LOVINGSTON — It was the Friday before St. Patrick’s Day, and the students of Michelle Lucado’s kindergarten class at Tye River Elementary School in Nelson County were busy planting “leprechaun traps” throughout the halls of the school.
As she said goodbye to her students, everyone appeared eager to return to school the following Monday to see what their traps had caught.
However, the students never got the opportunity to see if they had snagged the mythical creatures as Gov. Ralph Northam issued an order that same day that all K-12 schools in Virginia close for a minimum of two weeks, followed by another announcement March 23 shuttering all schools for the remainder of the academic year to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
As families and teachers adjust to the unprecedented change, many families either live in areas where no reliable option from internet service providers is available or cannot afford the oftentimes limited options they do have.
Nelson County resident DeAnna Day, who teaches English as a Second Language for Amherst County Public Schools, said having face-to-face communication with her students is key for some as she’ll often use both verbal and nonverbal cues to relay information effectively, something she can’t do over the phone or through email.
“I think it’s been more stressful than maybe it needs to be,” Day said. “It’s just stressful to try to think of material I can utilize without using video or anything like that. There are days I can’t even get online to check an email.”
She said on those days when she’s unable to perform work-related tasks, her only solution, prior to the stay-at-home order, was to hop in the car and drive around the county until she could find a hotspot.
However, she said traveling until she finds a decent connection, only to have to work in her car with a laptop, is far from ideal.
Even going to her mother’s house about 30 minutes away also carries certain risks as she said her mother is in the high-risk category for COVID-19 because of pre-existing medical conditions.
Unlike Day, Lucado has had an easier time reaching her students. Lucado said she has a reliable internet connection at her home, but of her 21 students, there are a handful who do not, which can make some aspects of learning difficult.
“I definitely think that it gives them a lot more options when they do have accessible [internet]. I know a lot of teachers have given out different websites to play games that are educational,” Lucado said.
She said she recently had a video conference to catch up with several of her students and she plans to have more in the future.
While the purpose of the video conference wasn’t educational, she said she is considering using it as a means for teaching in the future, something she said other teachers are considering also, but noted it would exclude a few students who couldn’t participate.
“I think we could use this as a tool in the future if we needed to, but you’re still not reaching those kids that don’t have the internet, so that’s tricky,” Lucado said.
Day said while she has found ways to communicate with her students, a video conference simply is not an option for her in her current situation.
“I think it would make it more convenient for me, and it would be better for my students because they can reach me easier. With students who have the internet and want to video conference, that option is off the table,” Day said.
Moving forward, Day worries without a reliable internet connection she won’t be able to effectively relay information to her students, especially when they begin to learn new material.
Parents in Nelson County also are adjusting to their new roles in their children’s education.
Theresa Terrell, of Roseland, had stopped by the school division’s distribution event on a a recent Wednesday evening to pick up learning materials for her five school-age children.
She said having internet access isn’t an option for her because of pricing. Her children, especially the older ones who typically do a majority of their work online by downloading what they need while they’re at school and bringing it home with them, are adjusting to the transition of at-home learning just fine.
“It’s been hectic but it hasn’t been too bad, really. The school has done a pretty good job with giving us the packets … ,” Terrell said. “I think they’re doing a good job with what they’ve got.”
Kelly Hill, who lives in the Piney River area, said she has a hotspot available at her home that she and her children typically will use for work, but it has been “completely dropping out” given the current situation.
Similar to Day’s situation, Hill resorted to driving to her parents’ — who also are at high risk — home in Afton several times per week in order to take advantage of their internet service.
She said she is worried about the coming weeks as more assignments for her daughter, who is in middle school, and her son, who is a senior in high school, are uploaded through online portals.
“I don’t feel we’re at a disadvantage right now, but it’s certainly inconvenient,” Hill said of not having reliable internet at her home.
While parents and teachers are adjusting to their new normal, there are some options available to them.
Currently, Nelson County Public Schools offer food distribution from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. and from 4 to 6 p.m. Wednesdays at the entrance of Nelson Middle School.
At these distributions, families can pick up five days’ worth of breakfasts and lunches — so long as children are present — as well as learning packets for the week. Superintendent Martha Eagle noted WiFi coverage at all the schools has been extended to reach the parking lot for families to take advantage of as long as they have a Chromebook registered to the school network.
“… [O]ne thing we need to keep in mind is the equity of access and that’s not only to the content but that’s to the teacher. We’ve got to figure out what that looks like,” Eagle said at the March 25 distribution, referring to homes without reliable internet access.
Lucado, the Tye River Elementary kindergarten teacher, noted learning can take place anywhere and teachers are excellent at coming up with lessons that can engage every student.
“I don’t feel like technology is the end all be all. Keeping up with parents and students, it’s more convenient, but we’re finding other ways to reach those students who don’t have internet,” Lucado said.