Long Island teachers: Teaching in this new normal is anything but

Cordelia Anthony said she feels like a brand-new teacher these days. Instructing in this new COVID-19 environment, the Farmingdale teacher has to present her lessons to students sitting in front of her in the classroom as well as to several who are patched in remotely on their computers — at the same time.

Anthony, a high school science teacher with 21 years of experience, has to keep the interest of those in front of her and keep tabs on those at home. Many group activities can't be done due to hybrid learning and social distancing, she said, and it's challenging to connect with the students in class, all sitting far apart and ensconced behind masks and clear plastic barriers.

A month into this new school year, Long Island teachers say teaching under the new normal of COVID-19 feels anything but normal. They’ve had to change the way they prepare lessons — adjusting to remote learning, as well as avoiding group activities, making sure kids wear masks and configuring ways through technology glitches.

Everything is just a little harder.

Cordelia Anthony, president of the Farmingdale Federation of Teachers

It's even harder to connect with the students at home, Anthony said. Their faces appear in a visual checkerboard on her laptop. One day, she discovered a teenage girl tuned in to a lesson had actually opened another website and was shopping online for dresses.

"Everything is just a little harder," said Anthony, who is also the president of the Farmingdale Federation of Teachers.

Anthony described the beginning of a typical day: "We have to open the Google Meet, get both groups of kids settled, take attendance of the remote group and then turn around and take attendance of the kids in the room. … Links aren't working, Wi-Fi isn't really strong one day. You're trying to send documents to one student. Another child says he can't see what you're doing. You feel like you're unraveling."

'It feels like teaching'

For all that, teachers say the system, however challenging, appears to be working pretty well. Students and staff largely have been following the rules on masks and social distancing, they say, and schools are largely remaining open.

Many schools have half the usual number of students on campus, as they rotate kids through days of remote and in-person learning. Hallways have been divided by tape on the floor, signaling students to walk all in one direction on one side, and the opposite direction on the other. Stairways have been designated for one-way travel. Many schools have stopped the use of lockers since that's where kids tend to congregate.

More than anything, teachers say, they are happy to be back in the classroom with their students, doing what they love to do. For all the technological failures, abundance of new rules and unexpected problems, they say this fall session feels much better than the remote learning that occurred after schools shut down in March, which many say was ineffective.

"It still feels like teaching," said Richard Haase, an English teacher at Candlewood Middle School in Dix Hills. "I think for a lot of people, it feels better than anticipated. But it's incredibly challenging for teachers. They're exhausting themselves."

Teachers are redesigning the way they present lessons. Haase spoke of a lesson — from the days before coronavirus — in which students had walked around the class looking at pictures of paintings on the walls. They would then split into groups and talk through their thoughts on the artwork.

"I can no longer give lessons where kids are collaborating like that," said Haase, also president of the local teachers union. "There is a dramatic need for re-imagining and reformatting what we do with our kids."

Tougher to engage kids

Several teachers said they feel fewer moments when a class lesson really clicks; those times when, as Haase described, they see students walking out of class with imaginary lightbulbs lit over their heads.

Everything has to be done at a distance, and that makes it harder to engage with students, said Stephanie Neogra, a teacher's aide working with special education students at the James E. Allen Elementary School, which is part of Western Suffolk BOCES.

"We continue to try to make things as fun as possible in the classroom, keep them entertained and interested so they learn," Neogra said. "I don't want to say it's less personal. But we can't get close to them and we can't be touching the same things as them."

Stephanie Neogra, a teacher's aide at Western Suffolk BOCES, with...

Stephanie Neogra, a teacher's aide at Western Suffolk BOCES, with one of her students, Camren Malloy, 11, outside James E. Allen Elementary School in Dix Hills on Oct. 2. Credit: Barry Sloan

Teachers say a pat on the back can make the difference in bonding with a student. Touch is even more important when working with special education students, Neogra said. A little praise and a light squeeze of a child's hand can mean the world to them.

At her school, kids used to gather and share puzzles, building blocks, balls and crayons. Now students play more on their own. Each child gets a bin for their crayons, glue sticks and markers that is labeled with their name, she said.

Neogra said she was scared when she returned to school last month. She has asthma, and she didn't want to bring the virus home to her son and two daughters.

"When I come home, I change clothes, put my clothes in a plastic bag and take a shower," she said.

Remote possibilities

Not all teachers have to teach in person and remote simultaneously, but those who do say they are finding new ways to make it work.

Ric Stark teaches physics at Hewlett High School. He recently had a lab lesson where students had to measure the mass of an object by timing how quickly it falls when attached to a spring. He worked in the front of the class on a smartboard, which is basically a large electronic touch screen that he can write on and project lessons upon, which in turn shows up on the screen of the students at home. Stark held the spring, letting the object bounce while the students — six on hand and 10 watching from home — did the calculations.

So far, Stark said, he is seeing these labs working. But he worries that when the lessons become more difficult as he explores magnetism and electricity, some students may fall behind.

Giving tests is another challenge, teachers say. They worry that exam questions will be passed around between in-person and remote students.

High school science teacher Perry Fuchs said he had to do some extra planning when giving an exam on the history of astronomy.

"Normally I would just give the exam in class," said Fuchs, who works at Plainedge High School. "But how can I give the exam with remote students? How can I proctor it and maintain the integrity of the exam? I had to change it up a little, make some questions different."

When teaching remotely, a teacher can lose some level of control over a student, Fuchs said. He said he has had to ask students to get out of bed and sit at a desk. Haase said he's heard stories of a teacher having to remotely break up a toy sword fight between siblings, and another teaching while a baby cried in the background.

Then there was the time when Anthony, the Farmingdale science teacher, noticed the girl shopping for dresses.

"I sent her a private message, 'Hey, get back to work,' " Anthony said.

Nakia Wolfe provides educational support for students struggling with math in Park Avenue Memorial Elementary School in Amityville. He works with third-graders, who are about 8 years old. Sometimes one of them logs on to the lesson late, so Wolfe must decide whether to restart the lesson or offer some extra help afterward.

We can't get so caught up in the things that are different, that we lose sight of the things that aren't.

Richard Haase, Candlewood Middle School in Dix Hills

Wolfe said there are instances where he simply cannot abide by the social distancing rules; for example, when he works with a student on a math problem at their desk.

"You have no choice but to close that gap," he said.

Looking ahead, teachers say they hope this adjustment phase smooths out. They're holding out hope that they can keep teaching children in person down the line, all the while knowing that an outbreak can quickly change their plans.

"It's new. It's new to everyone," Haase said of this time in the COVID-19 saga. "We can't get so caught up in the things that are different, that we lose sight of the things that aren't."