Ella Tycz, a senior at Brunswick High School, is adapting to the various challenges presented by remote learning during the coronavirus pandemic. Courtesy Ella Tycz

BRUNSWICK — Having every element of her life confined to home, with schools and most public places closed during the coronavirus pandemic, can be challenging, according to Brunswick High School senior Ella Tycz.

“We’re eating, sleeping, studying, exercising; doing everything we can to get through the day,” she said. “So it’s kind of difficult to stay on task, I would say. … We’re not really getting tested and graded the same way we were, so the stakes aren’t as high, and it’s definitely different.”

But she’s boosted by the encouragement of the teachers with whom she communicates remotely, who understand what students are going through – particularly the seniors who are weeks away from concluding their high school careers, said Tycz, a class officer. She also doesn’t mind being able to have a more peaceful breakfast without rushing off to get to school on time.

Keeping a daily schedule with activities like exercising helps her stay on track, particularly with her spring rowing season canceled, she said.

Brunswick students are receiving participation grades for her classes, “doing worksheets and completing online lessons; those are being graded with more weight,” she explained. Student whose classes are held via the Zoom videoconferencing program are evaluated based on their level of discussion, Tycz added.

Some classes are “either going to have some sort of testing at the end or just nothing, because they recognize that a lot of students are struggling with getting access to the internet or maybe don’t have a safe place to study,” she said.

The Brunswick School Department, for one, has been setting up mobile hot spots for families without internet.

Teaching via internet versus the classroom is “incredibly challenging,” said Kevin O’Leary, an English and drama teacher at Morse High School in Bath. “I think what everybody is discovering, across the board … the kids who have always bought in, buy in. The kids who struggle, struggle.”

This situation demonstrates the effects of poverty on education, O’Leary said: “If I have 100 kids in front of me … 15 of them have not made one reach-out at all. Not one overture, not one email, not one Zoom. So 15 of my 100 students, the last time I saw them was on Friday, March 13, when we left school.”

“It’s really hard to assess remotely like this,” said School Administrative District 75 Superintendent Shawn Chabot. Having taken online classes as an adult, he acknowledged that it can be difficult for someone his age to remain motivated, let alone a youth.

“There’s no way to make sure that all students are being treated the same, as far as assessing their knowledge,” he said. “Because are they getting help from mom and dad? Are they Googling the answers?”

Many students stay after school for extra support; Chabot said he did that often for math classes. With school closed, teachers are trying their best to offer remote office hours, “but it’s not the same as that in-person face-to-face nuancing of the problems,” he said.

The length of a school day varies significantly, based on the needs of the student, Chabot said.

Tycz said she is “definitely” concerned about long-term effects on her ability to learn stemming from prolonged time away from the classroom. Union College in New York, where she will enroll this fall, has reached out to students to acknowledge that students aren’t on the same academic track they’d normally be and will adjust instruction accordingly, she said.

The so-called “summer slide,” during which many students fall behind, will have been compounded by three preceding months out of school, Chabot said.

SAD 75’s proposed budget for next year includes a $70,000 allowance to create remediation programs for students resulting from the closure of schools last month due to the pandemic. Although the limitations of distant learning compared with in-class instruction might normally create barriers to students advancing to the next grade, the Topsham-based district for one doesn’t plan to hold anyone back due to the health crisis.

Children and adults alike are “under enough stress due to the health, economic and social emotional concerns, that we are not going to add to that stress by retaining students because of the current pandemic,” Chabot said. “We will take our students where they are when we get them back to face-to-face learning” and “assess them both academically and emotionally and work collaboratively, to move forward educationally to try to meet their needs.”

O’Leary agrees: “The mantra right now is ‘do no harm.’ Don’t do any harm to the kids, who through no fault of their own, can’t do this.”

Typical student participation rates may range from 90-95%, but “how much kids are actually learning is a different question,” Chabot said. “… We have significant concerns about that, because it’s an equity issue. When we have kids in front of us, we can … level the playing field, but if children are left home because mom and dad are at work, maybe (school work) isn’t getting done as much as it could be or maybe it is; you just don’t know.”

Calling herself a procrastinator, Maddie Fitzpatrick – an eighth grader at Greely Middle School in Cumberland – said the out-of-classroom learning regimen can be tough, “but I’m thinking about the future and high school, so I stay motivated to get all my work done.”

She feels like she’s on vacation, “because I have a lot more time to do my assignments and I’m working from home,” Fitzpatrick said. She aims to complete her work in the morning, but ends up finishing it at night.

School is harder at home, without her teachers and fellow students available for face-to-face guidance, she said: “It’s harder to communicate through email.”

If his daughter is unable to ask her teacher or another student a question, Chris Fitzpatrick said, “she’ll come to us and we’ll be able to help her, or try to help her, to figure it out.”

Maddie said she understands “everything is the way it is for a reason,” but is disappointed not to be able to complete her last year at Greely Middle. “But I’m just dealing with it as it goes.”

Tycz has found one silver lining across the difficult situation.

“We’re in it together,” she said. “That’s the good thing about this; it isn’t just a Brunswick thing or a Maine thing; it’s an everyone thing.”

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