ORLEANS — In the midst of a pandemic, Principal Elaine Pender told the elementary school committee last week that she has many reasons to give thanks.
There’s the feeding program run by cafeteria and lunch program director Susan Murray and “our amazing” Lisa Chappel, the cafeteria manager, who are “behind the scenes producing massive amounts of food every day” for pick-up by families and handing it out in all kinds of weather. There’s school nurse Mary Ellen Reed, who juggles her responsibilities at Orleans Elementary with her role as lead school nurse for the district and contact person for four boards of health.
When the building was closed, Pender said, “tech coordinators Dawn Steber and Nina Keating went into action immediately, doing personalized PD (professional development) for every staff member in the building. They worked to identify all kinds of devices and get them to people, working individually with families… an enormous amount of work to shift this whole community online and to remote learning.”
School adjustment counselor Sheila Lacey and school psychologist Bethany Ambrose have been “working individually with families, connecting them to resources, and (offering) a friendly ear,” said Pender. “Teachers and educational assistants have been shifting on a dime… trying to create engaging and motivating learning experiences for kids both on- and off-line. They have tried to create learning plans that families can participate in and enjoy.”
For fifth graders, that means working on projects for a virtual science fair that will debut June 4. Fourth graders “are doing a creature feature, developing a creature at home to present to classmates,” the principal said. Third graders are creating a book based on their study of Pleasant Bay.
“The second grade just did a great book on the crayon,” Pender said. “Each child chose a color and had to write an opinion piece about why or why not to use it. Families videotaped the children reading their pieces and put them together in a book.” In first grade, the emphasis has been on “choice boards, outdoor activities, and environmental enrichment,” said Pender, while kindergartners are keeping up with their “Jack and Annie” Magic Treehouse books.
What’s become clear is that “every family is different and every situation and every learner is different,” Pender said. “We’re focused on direct communication with teachers and parents to try to get as much feedback so teachers are able to adjust accordingly. Most families are, quite honestly and admittedly across the country, they’re parents, not teachers. You can be the best parent in the world, but having to teach your child is very different than parenting your child. Families are juggling quite a bit: work, sibling rivalry, maybe economic issues. There are kids who need more work and kids who can’t keep up with the work. There are many siblings in families that have to have different learning plans.”
That was confirmed by committee member Sassy Richardson, who has one child at OES and another at the middle school. “We’ve been very happy with everything that’s happened so far,” she said. “I think that there is definitely a learning curve.” She praised Ambrose and teacher Brian Scalley for staying in touch with ideas to relieve anxiety. Fourth grade teachers Kim Bruemmer and Susan Richer “did a really great job of expressing that there is work but no real pressure,” she said. “Kids are encouraged to do it, but (also to) get outside, have time with their families, maybe journal this time.”
Teachers and administrators, Richardson said, “were working on a Friday and then their life got put upside down. They have families, too. Their kids might be going to school. Everyone’s trying to navigate it all.”
“Now that we know we’re going to the end of the year,” Pender said, “we’ll be formalizing learning plans.” She said committee member Hank Schumacher’s suggestion of a parent/study survey of what’s working “could inform our practice going out to the end of the year.”
Pender praised Superintendent Tom Conrad for “meeting with us daily and working with every aspect of school to make sure we’re running smoothly.” Conrad returned the compliment to the principal and staff, noting that in terms of the system’s model of teaching, “we came from one 100 years in the making, and now we’re four weeks into a new world.”
Following state guidelines in the weeks ahead, Conrad said, families can expect to see “a little bit of a shift focused more on math and ELA (English Language Arts)… taking on new material, as well as social-emotional learning.” Noting that he’s heard from “a number of parents” concerned about whether their children will be ready for the next grade level, he said he’s considering a summer school program with a recreation component that would “look at individual students and how we can help them and prepare them going into a fall we don’t even understand at this point.”
Parent interest in the schools is strong, as evidenced by the response he had to an invitation to join a task force on reopening the schools. “I now have 67 parents who would like to serve,” Conrad said. “I’m not sure I’ve had 67 parents sign up in 10 years for all the task forces I’ve asked them to join.”
The committee took its annual vote on school choice, opting not to participate in the coming academic year.