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‘Academics are the least of it’: How teachers and students stay connected in a pandemic

“It’s all about routine, so we can all come out of this sane.”

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

If there’s such a thing as teacher’s intuition, Keziah Ridgeway has it.

Just before schools closed across the city, Ridgeway — who teaches at Northeast High School in Philadelphia — made a prophetic social media post.

If schools shut down, she wrote, she would offer a free, online course on African American history to any student interested.

Did she know at that point how she would provide a free class?

“No. Not at all,” Ridgeway said with a laugh. “I was like, ‘OK, I actually have to do this now.’”

So she dug around, brushed up on her tech skills, and by Monday was hosting a live class on Google Hangouts Meet — a tool she found through the School District of Philadelphia.

Four times a week, Ridgeway and her counterpart from Central High School meet with 40-to-60 students from schools across the city — and some even from out of state. The students don’t get any credit, and Ridgeway is under no obligation to teach.

But even without mandates, this little online community is thriving. There seems an earnest desire — on the part of students and teachers — to keep some semblance of normalcy alive amid the confusion and disruption caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

“When we are educating, we are doing so much more than that,” Ridgeway said. “And it’s so important for our students to see that we really care about them — that we’re invested in their future. And one way you do that is showing up.”

‘I gotta do something’

Ridgeway’s virtual class sprung up amid a statewide school closure order that’s forced teachers to face a basic question:

What do I do now?

That question has been somewhat complicated by shifting guidance from districts, states and the federal government about what teachers can or can’t legally do while schools are closed.

Many districts initially refrained from offering direct instruction online because of uneven access to technology among students and concerns about compliance with special education law. When the U.S. Department of Education urged districts to push forward with online instruction, that attitude started to change.

But step outside the red tape and the question still lingers. What next?

Many teachers feel compelled to stay connected with their students at a time when people have retreated from public life. And they’re finding new, creative ways to meet that challenge.

“Academics are the least of it,” said Leslie Greenberg, who teaches seventh- and eight-grade English at McCall School in Center City Philadelphia. “At this point, it’s mental health.”

Greenberg tears up thinking up the kind of physical and emotional isolation her students may feel right now.

To try busting through the gloom, she recruited teachers, parents and community members to pick a favorite book and then record themselves reading the first five minutes. It’s a technique she picked up from another teacher online.

She’s releasing the videos one day at a time with hopes they’ll inspire her students to pick up a book — or at least feel a little less alone. Maybe both.

“What helps me stay calm and centered, in a happy place, is to pick up a book,” she said. “I think the struggle right now is…I don’t know how much of that connection is happening for any aged kid at this point.”

Julius Brown, a music teacher at KIPP Philadelphia Elementary Academy in North Philadelphia, felt a void almost immediately after schools closed. During an emergency staff meeting, his mind drifted to the students in his classes.

“And I just kind of lost it and started to cry thinking about how much I miss them,” he said. “At that point I said, ‘I gotta do something.’”

He started a Facebook page called “Mr. Brown’s Sing A Long and Music Class” where he posts videos of him and his son, also a KIPP student, singing the types of songs he’d usually do in class.

KIPP Philadelphia Academy Elementary teacher Julius Brown. (Courtesy of Ben Brown)

At noon on weekdays, Brown goes live with a 30-minute lesson. It’s open to anyone with a Facebook account, but aimed at his students.

“I know that I’m doing it for me, too,” he said. “Being a music teacher is who I am. That’s a central portion of my identity. To be able to stay in touch with that is keeping me grounded.”

Fun with Old Town Road! And attempt at the goodbye song! Posted by Mr. Brown’s Sing A Long and Music Class on Friday, March 20, 2020

Brown’s KIPP colleague, Aishia Stanley, tunes in with her own kids every day.

That sense of routine, she said, is what helps keep her and her children feeling normal. She’s developed a tight daily schedule for her family that she’s shared with her KIPP students.

“It’s all about routine, so we can all come out of this sane,” Stanley said.