “I have to pee!”

Lunsford, in her fourth year as a world studies teacher at Takoma Park Middle School, is one of many educators across the county attempting — with varying success — to juggle parenting and an unprecedented shift to online teaching in K-12 schools.

“Fortunately we’re all in this together and we can all just laugh it off,” Lunsford said of her son’s occasional interjections.

Schools across the state have been closed since March 16 due to the spread of a deadly new virus — COVID-19, or the coronavirus. The first two weeks were “emergency closures,” meaning educators weren’t expected to teach and students weren’t expected to complete assignments or report to class.

Now, MCPS, like many districts across the country, is entering uncharted territory, moving classes online to avoid a gap in learning that would otherwise likely span at least five months if students didn’t return to their school buildings for the remainder of the academic year.

On Monday, MCPS teachers began professional development webinars providing them with information and resources to smooth the transition to online lessons. Students began tinkering with the new platforms, while more rigorous teaching is expected to begin next week.

For many teachers, the change packs a one-two punch of new challenges.

When state officials first announced schools would be closed to curb the spread of the coronavirus, Lunsford created a daily schedule for her three kids, 11-year-old Hannah, a sixth-grader; 10-year-old Lily, in fourth grade; and Nathan, set to start pre-kindergarten in the fall.

The schedule was simple: an hour each morning and afternoon for school work and at least 30 minutes for reading, crafts, chores, exercise and free time. Lunsford promised the kids flexibility to adjust the schedule, if needed, but for the past two weeks, they’ve been sticking to it and are learning together.

It helped Lunsford realize that when her children are doing school work and chores or crafts, she needs to be available for them. Then, during free time, when the kids are usually playing or enthralled by YouTube or video games, Lunsford is able to work.

So far, the method is working, but Lunsford said she anticipates having to make adjustments as MCPS’ online teaching ramps up.

“For now, we’re just trying to keep sane,” Lunsford said.

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In Montgomery Village, Watkins Mill social studies teacher Maxwell Bero and his wife are mostly winging it. They have a checklist of items they aim to accomplish each day with their 4-year-old daughter. The list includes academics, play times, walks and meals, but there aren’t set times for those activities. Work demands are too fluid, Bero said.

Bero said his daughter is a “ball of energy” who wants attention from her parents, who have had to rely on screen time more than they’d hoped to keep her distracted while they work.

“My daughter went from having a set pre-K schedule and instruction every day to being home with two parents who, while teachers, have no experience in pre-K,” Bero said.

Sometimes, Bero has had to decline video meetings with colleagues to care for his daughter. He and his wife, Natasha, who has a leadership position at Montgomery Village Middle School, take turns spending time with their daughter. But it’s a true juggling act, Bero said.

Through trial-and-error, the Beros have discovered if they don’t get outside each day to play or for a walk, their daughter rejects bedtime, an added stress they now work hard to avoid.

“When we spend too much time working during the day and not playing, she acts up more throughout the day,” Bero said. “… Often, work ends up having to take a backseat to her social-emotional needs.”

An MCPS spokesperson said district leaders encourage teachers to take breaks to care for their children.

In an interview Wednesday night, Niki Hazel, associate superintendent in the MCPS Office of Curriculum and Instructional Programs, said school district officials have collaborated with teachers to build the schedule for next week’s remote learning.

“We know we have teachers who are also parents, at home trying to balance everything,” Hazel said.

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While Lunsford and Bero attempt the challenging-enough-in-itself task of making sure their children are keeping up with their classes, they’re also adjusting to providing education for dozens of others.

And the preparation process hasn’t gone smoothly, Bero said. In fact, it’s been “chaotic” at times.

The professional development (training) system has been overloaded and inaccessible at times, and different seminars are relaying varying information, he said.

“Different schools are telling their staff different things, so when teachers communicate, almost no one is on the same page,” he said. “So, no, it’s doing nothing to help ease anxiety, and kind of making it worse.”

But the growing pains were expected.

In a video on Saturday, MCPS employees urged patience because the transition to online learning is like “building a plane as we’re flying it” and “it’s not going to be perfect.”

For Bero, the focus for now is ensuring students are prepared for state and AP tests this year and next, and trying to keep in frequent communication with colleagues.

Lunsford, in Takoma Park, said she’s just excited to hear from her students.

“As a teacher, my aim is to be as compassionate and available for my students as I possibly can, and when we reach a rhythm that seems to work for everyone, we’ll get back to the business of learning,” she said.

Over the next few weeks, Lunsford said she expects to learn more from MCPS officials about what pieces of the fourth-quarter curriculum are essential and which parts “we may have to let go of, given the limitations of distance learning.” Ultimately, she said, everyone needs to be more gracious and understanding during the transition.

“I know that we very much need to adjust our expectations about how much we can accomplish,” Lunsford said, “and we need to forgive ourselves when we expect a little less from ourselves and from our students.”

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com

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For other Bethesda Beat coverage of the coronavirus, click here.

To see a timeline of major coronavirus developments in Maryland and Montgomery County, click here.

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