Being first into a Zoom class has replaced the honor of being first in line for some first graders at District 91’s Betsy Ross Elementary School.

Before COVID, when kids were attending classes in person, for some children being first in line in the morning was a big deal. Now, being first to a Zoom class is a mark of pride for some students.

“They’ll say, ‘I was first on Zoom!'” said Betsy Ross first grade teacher Amy O’Connell.

One student likes to be the last to sign-out of Zoom classes. Special ed teacher Amanda Skinner said she has a student who asks to stay in the Zoom class until the last minute because he likes to see the message saying, “The host has ended the meeting.”

It’s a month into remote learning during a school year that’s like nothing students or teachers have experienced before.

The first-grade teachers at Betsy Ross said they’ve learned a lot already, and they’ve seen kids and parents doing the same. And as different as things are right now, they’re proud of their students, the skills they’re developing, and what they describe as amazing attendance.

In an interview with first grade teachers O’Connell, Peggy Perry, Michelle Choice, Skinner and Principal Tinisa Huff on the rooftop deck of Betsy Ross school, they shared their experiences with remote learning.

“I was concerned, coming into the school year, about how I would build relationships with the families,” said Choice. “What does that look like over Zoom?” Instead of in-person meetings and conversations, she and the other teachers were worried about how to maintain strong bonds with parents and caregivers. But Choice found that parents were more than willing to do their part to engage.

“Parents have been so supportive,” Choice said. “I don’t just interact with the kids on Zoom. I’ve had a chance to interact with the parents too.”

Sometimes she has one-on-one Zoom meetings with parents, just to touch base and communicate about how the school year is going.

For kids not doing remote learning at home, the community center and park district provide options for supervision. Although the park district program is relatively new, the community center has been running its program since the first day of school. And according to the teachers, they’re doing a good job.

“It’s amazing,” said O’Connell. “It makes you really understand the phrase ‘It takes a village.’ The helpers keep the kids focused, and you can hear them reminding the kids so stay on task and do what they’re supposed to be doing.”

Skinner says the community center is caring for one of her special ed students during the day, and the staff at the center have been a huge help.

“They’re so good with this child, because special ed on Zoom can be really difficult,” said Skinner.

Pre-COVID, Skinner integrated the special education kids she teaches with Perry’s science and social studies classes, and they’re still doing that online on Zoom. Although it might not be as good as the students getting to know each other in person, they’re creating friendships and familiarity that, once they do get to be in class together “for real” again, will carry over, said Skinner.

In general, all the kids are forming relationships over Zoom, albeit different than friendships they might form in person. And the kids have bonded with the teachers too.

“They’ll say ‘I miss you’ or ‘I love you’ to me,” said O’Connell. “It breaks your heart, but it’s still refreshing to know you’re making an impact. You really feel the love.”

The biggest struggle, said the teachers, is making sure the tier three students are getting what they need. These are special education students, some of whom need extra time or interventions. And on the other end of the spectrum, said Huff, is making sure there’s extra enrichment for kids who are working ahead.

“We’re all learning,” said O’Connell. “And the parents have been patient, and they’re all learning too.”

Parents’ understanding and grace is especially valued, said Perry, because teachers are opening themselves up in a way they’ve never had to before, sharing their lesson plans and schedules.

“We’re more vulnerable,” said Perry. “This is something we’ve never done before.”

Huff said she thinks the entire community – the children, teachers, and parents – will learn and grow through adapting to the COVID pandemic and the changes it’s dictating.

“We will come out strong and more connected,” Huff said. “Differently connected, maybe, but closer than before.”

That might be one of the silver linings of remote learning, but another, said Choice, is a different set of skills the children are learning.

“They’re learning life skills. They know they have to be on time, and they know they have to come back after breaks,” said Choice. Caregivers might remind them, but they’re taking more ownership over the work and their schedules.

It’s Huff’s first year as principal at Betsy Ross; she was assistant principal at the middle school and took over at Betsy after Bill Milnamow retired in June. It’s not the year she was expecting, but she said one of her goals now is to put a smile on people’s faces. One way she does that is through a regular Friday Zoom Dance Party.

“The staff is so amazing,” said Huff. “It’s a very weird year, but I’m so grateful to be here.” And she encourages people to remember that they’re not in this alone.

“We have to take care of ourselves,” Huff said. Her mantra, which she shares with her staff is: “Flexibility, grace… and just breathe.”