Logging On: Schools Starts Remotely at Home, in E-Learning Centers

Sometime generally around 7:50 a.m. on Tuesday morning, students across the district didn’t necessarily re-unite with friends in the schoolyard after an eventful summer, meet the new teacher in person, or lug football equipment to Everett High for practice after the first day of classes.

No, none of the usual sounds and patterns of a late summer return to school were in the air Tuesday morning. What did happen, though, was students once again began to learn, and in a way that will likely change the face of school forever – even after the pandemic subsides.

Just before 8 a.m., thousands of Everett Public School students hit the power button on a computer and logged on for the first day of classes – whether that happened in their homes or at one of the many e-Learning Centers across the district.

It was the most unique and unorthodox start to the school year ever – conservatively speaking.

The first day came after months of planning and discussion with teachers, staff, administrators, families and students, said Supt. Priya Tahiliani – who celebrated her first, First Day of School outside the Parlin School e-Learning Center. She said after all the planning and troubleshooting and worrying, it was just time to try it out.

“It’s just time to start,” she said. “There isn’t any more planning we can do. We have to start and see how it goes.”

In the end, the demand for the e-Learning Centers was very manageable and there wasn’t a huge surge of families trying to get their kids into an e-Learning space at one of the schools as some expected.

Tahiliani said there were approximately 400 students that reported to e-Learning Centers on Tuesday, and another 150 who turned in applications late and would be assigned to a Center by Thursday. That is still much less than 10 percent of the entire students population, which is about 7,000 for grades K-12.

“We’ll do this in waves,” said Tahiliani of the e-Learning Centers. “That number we have right now is about perfect, but we will be ready to serve more students. That’s when you have to make sure to adhere to the distancing. We prepared for more students, but we were worried if the demand was really high, and with us being a red zone, whether we could accommodate it.”

All buildings are being used right now for the e-Learning Centers, and there is space at some of them. At the Parlin School on Tuesday, the grades 5-8 Center in the gym was mostly empty with several available spots. That was not so much the case for the lower grades, where students could not be left at home for the day to fend for themselves online.

The vast majority of students, however, tended to prefer online learning from home – at least at the start of the year. As it has been stated many times, there will be a great deal of accountability for students and teachers who are working remotely.

For the teachers, many are working from home, and some have asked to teach from their buildings. Other teachers and staff are overseeing the Centers, and there hasn’t been a great deal of difficulty finding volunteers, Tahiliani said. In fact, Everett is an outlier in how it has approached teachers. Many districts have negotiated with unions to require teachers to come into their empty classrooms to teach. In some cases, those agreements have only narrowly passed a vote of the membership – such as in Chelsea where teachers are required to come in two days a week to the buildings.

None of that give and take took place in Everett, and Tahiliani said she felt it was because they committed early to a phased opening that started with remote learning.

“I am pleased we were going to do remote from the start and in that way are really prepared for it,” she said. “We didn’t require teachers to come in . I’d rather people feel comfortable teaching from wherever they feel comfortable teaching. The Everett Teachers Association has been so collaborative. You give a little and take a little. They have set standards for what a work space should look like for a teacher at home. That’s been great.”

One thing that will take place over the first few weeks is that kids will have more time to work out the feelings they have returning to school – especially the younger kids. There will be some who are scared, whose families might have been tremendously affected by the virus, and there will be others who might have regressed tremendously academically due to the emergency online learning last spring.

“We’ve built in a large cushion before instruction starts to get students acclimated before they jump into heavy content,” she said, noting they will be assessing students, addressing social-emotional health and simply doing a lot of talking about all that has happened since March.

Eighth grader Mel Dias said she wasn’t scared to go into the Parlin building, and felt like it was a somewhat normal start to the year.

“It does feel different, very different than other years, but I think we’ll do fine,” she said. “It is nice to be out and breathing the fresh air.”

Emanuela DeOliveira, a seventh grader waiting to go into the Parlin Center, said she was a little scared. She said it had been a long time since she was at a school building, and she wasn’t sure if she would see friends inside or not.

“It’s really very different, but it feels good to be here,” she said. “I wanted to see more of my friends, but not many of them are here. It’s a little scary today because I don’t know what’s going to happen inside.”

In the end, like many things, the beginning of the school year is a necessity to forge ahead upon, but a great experiment at the same time whose successes or failures cannot be anticipated by anyone.

“It will be interesting,” said Tahiliani. “We wanted to be flexible and innovative and meet a lot of diverse needs that look different for a lot of different people…We don’t know how it will turn out, but we’ve planned for every contingency…We will problem solve as things happen.”

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