Six-year-old Otis Bridges wakes up every morning at 5:30.
He climbs out of bed, walks over to his makeshift school desk — a living room side table and bench set up in his bedroom — and begins that day’s assignment.
“He works early so we can stagger the Internet use,” said his mom, Amanda Bridges of Stoddard.
For Amanda, this new normal is particularly tricky, as a 3rd- through 5th-grade teacher at James Faulkner Elementary School, now responsible for both her students’ and son’s education.
The stress of it all — along with raising her 14-month-old baby — can be overwhelming, she said.
“It’s really challenging. Well, the teaching has been fine, it’s just the time it takes,” she said over FaceTime Thursday, through tears. “His teachers are amazing, and they are friends of mine ... it’s hard though.”
With New Hampshire schools operating on a remote basis until May to help curb the spread of COVID-19, teachers and families have been thrust into uncharted territory, juggling their jobs, kids and education at a distance.
On March 15, Gov. Chris Sununu ordered all public schools in New Hampshire to temporarily close. On Thursday, he extended the order through May 4.
At first, Amanda said, she felt confident about remote learning. Her district piloted digital tools, such as Google classroom, to use during snow days this year, so she was already familiar with the platform.
“When we were first told, I was like, ‘Oh, we’ve already done this. We got this.’ But one day is a lot different than multiple weeks,” she said.
Now a full week into remote learning, Amanda said her students have “got it down pat.”
The kids are learning through a “hyper-doc” — an online document with hyperlinks and photos attached.
She added that her 15 5th-grade and five 4th-grade students have the option to complete their assignments digitally, screen-free or with a hands-on activity, such as cooking or journaling.
“There are very few families who have no Internet, but it’s very common to have very poor Internet,” Amanda said, noting she’s one of them. “So [assignments] are lined out with screen-free choices.”
At Conant High School in Jaffrey, co-teachers Amanda Dibble and Hether Shulman said not being able to read their students’ body language has been one of the hardest parts — especially for Shulman, of Peterborough, who is a special educator co-teaching four courses.
“A lot of our kids are very relational, and I need to see their body language and [hear] their voice intonation to tell if they really understand something,” she explained. “Sometimes they’ll just say, ‘Yes, I understand,’ but they don’t, and [Dibble] and I have learned to read their signals ... that is a real challenge.”
Dibble, of Milford, who teaches five math courses, added that switching to remote learning has made her and Shulman adjust their teaching styles.
“It’s hard to juggle the questions and the constant one kid needs this, another kid needs this,” she said. “Normally, in a classroom, we can do that. It’s just a quick two-minute check-in, but now its like ‘OK, let’s video chat, let’s open a [Google] Hangout, let me check my email and respond to you that way,’ and it’s a lot.”
The blessing of it, though, is Dibble and Shulman have noticed an enhanced collaboration among their students.
In the classes’ chatrooms, if a student asks a question, Dibble said often times another student answers it for them.
“The feedback we have so far, based on the data from their performance, is they are getting it, and they are working together. It’s really cool,” she said.
The math courses have an online and hard copy version of assignments, Dibble said, with a class videoconference from 8:30 to 9:15 a.m. every day. Dibble and Shulman stay on the call the whole duration, and students can pop in to ask questions.
For students without Internet access, their hard copy assignments are dropped off when completed at the school’s main office, and Dibble and Shulman check in with them through email and phone calls.
Susan Grover, a 4th-grade teacher at Symonds Elementary School in Keene, has a similar system in place for her students.
She hosts a videoconference check-in each morning with them, she said, just like she’d check in with them in person at the start of a normal school day. Parents and students can also have individual video chats with her, she noted.
Grover, like other teachers interviewed, said her students are still understanding their material. But, losing that day-to-day human connection is tough, for both her and the kids.
“We had a question of the day and then after that we had a question-and-answer session, and you can see their faces light up on the screen when they are able to connect with their classmates and their teacher,” she said. “That is the biggest thing remote learning is missing ... it can in no way replace what really happens in the school building and on the school grounds.”
Local school districts say they are prioritizing a focus on maintaining a feeling of normalcy as much as possible.
In N.H. School Administrative Unit 29 — which covers Keene and many other area communities — the goal has been to create a set-up that mimics the function of a normal classroom, Superintendent Robert Malay said. Teachers and students have access to a range of programs, and many of them had already been using applications like Google Classroom before schools closed down.
“We have the entire Google Suite, so we’re using a number of [programs] and different teachers are using them in different manners,” Malay said.
Teachers are able to use the tools at their disposal and other online reference materials to customize their lesson plans, he added, and no two teachers are doing things exactly the same way. Several are taking advantage of the diverse range of programs available to them to present lessons in real time, which allows students to ask questions as the instruction is live.
At the middle and high school levels, SAU 29 students are asked to check in at predetermined times, with schedules set up to follow class periods they would experience during a normal day at school. For lower grade levels, Malay said that particular structure wasn’t the most effective, so each school is approaching the transition according to its needs.
“The basic framework is, using our Google Suite, we are delivering the expectations for the week on Monday,” he explained. “[Students and teachers] are having regular check-ins Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and completing assignments that need to be submitted by the end of the week.”
One of the hurdles many districts have faced during the switch to remote learning was taking stock of which students had access to computers and Internet access at home, and which were lacking that access. Chromebooks that the district already had on hand were made available to any student who needed one.
Brett Blanchard, principal of Jaffrey-Rindge Middle School and Conant High School, agreed that working to achieve a sense of normalcy is a primary goal.
“It’s of huge importance that we have these students connecting emotionally and socially as much as we can,” he said. “And while the normalcy can’t be fully duplicated … we need to create ways that students can feel part of this greater community, and connected with their peers and teachers.”
Blanchard said teachers in his district are using programs like Zoom, a videoconferencing application, to allow for real-time learning, as well as a number of Google programs that are helping to keep students and teachers connected. He said students and teachers are already accustomed to using some of those programs.
For about three weeks before the district shut down, preparations were being made for how to make the transition if and when the time came, he said.
Classes are structured into four 45-minute periods in the morning, with 15-minute breaks in between, and in the afternoon, teachers hold office hours so they can work with students who need any additional help with their work.
“We’re trying to do as much real-time classwork as we can,” he said. “But there’s still going to be a combination of pre-recorded videos which students can watch … making sure we still have direct digital connections, and then hard copies, paper copies are still made available as needed.”
The scheduling process was constructed to accommodate for an “inevitable” issue, Blanchard said — the fact that all students might not be able to log on at exactly the same time to participate in class.
Like Blanchard, Jeremy Rathbun, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for the Monadnock Regional School District, said the district has long been using many of the programs and technology that are now coming into play as schools make the transition to learning from home.
And, like other districts, he said that tech is being employed to maintain the same degree of participation that can be found in traditional classrooms. He lauded the vendors the district contracts with, who had decided to open up their program subscriptions so that all teachers and students are able to continue using those programs from home.
“Our goal is to keep students engaged and thinking academically,” he said. “We want to make sure we’re still connected with them.”
He also said schools are working to provide students who have special needs with the services they depend on remotely.
He said teachers are able to be flexible with the way they run their online classes, but there are a few age-group-based guidelines they’ve been asked to follow, which primarily focus on maintaining a line of communication with each of their students.
They’ve been asked to reach out to each kid individually at least twice weekly to make sure things are going well and that they are getting what they need.
“This is a whole change, but because of the educators, because of the parents, it’s working,” he said. “We’re keeping our kids involved, we’re keeping our kids engaged and no matter what else comes out of this, I think that is going to be the success of it.”
While many teachers have provided options for submitting assignments offline, some families trying to keep up with their students’ remote learning have struggled with the area’s lack of high-speed Internet access.
In the Southwest Region Planning Commission’s 2015 broadband plan, a test of upload and download speeds of 572 addresses in the region determined that nearly 43 percent were underserved and another 27 percent were unserved, with minimal or negligible speeds.
Bob Sullivan’s Peterborough home has only DSL access, which he said has caused some issues now that everyone needs the bandwidth. On one occasion, a videoconference for work conflicted with his oldest daughter’s schooling, and she had to skip a session that would’ve offered her additional help.
Since then, Verizon Wireless has given its customers an extra 15 GB of high-speed data, which Sullivan said has made a significant difference.
With just one personal computer in the home, however, the physical equipment also poses a problem. Sullivan has created a makeshift office in the basement, while three of his six children do their learning remotely, only one of whom has a Google Chromebook from school. His wife, Amber, who watches the kids during the day, gets on the computer after everyone is asleep to take classes for her nursing degree.
The Sullivans aren’t alone in trying to share Internet and computer access.
In Jaffrey, Elizabeth Hendrickson wrote that she lives “out in the middle of nowhere, and if the wind blows in the wrong direction, the Internet can be thrown off.” The connection is slow, she said, and she has three kids remote learning while she attends online classes for a master’s degree.
This week’s snowstorm knocked out their network for a day or two, Hendrickson said.
“We work when the Internet works really,” she wrote.
Venessa Starr, an accountant, moved to Rindge from Florida last fall, and she’s at home with a 7-year-old and a 12-year-old while her husband is out of state with his job.
“All of us being online at the same time with terrible Internet speeds doesn’t work,” she wrote in a message, so Starr rearranged her schedule.
She gets up and works for about six hours, then helps the kids with their schooling in the afternoon. After 9 p.m. when they’re asleep, she finishes her work.
Managing everything hasn’t been easy, she said. Grocery trips include the kids and constant reminders not to touch their faces or anything in the store. And they miss their friends.
“I am incredibly grateful to have the time with them and that I still have income (for now),” Starr wrote, “but I do feel strained. The news is depressing, and I am fighting feelings of hopelessness and fear because the kids do not need to feel that stress.”
Amy Crawford lives in Spofford, where she and her husband, Andrew, are working their jobs with C&S Wholesale Grocers Inc. from two separate rooms to avoid talking over each other’s phone calls. Add the blended family’s children: an 11-year-old who goes to Chesterfield Elementary School, and two 10-year-old boys who typically live with their mother in Massachusetts, but the boys’ mother still has to physically go into work.
The Massachusetts school hasn’t instituted remote learning, and Crawford said the inconsistency has been a challenge.
Cabin fever crept in this week, and she nodded to the wealth of online resources intended to help stimulate kids, but there aren’t enough computers in the house for everyone. While the Crawfords try to schedule recess and evening activities, they’re also working extended hours at home, blurring the separation between their careers and their personal lives.
“It’s been a strain for both of us,” Crawford said. “We’re doing the best that we can. We want to make sure that we’re taking care of our family, and it’s tough to do when we’re working.”
Single parents across the region have also expressed their struggles, from a nurse clocking 40-plus hours to a mother using spreadsheets to keep up with her kids’ schooling while she’s at work.
Given the challenges they’re facing, the bulk of families in Monadnock towns who offered feedback to The Sentinel heaped praise on their respective school districts for setting up remote learning so quickly and on teachers for making themselves available to their students.
Residents share ideas for activities in community Facebook groups and regularly check in with their neighbors online. For all its downsides, several people also credited this crisis for bringing towns together and giving parents more time with their kids.
Experiences vary across households, and Rathbun pointed out that remote learning is not a one-size-fits-all program.
“It works really well for the families that have the access at home and have the ability to support children at home,” he said, but it’s crucial for school districts to understand that isn’t every household’s reality.
Along with his role as an administrator, Rathbun serves as the Monadnock school district’s McKinney-Vento liaison, named for the federal legislation that requires educational institutions to designate an intermediary for students experiencing homelessness.
Rathbun said one of his biggest concerns during this crisis has been ensuring that these kids are OK outside of their academics, too.
When it became clear remote learning was on the way, Rathbun said he and his staff contacted every “McKinney-Vento family,” as they’re sometimes referred to internally, to see if they needed supplies, transportation to the schools to pick up technology, or help securing Internet access.
“We were lucky, most of our families have what they need,” he said. “But we do have families in a shelter, and that’s tougher.”
Homeless shelters in the region are at capacity, with few options for self-quarantine, and Rathbun acknowledged that trying to supervise a child’s remote learning while dealing with housing insecurity is tough. Communication is his office’s main path, he said, and that’s critical during this time of distancing.
“If a family says, ‘I can’t do this right now,’” Rathbun said, they need to know that’s OK, that the academics come second to health and safety. “… We’ve turned their whole world upside down with this. All of our worlds are upside down.”
This article has been updated to correct how long New Hampshire public schools will remain closed to help curb the spread of the novel coronavirus disease COVID-19.