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Orange County parents roll with the changes as children tackle online learning

ORANGE — “Fake it ‘til you make it.”

That’s the motto among some Orange County parents doing their best to help their children during the new era of COVID-19 online learning. So said Boyd Edwards, repeating a comment he and his wife, Anne, have heard from others.

The Edwardses have three children in the Orange County Public Schools. They are trying to keep their kindergartner, the fifth-grader and the eighth-grader focused on their schoolwork without pushing them to the brink of “burnout,” Boyd Edwards said.

Their youngest, a student at Unionville Elementary School, has struggled with the abrupt transition to attending school at home.

“It is a little trying for someone that young, to be told that that’s it. Now we’re going to be teaching you. She thought her teacher hung in the moon. She was doing great, making leaps and bounds,” Edwards said.

He credits his wife with setting up a good study schedule for the children. But neither had planned on homeschooling, and now they realize how much difference the classroom and the teachers make in their children’s ability to concentrate and learn their lessons.

“It’s hard to get through to them sometimes. They’re not in that atmosphere, in the learning zone, where they walk into the big brick building and the classrooms are decorated with all kind of learning tools to engage their young minds,” Edwards said.

He admitted, “We’re not without the days of, ‘No, you have to sit down and do this.’ ‘No, you don’t like it, but this is how it is.’”

“You do the best you can as a parent, but you’re still at home, in a different mindset. I can’t wait for school to reopen so I can thank [all their teachers],” he said.

‘A real eye-opener’

Dara Maxwell, of Orange, has been having similar thoughts. She has three children at home: a kindergartner, a first-grader and a fifth-grader. Although she works as an instructional assistant at Orange Elementary School, where her children are enrolled, she said it’s only now she’s realizing just how hard teachers work.

“Teachers are something amazing, because this has been a real eye-opener to what they do on a daily basis — it’s a lot.”

With a rueful laugh, she said “World War III” has broken out a time or two in the family living room. “There’s no personal space. We’ve been together so long. Everybody’s vying for personal attention.”

When things get wild, she herds the kids outside, if the weather allows it. They go for a walk or climb aboard the trampoline, with mom taking her turn hopping up and down.

‘A big change’

For families with just one child, the situation has been less chaotic, but that doesn’t mean it’s been easy.

Debra Stevens and her granddaughter, Amber, a sixth-grader at Locust Grove Middle School, are adjusting to online learning.

“The teachers have been great,” she said, noting that they’ve checked in with her and Amber by both phone and email.

Amber didn’t have a computer, so she was among the many children receiving a loaner laptop from the school division so she could finish out the year online.

Stevens said she and Amber went to the middle school on April 13 to pick up the Chromebook and didn’t have to wait long before school staff delivered the computer to the car.

“They were pretty organized. I was there 15 to 20 minutes. They were rolling with getting those [computers] out,” Stevens said.

Stevens is unwilling to pay for internet at her home because she has heard the service in her neighborhood is “horrible.” As she put it, “Why pay for something that’s not going to work?”

But she has been able to use her phone as a “hot spot” so Amber can log on and do her homework. Since Amber already was using a Chromebook at school, she knew how to get started and log onto Google Classroom.

A home health aide, Stevens has mostly been at home with Amber in recent weeks. Like other parents and guardians, she has felt the impact of the dramatic shift in schedule.

“It’s been a big change,” she said. “Keeping her busy has been a challenge.”

When Amber isn’t busy with her schoolwork, Stevens said she and her granddaughter go outside when the weather allows, do puzzles and cook — “just trying to keep busy.”

Amber is continuing her dance classes online, though her grandmother said she misses her real-life classes at MFA Studios in Locust Grove.

Stevens said she is grateful to OCPS and Amber’s teachers for providing structure and just being there.

“They’ve been really good about staying in contact and emailing,” she said. “I think they were pretty prepared. I haven’t had a problem.”

‘I’m not the teacher’

Marie and Sean Sepela, also in Locust Grove, have two sons, Jacob, a sixth-grader at Locust Grove Middle School, and Ethan, a third-grader at Locust Grove Elementary School. Marie Sepela has been helping the boys make the transition to online learning — and they’ve been helping her.

“They’re doing pretty well. It was almost more of an adjustment for me,” Sepela said. “My kids know how to use Google Classroom, but I didn’t.”

She now is familiar with the learning platform and its various options, including Google Meet. Similar to Zoom, Google Meet allows teachers and their students to see each other on screen and approximate something like a regular class.

“They’re very, very happy about their class meetings. They’re excited to see everyone,” Sepela said.

In general, she said, the hardest part is “not knowing how to answer their questions when they have them,” Sepela said. “I can look it up, but I’m not the teacher.”

The material provided in the online lessons is good, she stressed, but “it’s not the same [for the children] if you don’t have your teacher there talking about it.”

Reflecting on the changed circumstances, she said, “I think in a way, the kids are more bonded with their teachers. They’re having a unique experience together. They appreciate when they have time with their teachers and classmates.”

She is pleased with the school division’s efforts.

“I already appreciated the teachers,” she said, and she feels even more grateful to them now. “They’ve been very accessible. I’ve gotten a quick response almost no matter when. They’re very helpful and caring.”

‘A little overwhelming’

Eleanor Cochran of Gordonsville has two young daughters, Emma, 7, a first-grader at Gordon-Barbour Elementary School, and Abigail, age 4, enrolled in Head Start.

Cochran admitted things are stressful. Neither she nor her fiancé, Brian Davis, is working, and her mother, who lives with them, is not allowed to leave the house, “per doctor’s orders.”

While the adults in the household cope as best they can, Emma is thriving academically just as she did when regular school was in session.

“She’s pretty excited with all this,” Cochran said, adding that Emma was participating in a video chat with her teacher right then.

Meanwhile, Cochran said, Abigail just wants to hang around her big sister or watch TV.

“It’s hard to handle a 4-year-old and a 7-year-old when they’re both home,” she said. “Abigail was sent a package by her teacher, but with her being so young, I can’t get her to sit still” and do the work.

Cochran’s voice reflected her frustration. Speaking for many, whether they are parents or not, she said, “Sometimes it does get a little overwhelming.”

A blanket fort

Chris and Melissa Martin and their daughter, Tara, also live in Gordonsville. Melissa Martin said Tara, a sixth-grader at Prospect Heights Middle School, is doing well with her online classes.

She spoke candidly about her daughter’s dyslexia, which makes reading difficult.

On March 13, students across the division were sent home with hastily compiled homework packets because school administrators assumed schools would be closed for at least two weeks and possibly longer — an assumption that quickly proved correct once Gov. Ralph Northam shuttered K-12 schools for the remainder of the academic year.

Determined to complete the homework she’d received on that fateful Friday the 13th, Tara needed her mother’s help.

Martin read some assignments to her daughter so she could complete them in a timely fashion. But now, working at her computer, Tara again has access to the assistive technologies that enable her to work more independently.

Melissa Martin chuckled when she described how Tara does her homework in her bedroom inside a “blanket fort.”

“She hangs out up there and does her work. I try to get her started at 10 or 10:30. She’s really good about it. She pulls out her computer and gets started. She likes to do two classes and then take a break, then do two more classes.”

Martin said her daughter likes working at her own pace but misses her friends and just being at school: “Like all of us, she misses people.”

Self-discipline needed

Orange County High School students already were using Chromebooks during the school day. However, online learning at home requires self-discipline.

That hasn’t been an issue at the home of Tom and Amy Payette of Rapidan, and their daughter, Andrea, and son, Thomas.

“We are blessed with motivated children, so that certainly helps,” Amy Payette said. “But we began this new challenge with a pep talk, ‘This is about you and your desire to learn. You will have to go after the education.’”

She said Andrea, a junior, and Thomas, a ninth-grader, get up early and do school work until about noon — longer if the assignments require it.

With normal extracurricular activities on hold, Andrea remains actively involved in community dance and theater via online classes and rehearsals. Amy Payette said Thomas misses playing sports but continues to work out on his own.

Asked what the family is doing for relaxation and fun while normal life is on hold, Amy Payette replied, “Our family dinners have been longer and we’ve done some family walks. I don’t know if the kids would call it ‘fun,’ but we have gotten a lot of household projects accomplished!”

Facebook app, new pet

Rodney Self and his wife, Rebecca Wareham, have a son, Regan, in fifth grade at Orange Elementary School.

“Regan is doing very well,” Rodney Self reported.

He has noticed that his son enjoys the live video classes more than working by himself.

“He likes the collaborating — that’s definitely what he misses most” about regular school.

Regan participated in the phone interview along with his father. What else does he miss about school?

“I miss P.E. and the library, and getting to talk to my friends. Other than that, I feel pretty good about it. We do get to do the work still, which I like,” said Regan.

To help him stay connected during the pandemic, his parents have set him up with a Facebook app designed for children. Regan can chat with his friends and his teacher, Erin Darnell, but no one can contact him via the app without his parents being notified.

With both parents working at home, Self and Wareham coordinate their work schedules so Regan is never left in a bind.

Self said, “We typically let him know, ‘Hey, I’m about to go into a work meeting. Do you need anything?’ We try to schedule our meetings separately, so we’re not overlapping in case he really does need something.”

The household recently acquired a new member: Ollie, a beagle lately of the Orange County Animal Shelter.

“We felt adding a dog would liven things up in the house a bit,” Self said, adding that, “Ollie stole our hearts from first sight.”

Family photos suggest that Ollie knows he’s got a good thing going. And Regan, for his part, is taking the long view when it comes to the pandemic.

Asked whether he’s worried about the virus, the 11-year-old offered these calming words, “I feel like if we stay at our distances and wear masks and use our hand sanitizers, we’ll all be fine.”


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