‘Everyone is falling behind’: Parents, students struggle with remote learning

  • Camellie Casanova of Holyoke with her husband, Luis Casanova, and three of their six children. They live in a shelter that had an unreliable internet connection, and their four elementary-age kids struggled to do their schoolwork for Holyoke Community Charter School, which closed due to COVID-19. “I rarely get internet,” she told her children’s teachers. “You guys gotta work with me.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Camellie Casanova, of Holyoke, stands with her husband, Luis Casanova, and six children, and talks about their experience with remote learning. They live in a shelter that had an unreliable internet connection, and her four elementary-aged kids struggled to do their schoolwork for Holyoke Community Charter School after schools closed due to COVID-19. “I rarely get internet,” she told her children’s teachers. “You guys gotta work with me.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Marilee Melnik of Northampton, with her 3-year-old son, William, talks about her remote learning experience with her daughter, Eliana, who is in kindergarten at Leeds Elementary School. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Katie Armstrong of Holyoke, with her four children, Siobhan, 13, to her left, Margaret, 3, Cecelia, 4, and Anthony, 10, talks about their experience with remote learning since schools closed due to COVID-19. “She’s stricter than most teachers,” Siobhan said. Armstrong is a firefighter with the Holyoke Fire Department and works nights and weekends to be home with her kids.  STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Karissa Skawski, of Northampton, talks about her experience as a parent with remote learning since schools closed due to COVID-19. She has four kids at home —  a 14-year-old and 12-year-old at JFK Middle School in Northampton and two children not yet in school. “I’ve been going insane at home,” Skawski said. “It’s trying to balance being a mom, a teacher and a referee.” She’s doing that, plus her job painting houses with Hometown Painting.  STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Katie Armstrong, of Holyoke, with her four children, left, Siobhan, 13, Margaret, 3, Cecelia, 4, and Anthony, 10, talks about their experience with remote learning since the schools closed due to COVID-19. “She’s stricter than most teachers,” said Siobhan, who goes to Blessed Sacrament School. Armstrong is a firefighter with the Holyoke Fire Department and works nights and weekends to be home with her kids. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Isaiah Covelli, left, a third grader at Swift River Elementary School in Belchertown, is joined by his mother, Stephanie Covelli, and his brother, Emmett, 5, while he does his online schoolwork in the dining room of their home on Wednesday, June 10, 2020. Emmett will be entering kindergarten this fall. Stephanie Covelli said she’s “not worried about health aspects,” explaining that she trusts the district to make the right call. “I’m worried they won’t go back in the fall,” she said. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Stephanie Covelli marks off a schoolwork checklist as her son Isaiah, 9, a third grader in the Belchertown Public Schools, does his remote learning in the dining room of their home on Wednesday, June 10, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Stephanie Covelli joins her son Isaiah, 9, a third grader in the Belchertown Public Schools, as he does his online schoolwork in the dining room of their home on Wednesday, June 10, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Stephanie Covelli joins her son Isaiah, 9, a third grader in the Belchertown Public Schools, as he does his online schoolwork in the dining room of their home. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Isaiah Covelli, center, a third grader in the Belchertown Public Schools, is joined by his mother, Stephanie Covelli, and his brother, Emmett, 5, while he does his online schoolwork in the dining room of their home on Wednesday, June 10, 2020. Emmett will be entering kindergarten this fall. Stephanie Covelli said she’s “not worried about health aspects,” explaining that she trusts the district to make the right call. “I’m worried they won’t go back in the fall,” she said. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 6/12/2020 11:04:48 AM

HOLYOKE — When the pandemic caused schools to close in March and education moved online, the hardest part for Camellie Casanova and her kids was that their education was now dependent on Wi-Fi.

Casanova, her six kids and her husband, Luis Casanova, live in a shelter that had an unreliable internet connection, and her four elementary-age kids struggled to do their schoolwork for Holyoke Community Charter School. They would use cellphones for Wi-Fi, but it wasn’t always strong enough. “Sometimes, it wouldn’t ever load,” Casanova said.

“I rarely get internet,” she told her children’s teachers. “You guys gotta work with me.”

A few weeks later, the shelter put in a better router, and their internet issues have since been resolved. 

For Casanova and many other parents or guardians of middle and elementary school students, the transition to distance learning has been a challenge, to say the least. 

Many parents said schools are doing the best they can under extraordinary and unprecedented circumstances. Some teachers are hosting Zoom calls with students and sharing assignments online, but just because resources are available doesn’t mean that students are actually using them. And then there are the disparities in instruction time, which may range from 30 minutes to 20 hours a week, depending on the class, grade and school.

Marilee Melnik’s daughter, Eliana, is in kindergarten at Leeds Elementary School. Her teacher sends out regular messages and holds Zoom calls for students — but the online education is not working for Eliana, her mother said.

“As soon as I mention homework, she runs away, stomping her feet,” Melnik said. “My daughter just won’t look at it. She’s regressing.”

Melnik has tried bribing her daughter with rewards, she said, but it doesn’t work.

Before school closed, Eliana was reading. Now, “I can’t even get her to look at a book ... She’s like, ‘No,’” Melnik said. “It’s just so sad — she was reading. I was so proud.”

“Everyone is falling behind — no question,” said Andrew Foster, a Leeds Elementary fourth grade teacher and parent of two students who go to Maple Street School and White Brook Middle School in Easthampton. “But the solace is, everyone is falling behind.”

Foster, who previously taught special education, worries about kids with unique needs. If a student with a learning disability slips back, it may be harder for them to catch up later, he said.

Foster has two sons, a third grader and an eighth grader. “My 15-year-old has a number of special needs,” Foster said. “He can’t work independently. If my wife or I or someone isn’t actively engaging him online in Zoom, it’s not getting done.”

Both parents switch between helping their sons and doing their own work; his wife, Ingrid Flory, works with families who have children with disabilities.

“I help my real kids, as I call them, and then my schoolkids,” Foster said.

Foster holds Zoom calls for his students where he does lessons, and they play games like Apples to Apples.

“It’s just not the same as being with them every day,” he said.

For example, students email Foster about math problems, and he thinks, “I want to sit down next to you with a paper and pencil and talk about it. It’s really frustrating.”

He’s not a fan of remote learning, he said, but “I still recognize that it needs to happen right now. It’s better than nothing.”

A lot of the work ends up falling on parents, which can strain their relationship with their children, Foster noted. Parents have written to him saying, “We skipped the math because we cried together,” he said. “There’s no math problem worth that.”’

A tough balance

At Sumanth and Emily Prabhaker’s Northampton home, they balance remote learning for their 3-year-old, who goes to Fort Hill, and their 8-year-old, who goes to Bridge Street School — a schedule that includes check-in phone calls with their daughter’s second grade teacher, recorded storytimes and worksheets — with activities including playing outside, science experiments and art projects, said Sumanth Prabhaker.

“I do think that in terms of their intellectual development, it’s a big slowing down for both of them — they are used to curriculum totally tailored to their level,” he said. They had to adjust and “let that come in little drips now instead of this steady eight-hour stream of programming that’s perfectly suited to them.”

“Everybody is doing just fine,” he said, “but definitely, things are moving at a slower pace.”

Many parents talked about the importance of incorporating structure into the day.

Katie Armstrong, a Holyoke parent of four kids, ages 13, 10, 4 and 3, has school hours in her house.

“She’s stricter than most teachers,” said Armstrong’s 13-year-old daughter, Siobhan, who goes to Blessed Sacrament School. Armstrong is a firefighter with the Holyoke Fire Department and works nights and weekends to be home with her kids.

School time is 9 a.m. to noon for David Daley’s son, Wyatt, a first grader at the Anne T. Dunphy School in Williamsburg.

“The teachers have certainly made themselves available if you want to schedule one-on-one time,” Daley said. “Everybody is in unchartered waters and trying to do the best they can.”

Daley, who lives in Haydenville, said he takes Wyatt on nature walks, signed him up for extra online classes and plays educational games with him, such as Great States, a trivia game about the U.S.

“You end up having to make up a lot of it as you go along,” Daley said of remote learning. “And you do the best you can, and you feel like you’re failing at everything every day. I think the most important thing over these months has been trying to give our son some sense of calm and stability, so you try to tailor things around that.”

Daley is a writer (most recently the author of “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy”) and is grateful that he can work from home. For him, “The days often start early in the morning and go into nighttime.”

Distance learning has also been a tough balance for Karissa Skawski, who has four kids at home — a 14-year-old and 12-year-old at JFK Middle School in Northampton, and two children not yet in school.

“I’ve been going insane at home,” Skawski said outside her Florence Heights home while her younger kids were inside watching TV and playing with Play-Doh. “It’s trying to balance being a mom, a teacher and a referee.” She’s doing that, plus her job painting houses with Hometown Painting.

“It’s been a struggle. I want school to be back in session,” she said, adding that her kids “think it’s a vacation.”

Her two middle schoolers regularly get homework, and the school has done a good job keeping in touch, Skawski said. But she worries about her children’s education. “They were both at risk of failing,” she said. “If they don’t do their work, they fail.”

The ‘social ache’

What kids miss the most about school: their friends, almost every parent said.

“I think all of us feel that social ache, but I imagine that for a first grader it is all the more tragic,” Daley said of his son, Wyatt. “They miss their friends. He’s an only child, and he’s in the house with his two older parents who are trying to get work done. No matter how many games you play or walks you go on, it’s not always a substitute.”

Being away from school has been socially and emotionally difficult for many kids, a theme that surfaced both through in-person interviews and in a recent online Gazette survey of parents and guardians about remote learning.

“They are depressed and anxious,” responded one parent who wished to remain anonymous, noting how it’s been difficult for their two children to see economic disparities paraded online. The parent expressed frustration with “wealthier parents, who are sharing videos on Zoom or our class page about their pools, fancy BBQ’s, and not social distant parties … My kids started this year not knowing that we are poor, but it has hit them like a truck now.”

One common thread: No one is sure what learning will look like come fall. School districts around the state and country are exploring a range of reopening models that include everything from resuming school five days a week while adhering to public health protocols, to rotating students through classrooms on different days, to continuing with remote learning only for many students.

Stephanie Covelli, parent of a third grader at Swift River Elementary School in Belchertown, said she’s “not worried about health aspects,” explaining that she trusts the district to make the right call. Her other child will be starting kindergarten in the fall. “I’m worried they won’t go back in the fall,” she said.

Like Covelli, Sumanth Prabhaker said he trusted his daughter’s school to make the right call. “Bridge Street has always made strong efforts to prioritize the safety and well-being of its students,” he wrote in an email to the Gazette, “so we have no reservations about returning to school as soon as it opens.”

Armstrong says she’s rethinking sending her 3-year-old, Margaret, to preschool next year. “I’m considering not sending her. It’s not the way you want to start school, wearing a mask.”

Meanwhile, Camellie Casanova said her kids keep asking her, “When is school starting again?” she said. “I’m constantly saying, ‘I don’t know.’”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.

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