Editor’s note: this is part one in a series about meeting the needs of students during the pandemic. The photo included in the newspaper was to demonstrate the learning environment. The Mellott children are not struggling with the virtual environment. We apologize for the misrepresentation.
In 1937, a polio outbreak in the Chicago area forced schools to delay opening by several weeks, prompting widespread alarm about lost instructional time. Innovative educators still found a way by coordinating efforts through local libraries, newspapers and even going so far as to have public school teachers read lessons by radio.
Virtual learning may not be an entirely new concept, but its widespread use throughout the world due to the COVID-19 pandemic has led to an emergence of several major issues—everything from struggling to create equitable access to the internet to food insecurity.
Sarah Baran, a licensed clinical social worker who has worked for many years as a family liaison at Nathanael Greene Primary and Elementary schools, has taken on the role of school community liaison during the pandemic. In this position she serves all five public schools in the district and is the primary school social worker for nearly 3,000 students.
“I’ve had the privilege of working alongside Ms. Baran over the past five months, and I can, without reservation, say that we would not be where we are today without her tireless effort in support of our families,” said Greene County Public Schools (GCPS) Assistant Superintendent Dr. Bryan Huber at the Dec. 9 school board meeting. “She is our go-to person when we have a family in need, a child that is disengaged or a student who just simply is not being successful for whatever reason.”
Along with Morgan Taylor, a social work intern from Virginia Commonwealth University, Baran began making home visits to families over the summer, helping to bridge the gap in registrations when families were making the difficult decision whether to send their children back to school in-person or to opt for the 100% virtual learning model.
“During the first three weeks that we were back from the summer break, Morgan and I did about 40 home visits,” Baran said during a presentation to the school board in December. “We just started knocking on doors … essentially, this was an easy solution. It was taking the technology with us, taking the hotspots and the laptops … and we were able to register most of our students right there on the spot.”
Once Baran and Taylor were visiting families in their homes, a host of issues presented themselves.
“During our home visits, we recognized new barriers (to learning),” Baran said. “The barriers are significant and numerous … the learning platforms themselves can create anxiety for students, a fear of failure, feeling overwhelmed. All students have different academic abilities and ability to decipher what’s being asked of them from various platforms.”
To protect the privacy of students and families, no names have been used in these examples from Baran or the school administrators.
“Just a few weeks back, I was working with a seventh-grade student on an assignment that he was struggling with,” Baran recalled. “We’d been working diligently for about an hour, and there was a lot of flipping back and forth between tabs—one to give information, one to plug information in—and after about an hour, he closed the wrong tab. He closed the tab with all of his work on it, and he was so defeated. It was an easy solution—I knew how to get back to retrieve his work, but he didn’t. And this is just an example of how the platform itself defeated the student.”
In addition to struggles with the technology, Baran described how some students have to struggle with slow internet, with lack of a personal workspace in the home or with disruptions and distractions of other family members.
“Some of our students have a learning space set up in the garage where it’s hot in early September and it’s cold now … sometimes the dog won’t quit barking so the student can hear what’s being said. Our students’ learning spaces greatly impact their ability to learn,” she said.
Some students have taken on additional responsibilities due to parents working outside of the home while they are learning virtually.
“Just this week, I was in the home of a seventh-grade student,” Baran said. “She’s falling behind and she’s struggling with self-confidence … and here’s what makes it hard: she’s the primary caregiver to the 8-year-old child in the home. He’s a second-grader and he also needs to be logged in. So she gets him up, she feeds him, she makes sure that he’s in class on time … but as a result, she’s late or she’s not in her Zoom session. When she sits down to do her work, she’s missed all instruction and she has no idea what to do.”
In the given example, the student genuinely wants to do well in school but is being hampered by her responsibilities in the home. In some homes, as many as six to eight students are all trying to log in and learn at the same time, on the same possibly lacking internet connection, with varying needs.
“I think it’s pretty common in our community … that the older sibling is responsible for getting the younger sibling up and on the bus in a typical school year,” Baran said. “But now that’s just magnified with everybody being at home.”
Besides siblings helping one another get ready to learn, many parents are also working from home during the pandemic, adding to potential conflicts over space, internet access and confusion during the day for some.
“A lot of parents are working from home, so … we have a lot of learning coaches who are distracted with a lot of stressors in their lives that they also are responsible for,” said Regina Hissong, assistant principal at Nathanael Greene Elementary School and virtual learning coordinator for the county’s three elementary schools.
In addition to Baran, administrators from each school participate in home visits as well as special education coordinators, counselors and teachers.
“It’s not that they’re on a schedule and I’m scheduled to go see people—I just get phone calls and text messages and voicemails and emails during the day and I just jump and go,” Baran said. “Some days I might do four; I might go to the same family twice in the same day.”
According to Hissong, home visits often include delivery of learning materials, from desks to books, virtual learning supplies that have run out or gotten lost or new chargers for devices.
“We quickly distribute components of the Chromebooks like chargers that got chewed by a dog or whatever—anything that would be a barrier to a student joining their class, we try to in a timely manner rectify so that they can continue,” she said.
According to Hissong, one of the most important lessons of this pandemic has been learning the best methods of communication for families.
“Some families we text with, some families we use SeeSaw messenger, others rely on their email and that’s how they want to communicate … and others just want you to pick up the phone and call them,” she said. “Knowing each family’s best mode of communication has been the lifeline to every bit of the work that we’ve been doing because there’s not one answer that fits all families.”
While in the early weeks of the school year, most of the problems cropping up centered on technology and the newly designed learning platforms for students, there were deeper issues at play that began to surface.
“Especially early on, what we found was that people just needed support getting organized and figuring out how to be a virtual family, how to navigate the platforms, how to use what we gave them,” Baran said. “Sometimes they just needed the supplies, sometimes they needed to be walked through how to use Canvas or SeeSaw, but the other things are sprinkled in there—the support with food or family trauma.”
“Morgan and I have been witness to chaos in homes; we’ve been witness to mess, distractions, neglect, abuse and substance use. We’ve witnessed lack of food, lack of heat, lack of consistent shelter and lack of medical care,” she continued. “Sometimes our students are lacking that also-important need to feel connected to their school and their peers, to feel connected to their teachers and their counselors, to feel a part of their community. Our kids in the virtual world often feel like they’re alone and they’re the only ones struggling.”
Hissong agreed that the past year has really helped school administrators and teachers learn empathy for the struggles that families are facing. She recalls speaking to a pregnant mom whose frequent doctor visits interfered with the older child’s learning schedule.
“We’ve talked to them when they’ve been in labor, we’ve talked to them as they’ve been going through COVID themselves or other family members experiencing COVID—to varying degrees from asymptomatic to very, very ill and hospitalized,” Hissong said. “We’ve talked with families about how to discipline their students, and I feel like that conversation came after we built some pretty strong relationships to where they really felt like we saw them as partners. We do see parents as our partners in this; our collaboration with them as learning coaches has been more important than ever, and their empathy for what we do has grown.”
Overwhelmingly, the family response to the efforts of Baran and others has been positive.
“What I’ve learned through all of this is we have to meet our families where they are, and right now our families are at home,” Baran said. “My experience has been nothing but positive; our families are so grateful when we come to them. I will say that home visits quickly became the most rewarding part of my work.”
With school board budget season under way, many administrators are focused on how to fund positions for more caring individuals like Baran in the school system so they can address the needs that they know will be greater than ever when all students return to in-person learning in the coming year.
“We have kids in crisis across our division, and that looks different in different households,” said GCPS Superintendent Dr. Andrea Whitmarsh at the December board meeting. “Kids have different barriers, and we need people actively working on those every day that that is their primary role—we have people across the division doing that, but they’re also responsible for other things.”
“There are a lot of mental health issues that are not seen—you can see that in the rates of suicide, depression and things like that,” said At-Large member Jason Tooley. “It takes special people to get out there and knock on doors checking on our kids.”
Throughout this challenging school year, administrators and support staff have also gained awareness and grown in their relationships with each other as colleagues and as a community, according to Baran.
“I think that we’ve grown as a school community; as coworkers and colleagues, I feel like I know people on a different level than I previously did,” she said. “Regina (Hissong) and I have worked together for years, but it’s different now—I feel like I see her in a new light. I see her full of compassion and innovation and I can come to her with anything and before I can finish a thought, she’s already working on a solution. Seeing people through a new light in the compassion that we have for our students is just astounding and sometimes a little emotional for me.”
Hissong said the feeling was certainly mutual.
“Sarah hits the ground running—I can’t tell you how many times she’s responded to a family’s needs and personalized it by delivering supplies,” she said. “She makes sure that families that don’t have transportation or don’t have the ability to leave the home in a timely manner—she makes sure that it’s in their hands so that the students can continue with their learning, which has been an unsung amazing part of this whole system. If we didn’t have a Sarah Baran—if we didn’t have somebody willing to drop everything and make that the priority—then there’s a lot of little things that could have halted a lot of important learning.”
According to Huber, the most important thing to come out of this pandemic has been the partnerships formed with families.
“When we are working with families, it’s very much a collaborative effort to make decisions and navigate tough situations with nothing but the success of their child at the forefront of the conversation,” he said. “If we can transfer that type of strong partnership into the future and build on those, that’s how we will be successful.”