Abbey Steinberg of Cumberland, a junior at Baxter Academy, shares her mother’s home office as she studies remotely on Tuesday. She is among tens of thousands of Maine students doing so because of the virus outbreak. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Baxter Academy junior Abbey Steinberg appreciates having a few minutes extra to sleep in on weekdays, now that she doesn’t have to drive to school in Portland each morning.

School usually starts around 8:30 a.m., but these days instead of heading to the charter school’s downtown campus, Steinberg logs into her laptop from her home in Cumberland.

If she doesn’t feel like getting dressed up, she can turn the camera off on video calls with her classmates and teachers. She eats lunch in her own kitchen and after school is over, uses extra time when she normally would still be in class to go for a run or see her family.

“The only downside is not seeing my classmates every day,” Steinberg said. “My teachers have been super supportive. I can email them basically any time if I have questions or want to talk about anything. It’s a hard time but they’ve been doing a great job of maintaining normalcy.”

The 16-year-old is among tens of thousands of Maine students and millions nationwide who suddenly find themselves out of school amid a global outbreak of the coronavirus. As the number of people infected with the virus grew last week, most schools in Maine announced plans to close their doors and transition to remote learning for two weeks, if not longer.

Baxter Academy Executive Director Kelli Pryor said Tuesday the transition to remote learning has been smooth so far and there are even some unexpected benefits, like a boost in participation from quieter students who are often unlikely to speak up in an actual classroom.

But the transition hasn’t been easy everywhere. Remote learning varies district by district across the state, depending on a variety of factors such as grade level, access to technology and how involved parents can be.

Some teachers already use technology in their classrooms and can transition easily to online learning, but for others it’s a challenge. Older students more often have their own laptops or can be provided them by their schools, but younger students often require guidance from adults to complete take-home work.

Regardless of grade level, educators said remote learning is not ideal and compromises the strong teacher-student relationships that are the foundation of school.

Mallory Orzechowski attempts to balance the new tasks she has at home with remote learning on Tuesday. Mrs. O, as her first-grade students know her, teaches in Westbrook, and has two daughters, one of whom attends kindergarten in Portland. At left is her daughter Claire, 6, and at right is her daughter Mila, 1. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“There are aspects of this we’ve been working on for a few weeks, but nobody could anticipate where we are now,” said Page Nichols, chief innovation officer at the Maine Department of Education. “Even a week and a half ago we were not expecting these large-scale school closures. We’ve been building plans with the possibility it could happen. No one was prepared for COVID-19 to take over the way it has.”

In the Westbrook School Department, teachers who reported for a scheduled professional development day Friday were forced to change course and come up with remote learning plans for their students.

“We were so lucky because at my school everyone pulls together, especially in times like this,” said Mallory Orzechowski, a first-grade teacher at Westbrook’s Canal School. She said the transition to remote learning represents “uncharted territory,” especially for elementary level teachers.

“Everyone was running around, scrambling to find resources and staying late to make sure everything got done – grade level (teachers), specialists, everyone was putting their heads together,” she said.

For her first-graders, Orzechowski created a 10-day calendar with reading, writing and math activities to do at home each day. She’s also been posting videos online for parents to watch with their younger students.

Like many teachers, Orzechowski is also a parent. Her daughter is a kindergartner in Portland Public Schools, which is planning to start remote learning Wednesday.

Abbey Steinberg, a junior at Baxter Academy, shares her mother’s home office as she studies remotely on Tuesday. Her mother, Sarah Steinberg, who owns an interior design firm and works from home, says the school practices remote learning on snow days during the school year, so it’s familiar to the students. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“A lot of teachers have young kids and so a lot of us are trying to educate our own kids and follow what their district has put in place for learning and then any spare moment we’re trying to plan the next lesson or review the work we got in today to give parents feedback,” she said.

Several school districts that announced closures Friday or over the weekend said they would need a few days early this week to get ready for remote learning.

Kennebunk-based Regional School Unit 21 is among districts that have already started. The first day of remote classes was Monday. On Tuesday morning Interim Assistant Superintendent Meg Parkhurst called a video meeting of school leaders who specialize in curriculum and instruction to see what feedback they were getting from parents and teachers.

Most of the feedback was positive. Families were grateful for the work the teachers put in to send remote learning materials home Friday. Teachers liked that the at-home plans allowed for more creativity and unstructured time for students to be outside or do art projects.

But the staff were also finding it hard to gauge how long it would take students to complete assignments at home. And they expressed concerns about some students working ahead while others are bogged down with added responsibilities, like having to care for younger siblings, when they’re at home.

“We’re trying to balance communication with families with not overwhelming the families too much,” Parkhurst said. “We want to communicate about the workload but also ensure families know we’re there to support them.”

Claire Orzechowski, 6, a kindergarten student in Portland, works on word problems at her kitchen table Tuesday, while her school was closed. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

At Casco Bay High School in Portland, math teacher Will Leque said varying levels of teacher comfort with online platforms and questions around how to communicate expectations to students are among the things high school educators have been grappling with the last few days.

“When you get kids online, how do you manage the online community?” Leque said. “It’s everything from how does a kid raise their hand to get your attention to how do you use your computer to deliver instruction and get feedback.”

Students in Portland schools will start remote learning Wednesday, but Leque said his students will use paper packets the rest of the week. On Monday they’ll start their online curriculum using either their own devices or ones provided by the district.

“It’s pretty amazing to see the dedication the teachers have,” Leque said. “This was a problem that began being solved within 12 hours of that first phone call (closing school) on a Saturday night. Teachers, no matter how uncomfortable or challenging it is, are 100 percent behind supporting kids.”

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