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Teachers and Students Reconnect Virtually On First Day Of School

Fifth grade teacher Kelly Shearon teaches students online from her empty classroom at Lakewood Elementary in Durham on the first day of school, August 17, 2020.
Liz Schlemmer

As part of WUNC's Series "Unprecedented," Liz Schlemmer will report throughout this semester from Lakewood Elementary in Durham.

The hallways at Lakewood Elementary are dark and quiet, with many doorways shut, but the lights are on in Kelly Shearon's 5th grade classroom.

Shearon stands at her whiteboard facing a jumble of stacked up desks, ready to meet her students online – with a dance party. She plays the song "Échame La Culpa" as she dances to greet her students.

"Good morning, A’Niyah!" she says to the first student who arrives in her Zoom classroom.

Shearon breathes a sigh of relief as ten more students funnel into the virtual classroom at 7:30 a.m. on the first day of an unprecedented school year. Given the challenges her class of 16 students have faced to be there, attendance has exceeded her expectations.

School Districts Struggle To Supply All Students With Devices 

Like more than half of school districts across the state, Durham Public Schools has chosen to at least start the semester online -- but that comes with complications. Like a handful of other school districts in North Carolina, DPS is still waiting to receive some of the devices it ordered for students.

DPS spokesman Chip Sudderth says a delivery of devices manufactured in China have been held up by U.S. Customs. Other districts simply may not have the resources to buy a device for every student in need.

Dozens of families at Lakewood Elementary haven't received Chromebooks or Wi-Fi hotspots yet. Because the school serves many economically disadvantaged students, some families were depending on the school's supply. When devices ran out, the plan for the first week of school had to change.

"Our principal Mr. Hopkins sent out a mass email saying, 'We are not going to give those students who just happened to have an early [device] distribution date a leg up'," Shearon explained. "Everything we do that's content related needs to wait."

The DPS school board voted to make the first week an "orientation." Students with internet access are expected to log on for two hours each morning to learn basic skills on the Zoom video platform -- and get to know each other.

"Raise your finger if you are excited to learn in our virtual classroom," Shearon instructs as an icebreaker, then adds, "Raise a finger if you're also nervous to learn in our virtual classroom."

Ms. Shearan and her students each hold up an index finger and bond over their mixed feelings.

Reaching Families By Every Means Possible

After these morning sessions, Lakewood Elementary teachers and staff will spend their afternoons -- and likely nights and weekends -- calling families one by one to check in.

Five of Shearon's students weren't able to log in the first day. She and her co-teacher and "bilingual buddy" Mayra Morales split up that list of students and start reaching out to their parents. Lakewood Elementary's Community Schools Coordinator Anna Grant fields questions in English and Spanish on her phone and assists parents who drop by the school for help.

They'll troubleshoot tech problems and mark the students they reach as present for attendance purposes. After a week of ironing out the glitches, reading and math instruction are scheduled to start next week.

"I think that just speaks to our school's commitment to equity," Shearan said. "We're not going to leave any of our kids behind because of the systemic barriers that they face."

Some Schools Open With Hybrid Learning Instruction

While a majority of schools are starting the year completely remotely, others, especially in more rural areas, are opening with a hybrid of in-person and online instruction.

David Allen is principal of Shelby High School, about 45 minutes west of Charlotte. The school has set up a rotation for students to come into the classroom two days a week and learn remotely on other days. Allen says planning for the semester with the fluid situation around COVID-19 has been a challenge.

"It just makes it kind of difficult to build a schedule and make all the rearrangements you need to make when the game keeps changing, if that makes sense," he said.

Allen says he and other school leaders had been hopeful the COVID-19 outbreak would be stable by now.

Still, while this is nothing like any other first day of school, many students and teachers seem happy to be back to some version of a normal routine.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email:
Cole del Charco is WUNC’s morning reporter. He’s worked for WUNC since 2019.
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