A unique learning experience

Published 12:00 pm Thursday, April 2, 2020

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Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s order to close all public schools for the spring to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus has led to a unique learning experience for students and parents alike.

Everyone is also instructed to stay home as much as possible, leading to more times of family togetherness.

Prince Edward County Public Schools is helping students continue their education at home with work packets and, in some cases, Zoom, a video conferencing tool.

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Denise Lucas, of Farmville, a reading specialist for the Prince Edward County Elementary School, has two daughters in the school system — 10th-grader Aly Lucas and fifth-grader Sarah Lucas.

“So far, so good,” Denise said when asked how everyone was coping with the new circumstances. “Aly, being at the high school, she’s got two classes that were designed online anyway through the community college.”

She said Aly and her classmates are only on a four-block schedule, so half of her classes were online naturally anyway.

“And then we picked up her packets, and she has work to do for the other two classes,” Denise said.

Sarah received her packet. It includes a lot of papers, Denise noted.

“She broke it down and decided how many pages she would do a day,” Denise said. “She’s less enthused than Aly to do her work, but breaking it down a little made it easier for her to figure out how much she should try to do in a day.”

Denise noted that both of her daughters are self-starters, but since Sarah is younger, Denise and her husband, Matt Lucas, tell her to do what she can, skip the parts that she does not know, and they will review those parts with her when she is done. But she has been able to do most of it on her own.

“I think for her, what I’m noticing, because she’s younger, she’s not on social media, so I think it’s the isolation part that’s impacting her more than the academic part,” Denise said. “Aly can still get on Snapchat and Instagram, and she’ll still feel that connection with a lot of friends, whereas these middle-school kids don’t have as much social media platforms.”

A Prince Edward fifth-grade teacher has agreed to start a Zoom session that will allow for academic instruction but also let Sarah and some of her classmates interact with each other.

“It’s not one of her teachers, but the teacher invited anybody from fifth grade to join, and this will be the only opportunity that I know of for her,” Denise said. “A few parents of fifth graders, we were thinking of just starting a Zoom just so they could just talk to each other and maybe go through some of the work together without a teacher, and then this teacher stepped up to do it.”

Denise said at the elementary school, she does not have a classroom, but she pulls kids for remediation from third grade.

“I’m doing Zoom with them, and I just see the value of the communication piece,” she said. “We go over work with them and everything, but I think that’s what kind of made me see how isolated Sarah was, because nobody was doing Zoom with her grade.”

Zoom has led to some great opportunities for interaction between classmates and teachers.

“I’ve met everybody’s pets, and I’ve heard what they’re having for dinner,” Denise said. “These Zoom classes are pretty funny to listen to. And we had to give the kids that time to learn the platform too, so we weren’t really strict with what our manners would be. It was a treat last week to listen to them all just talk and talk and talk and be excited to see friends that they hadn’t seen. This has been quite a quick learning curve for all of us.”

Denise said families and students are lucky to have the technology.

“It’s just unfortunate in this rural area that everyone doesn’t have the same opportunity with the technology to connect with people and with teachers,” she said.

She noted that on the Zoom platform, you can tell that the lag time for some students is pretty significant.

Amy Wilson, who lives near Hampden-Sydney College, has two sons in the Prince Edward school system who are now working from home — eighth-grader Leighton Folz and fourth-grader Trent Wilson.

She said they have been experiencing some difficulties getting Zoom to work because of living in a particularly rural part of the county.

“Trent tried to do it this morning, and it started buffering in and out,” she said. “He couldn’t follow.”

But Wilson said her sons still have the packets and are working through them.

“It just stinks, though, not having the internet access because I live in the boonies,” she said. “That probably is affecting a lot of people that live in the county and don’t have good internet.”

Wilson said Leighton has packets for every class, but the school work Trent has is less extensive. They are able to finish up their school work for the day fairly quickly, leaving them with plenty of free time.

“I’m just trying to keep them from not killing each other, because they’ve had a lot of time together,” she said with a laugh. “So, I’m just trying to keep them busy.”

Wilson has never homeschooled, but she planned to teach her sons a little during this unique spring semester. She has found they are notably partial to the schedule they kept at school, though.

“I told Trent and Leighton yesterday, I said, ‘Alright, art class is getting ready to be in session,’” Wilson said Tuesday, March 24. “And Trent’s comment to me was, ‘Art is on Thursday.’”

Leighton has had some success in using Zoom, she said, which has aided him with his classwork, but like Denise Lucas said, he also greatly benefited from the social interaction the platform made possible.

“He enjoyed being able to talk to some of his friends,” Wilson said.

She said her boys’ reactions to the current state of affairs have been different.

“Trent’s ecstatic,” she said. “He’s so glad that school is over. He’s just thrilled. Leighton, I think, was more bummed of the social aspect, not being able to say goodbye to his friends. In all his classes, he’s grown up with all these kids, and they were all supposed to graduate middle school together and have their ‘Stepping Up’ ceremony.”

The school system announced this ceremony will not be held.

When her boys are not engaged with school work, Wilson has been finding ways to keep them busy.

“We’ve been doing a lot of yard work,” she said. “One day I think we went out and played baseball like five times, like doing soft toss, throwing the ball, just trying to keep them active.”

They are one of the many families that have been enjoying more time together.

“We’ve been doing a lot of family game nights, and we did s’mores over the fire pit,” Denise Lucas said. “We try to think of one fun activity a day. We’ve done fishing, walks on the High Bridge. Last week, when the weather was nice, it didn’t feel quite as challenging to find things to do. They’ve played in the front yard. We have a basketball goal in the driveway that’s been used more than it’s ever been used.”

Lynnea Motter is a teacher at Prince Edward County Middle School and has two children in the school system — eighth-grader Barrett Motter and fifth-grader Nathan Motter.

She said she and her family have done a variety of things to keep active, including going to High Bridge Trail State Park and picking up trash. The boys have also played kickball in the front yard and some baseball.

She has formed a general, daily list of priorities for her children.

“I told them it’s really important that they are reading, writing, doing something creative and doing something where they’re moving every day,” she said. “And then after that, they have definitely been spending more time online than normal, but that’s how they’re connecting with their friends. That’s what they miss the most is getting to interact with their friends.”

Lynnea noted she is seeking to engage with her eighth-grade students on a variety of different social media platforms. One of those students is more readily accessible, though — Barrett.

“Barrett is really missing baseball. He just made (junior varsity) as an eighth grader, and he’s really missing getting to play sports,” she said. “There’s a lot with Barrett being an eighth grader that he’s going to miss out on with the semi-formal and eighth-grade graduation, and they had a field trip they were looking forward to.”

She has instructed her sons to do their packet work at the beginning of the day and to be smart about how they divide it up so they can be finished with the packet by the appropriate date.

Lynnea noted her son Nathan likes art, so they have been taking online art classes together and doing some painting at home.

Brandy Amos has two children in Buckingham County Public Schools — 12th-grader Kaya Amos and seventh-grader Aaliyah Amos. Brandy said Buckingham just mailed out their packets Monday, March 30.

“So my kids have been checking their Google Classroom but didn’t have any assignments scheduled thus far,” she said. “We have looked into doing some of our own online stuff through Khan Academy, which is like an online resource, but that’s the extent of what we’ve been able to do thus far.”

She said the current situation has proven to be extremely challenging for Kaya, a senior, given the uncertainty of graduation and credits and how that is going to fare on her transfer to college and what those grades are going to be.

“We were scheduled for a college visit,” Brandy said. “That’s been put on hold, which actually was our last visit. So we’re in a complete standstill and are just waiting for direction from the school system as to what’s going to happen as far as final grades.”

Kaya is also missing out on her senior softball season.

“We were really hoping for a great softball season,” Brandy said. “We have five seniors this year. The only game we got to play was the scrimmage.”

Brandy works for the University of Virginia and has been able to continue working from home, where she has had quality time with her girls, who would ordinarily be gone a lot due to classes and high school, travel or recreational sports teams during this time of year.

Thus far they all have been coping well together, Brandy said, adding with a laugh that she does not know how long that is going to last.

“We’ve done movies, and we did some fishing over the weekend,” she said. “And then we’ve done some yard work, so we’ve done some of that stuff where I sort of had to force the kids out, making sure they get some exercise, even though it may not be something they want to do.”

She said Kaya and Aaliyah have been able to maintain contact with their friends via their phones.

“We’re probably going to have to start limiting that, because I think the phone has been tied to their hand a little bit longer than I’d anticipated, which normally you don’t have it at school,” Brandy said. “So we’re going to have to do a little bit of maybe some changes there once this work comes into play. We’re going to have to do some laid-out schedules.”

Joey Dayton has two children in Cumberland County Public Schools — 12th-grader Trevor Dayton and eighth-grader Maddie Dayton.

Joey noted that he manages Bear Creek Lake State Park, and his wife is a nurse, so they are still working. However, when they are home, they do not anticipate having to do much homeschooling.

“Maddie is pretty self-sufficient and a kind of low-maintenance kind of kid, so she kind of just does it on her own, although there hasn’t been a whole lot until recently that’s been required,” Joey said.

He said the school sent home a packet when the closure first started, but the work was not required.

“Then here today, we just started getting calls from the teachers saying that they were getting ready to start putting some assignments up on Google Classroom, and the kids needed to check their emails,” Joey said Tuesday, March 31. “So honestly, they haven’t had a whole lot to do until now.”

He said most of the classwork for Trevor was already coming to an end, with him being a senior. He just has to finish up his senior project.

“They’re just asking all the kids to video a two-minute presentation and send that video in on their senior project,” Joey said. “(Seniors) pick a specific subject to work on throughout the year, and he chose the military, specifically the Marines, since he’s going into the Marines here in just a couple weeks.”

As for family life at home, Joey said it is mostly business as usual for the Daytons.

“We have a horse farm, so we kind of stay quarantined, that’s just part of our life anyway,” he said with a laugh. “So most of our recreational activities, we’re out at the farm away from people already, so it really hasn’t changed our routine very much at all, other than the kids don’t have any sports, which was big for both of them. (That) has opened up our weekends a lot.”

Trevor would have been busy with varsity baseball and national wrestling tournaments, and Maddie would have been busy with running track and wrestling training.