Learning in a pandemic: Holyoke schools confront challenges of remote education

  • Sahail Dejesus, of Holyoke, talks about how remote learning is going for her and her family while her son, Kenneth Rodriguez, 9, listens. He attends Morgan Elementary School. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Left, Richard Huard, the teacher in the advanced manufacturing class at the Dean campus of Holyoke High School, watches as Yariel Quiñones-Ramirez, Daniel Ogosto and other students work. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Richard Huard, the teacher in the advanced manufacturing class at the Dean campus of Holyoke High School, talks about having students back in person for class. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Front, Daniel Ogosto works socially distanced from Yariel Quiñones-Ramirez, left, and other students in an advanced manufacturing class at the Dean campus of Holyoke High School on Tuesday, September 22, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jordan Guz works with other students in a carpentry class at the Dean campus of Holyoke High School on Tuesday, September 22, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • David Brueshaber, the carpentry teacher, works with Fredy Orozco during a carpentry class at the Dean campus of Holyoke High School on Tuesday, September 22, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Neyxen Vega works with other students in a carpentry class at the Dean campus of Holyoke High School on Tuesday, September 22, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jomar Rodriguez works socially distanced from other students in a carpentry class at the Dean campus of Holyoke High School on Tuesday, September 22, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Tara McLarnon and her 16-year-old daughter, Ariana, both of Holyoke, talk about how remote learning is going for Ariana as she enters her junior year at Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School in Chicopee. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Tara McLarnon and her 16-year-old daughter, Ariana, both of Holyoke, talk about how remote learning is going for Ariana as she enters her junior year at Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School in Chicopee. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Becky LaFlamme, of Holyoke, talks about how remote learning is going for her and her family as her son Christian Corrales, 13, walks up the stairs. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 9/25/2020 3:47:39 PM

HOLYOKE — Becky Laflamme normally works at Stop & Shop during the day and comes home to take care of her 13-year-old son, Christian Corrales, who has Down syndrome.

But things aren’t normal anymore.

Laflamme had to take leave from work recently because her son, like so many local students, is attending school at home via computer amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Her son used to get physical, occupational and speech therapy at Lt. Clayre P. Sullivan School, but now Laflamme is working with the district to figure out how to get Corrales just speech help. Laflamme doesn’t drive, and walking up the hill with her son isn’t going to be possible, she said. She feels stuck.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Laflamme said last Friday outside her apartment in the Flats neighborhood. Being out of work is going to hurt financially, she said, but she now finds her every minute during the day occupied by at-home schooling for Corrales and her other children.

“This was my second job when I got out of work. Now it’s my life,” she said. 

The difficulties Laflamme faces with remote learning are not unique. For families across the city and region, the realities of remote learning have been a struggle. In Holyoke, families like Laflamme’s are having to decide whether to put food on the table and pay rent or be home with their children as they learn remotely.

“It’s difficult because you’re trying to address and answer so many variables that are new to school districts, and they’re coming fast and furious,” said Alberto Vázquez Matos, who began as Holyoke’s state-appointed schools receiver/superintendent this summer.  Vázquez Matos replaced former receiver-superintendent Stephen Zrike who stepped down after leading the district for the past five years. 

Many families in the district are thankful that their children are at home learning during the pandemic. Tara McLarnon’s 16-year-old daughter, Ariana, is learning from their Flats apartment as a student at Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School. Sitting on their porch last Friday, Ariana said she’s stressed and overwhelmed by remote learning, and her back hurts from sitting in front of the computer all day. But she and her mom feel the school made the right choice with remote learning to start the year.

“I would not want to be in the building,” she said. “I would not be comfortable with that.”

Still, for most, remote learning has created difficulties.

“I have to be a teacher, be a nurse, be a parent,” said Sahail Dejesus, who was headed into CTown Supermarkets on Cabot Street last week. Her three children are at home now, including her 9-year-old Kenneth Rodriguez, who she said she has to help learn in English — his second language.

“Sometimes I don’t understand the meaning of the lesson, so I have to Google to understand what they’re doing,” she said. 

Child care and learning pods

In order to aid parents who cannot miss work — or those for whom remote learning is a steep challenge, like families experiencing homelessness — the district has been working with local organizations to set up “learning support pods” that provide child care and a place to be supported in learning on the computer.

“I don’t think we really paid  at tention prior to this pandemic to the real need for child care within the sta te, ” said Eileen Cavanaugh, the president of one of those local organizations, the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Holyoke. She said that prior to COVID-19, affordable and quality child care was already inaccessible for many.

“We went into this pandemic with a massive gap, and the pandemic blew it open even more,” she said. 

The Boys & Girls Club, which provided emergency child care for essential workers during the summer, is now providing a full-day child care and learning pod program for as many in-need families as possible. Currently, over 60 youth are enrolled, with a substantial waitlist that has grown as the organization fields calls daily from parents worrying they’ll have to quit their jobs if they can’t find child care.

The Holyoke YMCA also has been providing those services for some 60 children, who learn in classrooms that hold no more than 13 students. And the organizations Homework House Holyoke and OneHolyoke Community Development Corporation are in the process of creating their own two “equity pods” for between 10 and 13 students, each from low-income families.

Prior to the start of school and during the first weeks of remote learning, the YMCA had to secure desks and chairs, figure out what space to use in the facility, organize breakfast and lunch, coordinate logistics for kids arriving and make sure all safety protocols are being followed. YMCA staff also has had to think through educational difficulties students have had, from troubleshooting on the computer to making sure students with disabilities are getting the support they require.

“You’re flying the plane as you’re building the plane,” said Kathy Viens, the executive director at the YMCA. She said things are going smoothly and getting easier every day. “All you can do is continuously say, ‘What else can we do? What’s the next step?’”

There remains a significant need for learning pods in the district, particularly for those without the time or resources — low-income families, those experiencing homelessness, and kids in foster care, for example — to organize their own private pods, pooling resources with other families to share child care and helping their kids with remote learning. 

Student engagement

Solving these problems is high stakes, given the employment challenges it creates for parents. But remote schooling has also been challenging from an engagement standpoint: Are students even learning or participating? Figures that the district released at an August meeting of the city’s School Committee showed that only 40% of K-8 students in the district were engaged in remote learning this spring after the virus hit.

“That lack of engagement to me really says that for 60% of the kids, from March until the end of last spring, there really wasn’t any substantive learning taking place,” said Michael Moriarty, the executive director of OneHolyoke CDC and a member of the state’s education board. “That’s a disaster.”

Moriarty stressed that anyone looking to create their own “pod” follows state guidelines to ensure that children are safe and set up for success.

Vázquez Matos said that attendance so far this fall has been as high as 90% and that the district is reaching out to students who have been absent to see how it can help. Vázquez Matos said the district is also focused on making sure families in homeless shelters have internet connections and sufficient bandwidth for learning. He said the district is working with shelters on those issues and providing families with hotspot devices if needed.

“Ideally, this is, in my mind, a temporary solution until we start increasing the amount of students in person,” Vázquez Matos said. He said the district is in frequent conversation with the city’s Board of Health discussing data and prevention efforts. “We are now in the initial discussions around, when do we phase in another group of students? Who are they? And what is the data telling us?”

Close to 350 students are already inside school buildings in Holyoke. Students at the district’s Transitions Academy, high school newcomers and special education students in specialized programs are learning in person. So, too, are students who have opted into in-person learning at the high school’s technical and vocational Dean Campus.

On a chilly Tuesday morning, the back bay doors at the Dean building were wide open as masked, socially distanced students measured and sawed wood in a class taught by carpentry instructor David Brueshaber. Each grade at Dean is able to do in-person learning once a week. Some 95% of seniors have opted in. And even in the grade with the lowest number of students opting in, ninth grade, some 80% decided to learn in person, according to Associate Principal Alan Gates.

“Even though we have certain new regulations … I feel at home,” said junior Jordan Guz. “I was getting cabin fever. There’s only so much you can fight with a brother about.”

In another classroom with the door open to the outdoors, instructor Rick Huard was teaching students about programming machines as part of his advanced manufacturing class. Huard began as a teacher just one week before the school district shut down in March, forcing everyone into remote learning.

“Learning this out of a book is not the ideal way,” he said.

His student junior Yariel Quiñones agreed. The virtual math component of his education has been good, he said, but when it comes to learning a trade, there’s no substitute for hands-on learning.

“When you’re on the computer you learn, but it’s not the same,” he said.

So far, Gates and Vázquez Matos said, in-person learning at Dean has been a success.

“Those students and teachers are the help in messaging that we’ll do things safely and responsibly,” Vázquez Matos said. “There’s a need, that students need to be back in school every day. So we’re working through that. It might be a phased-in approach, as we look into the data and based on the guidance.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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