North Shore educators adjust to e-learning

Jilian Denlow, Staff Writer

On March 13th, a day that will never be forgotten, local schools announced their official closing due to the sudden increase of COVID-19 cases across the country, leaving families and teachers with minimal time to create a comprehensive plan. On that particular Friday the 13th, everyone got especially unlucky. 

As the pandemic continued to surge, local educators were forced to face yet another difficult decision regarding reopening schools in the fall. 

Fast-forward to late summer, times were still uncertain, and the possible scenarios were endless: whether students should continue learning through a virtual platform, if it would be safe enough for students to begin attending school in-person following a number of safety precautions, or a combination of the two (a so-called “hybrid” method of learning). 

While ETHS has been committed to e-learning since March 13 and has stated that students will stay on enhanced e-learning until the end of the third quarter at least, other schools have navigated the pandemic differently with regards to having students and teachers return.

As other schools tried to navigate this unknown territory, data was a must.

“There were many staff and family surveys going into this school year—and actually last school year, too—to monitor everyone’s opinions, needs and concerns. Ultimately, the decision went to the upper administrators, but they took all of the responses into consideration and consulted with our district union to make those choices,” Diane Meske, literacy specialist at Devonshire School in Skokie, explains.

Tara Norris, a special education teacher at Haven Middle School, communicated that most of her colleagues, as well as herself, did not feel it was safe to go back and teach on-site. They didn’t trust that the district would provide staff and students with the necessary personalized protective equipment (PPE) to keep everyone in the building healthy and safe. 

At the time, the Haven staff did not see a visible plan for the upcoming school year. 

An ETHS teacher, who wanted to stay anonymous, also had concerns after seeing the original proposal. “I was definitely worried about teaching in-person in the fall, because of the proposed hybrid model,” she says. “It seemed really difficult to juggle both giving attention to the students in the classroom and the students who were learning remotely.” 

On the other hand, North Park Elementary, a small private institution on Chicago’s Northside was eager to follow an in-person method of learning.

North Park Head of School and Principal Randy Needlman was given the final say. Even so, every staff member had the ability to attend regular meetings throughout the summer, where their opinions were clearly heard. His school decided that teaching their students fully on-site would be the most effective, with a number of safety precautions put into place—masks, social distancing, less populated classrooms and the like. However, a greater percentage of Illinois schools, the majority of them public, have decided to go fully remote. 

Willard Elementary School and Haven Middle School, both located in Evanston, along with Devonshire Elementary School in Skokie are currently following a virtual method of learning, with a few exceptions. 

“Some students with certain specialized needs were invited to learn in the building. If their family agreed to that situation, they are learning in that way,” Meske explains. 

Meske and Brandy Trafman, a kindergarten teacher at Willard Elementary were fully content with their school’s decision.

Trafman expressed that, in some ways, she is more concerned now about the lack of safety within schools, specifically with her very young students. Students are constantly moving around, touching and sharing everything and may be reluctant to wear masks and social distance. She has gained confidence with the online platforms and has continued to stay extremely positive to ensure that she doesn’t transfer any negative energy to her students. 

Now, as schools are actually in session and staff and students are experiencing it in real time, many are adjusting their original tune. 

Contrary to her opinion in the summer, Norris stated that virtual learning is not sustainable long term, especially because the students she services are part of the special education program. 

“I have been teaching for over 20 years and have always looked forward to meeting my students at the beginning of the year. This year, I felt so nervous to meet my classes over zoom. Every bit of confidence that I had built up was gone. I constantly worry about the well being of my students trying to learn at home,” Norris says. “Over a virtual platform, everything takes so much more time, and there are so many technology issues that get in the way.” 

The ETHS teacher had a similar outlook as Tara Norris. 

She says, “It has been very challenging to create a classroom environment online. I have incorporated more individual meetings to make up for the lack of contact, which is helping a little bit,”

Aside from being teachers, many are also parents, with a separate perspective from their professional ones. 

Being both a parent and a teacher played heavily into the special education teacher and literary specialist’s first thoughts. Norris’ children are both high school students at ETHS, who had announced their decision of teaching fully remote long before Haven Middle School. This formed her decision of wanting to teach remotely at the start of the school year. 

Meske, mother of a two-year-old, shares how she managed parenthood and teaching. 

When school closed in March, I was very glad to be home with my son so that he did not have to go to the babysitter, and so my husband, who works in a grocery store setting, could be very cautious and sanitize very thoroughly before interacting with us,” Meske explains. 

Being home has provided Meske with the comfort of being with her child and minimizing his contact with others.

In the recent Etown Live, both Dr. Witherspoon and Dr. Campbell emphasized the importance of the safety and health of ETHS students and faculty.

The three educators teaching remotely continued to wonder when their schools will return teaching on site.

Norris said her heart has always told her that her school will go back after spring break, leaving them with a full quarter back in school. Trafman does not see Willard continuing in-person learning until at least after winter break and into the new year, and Meske truly does not know.

“I have always been a planner and an organizer,”  Meske says, “but in this situation where there is so little control, I’m just working through one day, one week, one Zoom at a time.”