Third-grade teacher Elizabeth Fredericks climbed into her car decorated with blue and white streamers and signs saying, “Lafayette Strong” and “We miss you.”
Riding along was her son, Aidan, a Penn Manor eighth-grader who was wearing the costume of a tawny lion, Lafayette Elementary School’s mascot.
They joined staff in about 40 other vehicles that left the school March 27 for a lunchtime caravan through students’ neighborhoods.
The teachers tooted horns and waved. From sidewalks, kids and parents held up handmade signs and waved back. It pained Fredericks not to give hugs.
The socially distanced lovefest came two weeks after school abruptly closed for COVID-19. Teaching had been sidelined in the gathering storm of coronavirus angst, but caring had not.
The display of affection seemed to affirm a philosophy that Damaris Rau, the School District of Lancaster’s superintendent, espouses: the bond between educators and learners matters.
When reporting for this series began over a year ago, LNP | LancasterOnline sought to illustrate the challenges of urban education through the lens of Frederick’s classroom and one student in particular, 8-year-old Valeria Morales.
A reporter saw the substantial supports in place to help Valeria catch up with third-grade level work. Her story put a face on the wider issues.
But then came the curveball of COVID-19. It intensified the struggles and accentuated disparities between high-poverty city schools and their suburban counterparts.
A case in point was the scramble across School District of Lancaster to get digital devices into every home and to make sure each had internet access. The Steinman Foundation committed $100,000 to the cause.
As that process played out into April, the only work the district required of elementary students was completion of two work packets mailed to homes several weeks apart. Students didn’t have to return their work.
When a few parents asked Fredericks for more challenging work, she could only direct them online for higher-level reading resources.
“There’s nothing else we can do,” Fredericks said as it was sinking in that she wouldn’t be seeing her class again. She pictured her shamrock-decorated classroom as a time capsule frozen at March 12.
“In math, we stopped in the middle of the place-value unit,” she said. “We didn’t get to multiplication.”
Fredericks saw at home the disparity between what she could do with her students and what Penn Manor was offering her son.
“He was issued a laptop at the beginning of seventh grade and brought it home every day. No one had to make 10 phone calls figuring out who has a laptop,” she said.
While her eighth-grader had been working for weeks, “we’re only now getting started,” she said.
Remote instruction began May 4.
Students at home turned on school-issued iPads and clicked on Seesaw, an iPad-friendly app they had used in class. There they found assignments in English, writing, math, science, social studies, music and art that teachers had teamed up to prepare.
The district had issued lists of which state standards to cover with the time left, and the teachers aligned their lessons accordingly. Students were expected to complete tasks weekly.
As online instruction rolled out, teachers offered mutual support on Zoom.
“I never thought I’d be teaching on a computer,” Lisa Krantz, a veteran learning-support teacher, told a group of teachers. “I’m doing it, some days better than others.”
The teachers were finding that kids were logging onto Seesaw and choosing science, music and art over math and reading.
“Be mindful of the number of activities (assigned), even if they’re optional,” instructional coach Christine Linden said. “It is overwhelming for parents.”
Brett Hoffman, a third-grade teacher, said that after one of his students was finally able to log onto Seesaw, the student’s mother sent him a note commenting on the 26 assignments and adding sarcastically, “That’s not overwhelming.”
“That was a direct quote,” Hoffman said. “I was like, ‘Do what you can.’ But, I mean, we’re not the only ones that are overwhelmed with this whole thing, that’s for sure.”
Some students weren’t logging on at all. Of if they were, they weren’t doing work.
Via Seesaw, Valeria, who turned 9 in April, sent Fredericks drawings and notes saying she missed her, but she didn’t tackle assigned tasks.
Fredericks and other staff contacted Valeria and her mother a dozen times or more about the incomplete work, to no avail.
Assessment by Zoom
Although Valeria never completed assignments, she joined Linden for a Zoom call on May 11.
“Can you hear my son in the background?” asked Linden, who was teaching from home.
“A little,” Valeria said.
“I told him to go upstairs, but he didn’t listen,” Linden said before beginning a reading assessment. “You feel a little nervous?”
“Yeah,” Valeria said.
“You don’t normally FaceTime your teachers, right?” Linden said. “Just pretend we’re at school.”
Valeria focused for a half hour as Linden led her through lists of first-grade level words and had her read a story.
“This is my seat. You have to move, cat,” Valeria read.
“You read ‘seat’ very well,” Linden said. “How did you know that word was ‘seat’?”
“Because he was in a chair,” Valeria said, having seen the illustration.
“Look at the word ‘seat’ though. It has a sight word in it. Take off the ‘s’.” Linden blocked the ‘s’ with a cursor.
“OK, keep going,” she said.
“I’ll nap in here,” Valeria read.
“I like the way you said ‘I’ll’,’ ” Linden said.
“I was like, ‘What’s that word?’ I just said it,” Valeria said.
After the assessment, Linden said she would send Valeria directions on accessing online books.
“You are really remembering a lot of those sight words we practiced,” Linden said.
“I got more relaxed,” Valeria said.
“I was nervous, too, because I didn’t know how it was going to go with sharing (word lists) with you, if you were going to be able to see it.”
“My mom was trying to connect you to the computer,” Valeria said, “but it didn’t work. We’re using the cellphone.”
Why didn’t she pick up an iPad when they were being distributed at school? Linden asked.
“My mom was scared because of coronavirus,” Valeria said.
Linden confirmed another Zoom lesson in two days.
“Make sure you’re reading a lot,” she said.
But Valeria failed to connect for the rest of the school year.
Fredericks said two other students completed no assignments, and eight did minimal work. Parental support seemed to make the difference for the seven students who made progress.
“Someone helped them if they had trouble and reached out to me,” said Fredericks, who had daily office hours via Zoom or phone.
One of her students never got internet access. A social worker spoke by phone with the child’s guardian and began the application process for free wifi. But on subsequent days, the staffer couldn’t reach the guardian to complete the form.
“This was a very difficult time for all families involved,” said Jody Charles, a bilingual teacher who repeatedly contacted Valeria or her mother. “Who knows what was going on (with Valeria.) I think it was, ‘I don’t really understand this (assignment.) No one is at home to help me.’”
“She’s not the only one that’s going to be behind,” Charles said.
In-person school delayed
Superintendent Rau’s all-hands-on-deck push to improve academic performance was faltering. She had anticipated rolling out more of her improvement strategies in 2020. Instead, she ran into a pandemic throwing up roadblocks.
At socially distanced meetings in August with the school board, Rau’s frustration spilled over.
“Going back to a virtual learning model is not my first preference,” she said when the board reversed her plan to partially reopen schools with half of the students attending Mondays and Tuesdays and the other half Thursdays and Fridays.
Rau didn’t argue with the board over its decision to prioritize safety for students, staff and the wider community by continuing remote learning as the school year began, but she firmly stated her concerns.
“Staff and parents both said that the children did worse (in the spring) with virtual learning,” she told the board. In fact, one out of every five students never logged onto schoolwork.
“We know our students’ academic gaps are widening,” Rau continued, “and their social-emotional health is suffering.”
And while the coronavirus threatens safety, she said, so does keeping schools closed. How many children are home alone?
“Let me be clear,” Rau said at one point. “We are a $235-million organization funded by tax dollars to educate over 11,000 students to be college and career ready.”
Unstated was this: The pandemic had put her mission in jeopardy.
Grace and patience
On the last Monday in August, Valeria got up earlier than she was accustomed to. The lazy days of summer were over.
Although the fourth-grader wasn’t leaving home, it was back to school.
Valeria logged into her virtual classroom. The upbeat pop song “Happy” was playing as the faces of her new teacher and classmates populated the Zoom gallery on her iPad.
She felt shy.
“It does feel so different,” Valeria told a reporter later that day, “because you’re actually at your house, not at school. But you got to get used to this.”
She wished she was back at familiar Lafayette, with friends she hadn’t seen in over five months.
Kathleen Campbell, who has taught for four years, all at Lafayette, had no qualms about virtual instruction. For about two years, she has moonlighted as an online teacher to youngsters in China. Her setup in the guest room of her Mountville home included a laptop and two iPads.
Campbell welcomed 15 kids that first morning, discussed classroom rules and reviewed features of their school-issued iPads.
Ten of her 23 students had special needs. They either had disabilities that impact learning or were from households where Spanish, Swahili or Haitian Creole was spoken.
At lunchtime, Campbell attempted to contact the families of the eight who hadn’t logged on that morning. She later learned that one had moved.
Lafayette principal Marian Grill considered virtual instruction an adventure into the unknown. She chose “grace and patience” as her mantra for the challenge.
“This is a different moment in history,” Grill said. “The expectation for excellence, it’s even more important now than ever because our kiddos really need that structure, and they need to know that we believe that they can do this.
“And our teachers are going to do it,” she said. “They rise to the occasion. It amazes me every day, because it’s scary what we’re doing right now. It’s not normal. But they have had a wonderful week of training. So we’re ready.”
Virtual math lesson
“Circle your five,” Campbell said.
On a Tuesday in mid-September, Campbell was writing on a whiteboard to demonstrate a technique for rounding numbers to the thousandths place. Her example was 56,532.
“This is going to tell the six what to do,” she said of the circled five. “It’s going to be the boss.”
Twenty students were logged on. One of the two absent students had yet to show up for any class.
Campbell called on four students to use a drawing app to show their work to everyone. She complimented “hard workers” and questioned why five had cameras off.
Campbell set a pace that she knew might be too slow for some but too fast for others. She was patient with interruptions.
When a student said he couldn’t hear her, Campbell instructed her to leave and come back.
When a boy on a couch said his sister, a toddler, took his pencil, Campbell said, “Can you ask mommy to help with the baby so you can work?”
“Mommy is sleeping,” the boy said.
Later, the same boy said someone was at the door.
“Make sure it’s someone you know,” Campbell told him. “Don’t open doors to strangers.”
Thirty minutes into the lesson, Campbell started the students on rounding to the hundred-thousandths place.
But then the video froze. It was the first time the class experienced a major glitch.
Campbell told everyone to come right back, and she ended the meeting. All of the students quickly returned.
Campbell turned to a different topic. She asked students to compare numbers, such as 126,348 and 162,634, and decide if the first was less than or greater than the second.
She told them they could leave after putting their answers into the chat box. They needed to be back at 9:56 for virtual gym class.
Before leaving, two girls told Campbell about pregnancies in their families. And a boy told her about baby kittens.
“We’re keeping one of them,” he said. “It’s black and white and brown.”
That afternoon, the students returned for English. They had a writing assignment about a book titled “Because of Winn-Dixie.”
Valeria arrived late and told Campbell she didn’t get to eat lunch.
“You had an hour,” Campbell replied. “It’s time to work now.”
The obstacles to successful online teaching were becoming clearer.
Some students turned off cameras and disengaged, for example.
And even though most of Campbell’s students were keeping up with schoolwork, she was realizing she couldn’t cover as much ground as she would in school.
“In the classroom, (Jody) Charles and I would be multi-tasking (and working with students in smaller groups) like nobody’s business to make sure that we’re meeting their needs,” she said. “But on Zoom, it’s very hard to manage your time in that way.”
Things just take longer.
“In the classroom, I can tell by facial expressions whether they understand it or not. I can go faster or slow down,” she said. “It’s that frustration that I can’t do what I do best, and I am limited.”
As weeks went by, she described her stress as “pretty high.”
“I have been trying to take the breaks that I need,” she said. “I block off times for myself, and I picked up a hobby.”
She showed a Christmas ornament she made.
Argument for reopening
With new daily COVID-19 cases in Lancaster County averaging in the low 40s through September, the Lancaster school board considered a phase returned to in-person instruction, beginning in mid-October with the youngest learners.
It was to be a hybrid model, with half of each grade going to school Mondays and Tuesdays, the other half going Thursdays and Fridays.
A task force had recommended reopening as long as the county averaged no more than 60 new cases a day.
Rau made the case that health data shouldn’t be considered in isolation. Decisions about reopening school should also consider rates of attendance and course failure.
“Our teachers are working very hard,” Rau told the board, “but we also know that online instruction is not working for many, many students.”
“While people talk about how COVID-19 impacts Black and brown families, online learning is going to impact these children for years to come because they are falling further and further being in their learning,” she said.
By mid-October, the district had hard evidence of academic setback.
Assessments showed that only 38% of kindergartners were reading at or above grade level compared to 59.5% in October 2019. For third-graders, only 14.3% were proficient readers compared to 27.9% the previous year.
Math assessments showed similar slides.
For middle school students, 67.8% were failing a course, compared to 40.7% a year earlier. In high school, the rate was 65.8% compared to 45% in 2019.
“That’s why we know that cyber charter schools are terrible,” Rau told the board Oct. 20. “Because it doesn’t work.”
Students were not developing all-important relationships with educators that drive learning, Rau insisted.
“It is an equity issue,” board member Lois Strause pointed out. “We are the one district (in the county) that hasn’t brought any kids back, and how is it that all the others can do it, and we have not yet done it?”
“Real data shows that our kids are suffering,” board president Edith Gallagher said.
New COVID-19 cases in October were trending higher, exceeding the 60-a-day average the board a month earlier had set as the trigger for closing schools. But Rau carried the day.
In a 6-3 vote, the board allowed Rau to start bringing the youngest kids back to school.
Back to school
On the first Thursday in November, bright blue skies greeted mask-wearing youngsters returning to Lafayette for the first time since March.
They had bookbags, pencils, erasers, notebooks, water bottles – all of the things associated with real school.
They lined up, more or less, on blue X’s spray painted at six-foot intervals along a driveway. Each array stretched behind a traffic cone with a teacher’s name on a sign.
Campbell, masked and wearing a Lafayette Lions sweatshirt, came out to find four of her students waiting. She escorted them into the school, up the stairs, down a quiet corridor and into her classroom.
“It’s so nice to see you guys,” she said. “You can wash your hands or use sanitizer, and then you can get ready to eat your breakfast.”
The kids settled at assigned, socially distanced desks and opened brown paper bags containing breakfast.
More students trickled in, bringing the total to nine.
Valeria wasn’t among them.
Campbell had learned only that morning that Valeria’s mother, wary of exposing her daughter to COVID-19, planned to enroll her in cyberschool.
At an empty, front-row desk was a sign with Valeria’s name.
By staying home, what did Valeria miss?
She missed hearing Campbell saying she had a nightmare last night. Everyone forgot to come today, she said, and she was left asking, “Seth? Where is Seth?” (The student’s name has been changed.)
Valeria missed her teacher gently chastising the class because none of them spent 45 minutes the previous day doing online math.
“Miss Campbell cried,” she told them. “I cried!”
Valeria missed opening a package containing a mask with her name on it, a gift Campbell had ordered for each kid.
She missed Campbell’s confession that she had struggled with multiplication tables.
“Every night, my mom would ask me, ‘Katie, what’s five times twelve? Katie, what’s six times nine?’ ” Campbell said. “She wouldn’t let me go until I figured it out.”
Valeria missed finding out what they had to do to go to the restroom. It entailed scanning a code with an iPad and typing in the date, time and one’s name.
She also missed a pep talk about growth mindset.
“It’s when you tell yourself that you can continue to work hard and you can do something and you’re not giving up on yourself,” Campbell said. “It’s OK if it’s really hard right now. I’m just going to keep trying. I can do it! I’m not going to give up!”
At 9:16, the class turned to two-digit multiplication problems.
Valeria’s jump to the district’s Cyber Pathways Academy began Nov. 16.
She worked at her pace through online lessons, provided by Arizona-based Accelerate Education. She didn’t interact with teachers other than to submit assignments to a teacher in Florida.
The curriculum was math, language arts, science, social studies, health and introduction to coding.
“This is not an easier option,” said Sabrina Parraga, a School District of Lancaster counselor and Cyber Pathways’ supervisor.
Parent support akin to home schooling is critical for younger students, she said. Kids must have the motivation to wrestle with each subject for 30 to 60 minutes a day.
Can a student like Valeria, who is not reading at grade level, catch up?
“That’s the question all teachers ask,” Parraga said. “Even if she was staying in her home (school) building, it’s going to take effort on everyone’s behalf, including Valeria to be an active learner.”
Via Zoom on Friday, Dec. 4, Kevin Dawkins, a School District of Lancaster teacher and a Cyber Pathways adviser, introduced himself to Valeria and her mother.
It was a check-in to answer questions and invite Valeria to weekly hourlong tutoring sessions with about 20 students in reading and social studies.
Valeria was turning in assignments in all of her courses and had passing grades. But three weeks in, she was a week behind. That raised a red flag, and Dawkins removed the health and coding classes from her workload.
“Do you drink coffee?” Dawkins asked after Valeria yawned.
“You should tell your mom to give you more coffee in the afternoons,” said Dawkins, avuncular and droll.
He asked her to get her math workbook and a pencil. She disappeared briefly.
“Oh, you’re back finally,” he said.
“I wasn’t gone long.”
“Look, my beard was black when you left,” he said. “Look at it now.”
Valeria appreciated his humor.
Dawkins checked her nimbleness in navigating the learning program’s tabs and tools. He promised to check with the district’s IT department to correct a connection problem. And he said he would send links for the tutoring sessions.
“We’ll pick up on this again Monday,” he said. “Bye.”
Lunch with Fredericks
The last time third-grade teacher Fredericks saw Valeria was over lunch via Zoom.
It was mid-October, and her former student, Valeria, had chosen the virtual lunch as a reward.
Lafayette students earn points for responsible and respectful behaviors and they get options for spending the points. For example, they can host a Zoom game, get personalized bookmarks or iPad styluses or have a Zoom lunch with friends or a teacher.
Valeria chose lunch with Fredericks.
“She talked a lot about friends, her social life and some fourth-grade girl drama,” Fredericks said. “I tried to focus her on academics. I reminded her she had a lot of support if she or her mom needed anything.”
Valeria didn’t mention enrolling in cyber school.
When Fredericks learned later about that decision, she was disappointed. She felt Valeria would do better in a classroom surrounded by supportive teachers.
“She is such a relationship-type of kid,” said Fredericks, recalling how the girl hugged her first thing each morning. “Asking to have lunch with me proves my point. But I understand mom not wanting her to come to school.”
During their virtual lunch, Valeria showed Fredericks her fidget spinners and took her iPad into the basement to show her the Huskies pups that had been born in the spring.
“She seemed really happy,” Fredericks said. “It was hard to say goodbye.”