(from left) Lynda Callahan, Erica Whittington and Allyson Hirsch are part of the primary teaching team at Garfield Elementary School. | Photo provided

Primary grade teachers in District 91, those instructing students in Kindergarten through second grade, are faced with unique challenges during distance learning.

For one thing, not all of the kids can read, so independent learning, part of the remote curriculum for intermediate and middle school students, isn’t an option. Additionally, crucial skills like reading and writing typically require a level of individual attention difficult to provide over Zoom.

Last week was the 12th week of school, and the Review spoke to Principal Jamie Stauder and three primary school teachers from Garfield Elementary School: Erica Whittington (kindergarten teacher), Lynda Callahan (first grade teacher) and Allyson Hirsch (second grade teacher).

“It’s a pretty packed schedule,” said Stauder. Kindergarten, first and second graders need more live Zoom classes than other grades, since not all of them can read or be expected to participate in independent lessons as intermediate and middle school students can. So teachers have a rigorous, full-day schedule teaching students.

And, said Stauder, “there is a lot of curriculum to cover in a typical first grade year.” In the primary levels, kids are learning to read. To write. They’re covering the fundamentals, and there’s a lot of material.

The teachers said they sometimes worry that even with the amount of time spent on Zoom, it’s impossible to cover everything that needs to be taught, and the one-on-one attention normally given to students in the primary grades is impossible to provide remotely.

When kids are working on writing, for example, first grade teacher Callahan said normally she’d walk around the classroom, providing individual help to students. But on Zoom, that’s impossible.

“The writing has been the most difficult thing, because I can’t walk around and help them with anything. I can’t see what they’re doing and how to help them get better with it,” Callahan said. Thus, teaching and learning writing has been going more slowly.

“That’s been the hardest part and what I worry the most about when those kids are going on to second grade next year,” Callahan said.

For example, first grade students typically learn and practice narrative, expository and opinion writing. These basics need to be covered, but Callahan said she’s had to pare down the curriculum.

“We’ll focus more on what’s really, really necessary instead of things that might just be supplemental,” Callahan said. “Unfortunately, sometimes it’s the more fun things that we have to let go.” She added that what she misses most from the classroom is the in-person interactions that are so important to kids in the primary grades.

“We can’t play all these fun games together, we can’t do a lot of hands on things that we normally do in the classroom,” Callahan said.

Hirsch, who teaches second grade, agreed with Callahan that it’s hard to get to all the material over Zoom that would have been taught in a typical school setting.

“With as much time as we are on Zoom, we still don’t get to quite cover just the same amount of content as we would cover if we were in person,” Hirsch said.

And, with some of the younger primary school aged kids not being able to read yet, a lot of the guided learning and facilitation falls in the laps of the parents or guardians who are with the students during the day.

“It’s a challenge,” Stauder said. “We want to do a good job as educators and to get to every student and to meet their needs. And to do that through a screen is a challenge,” which, she added, depends heavily on whoever’s taking care of the students during the day.

Kindergarten teacher Whittington is pleased with the progress of her students, and attributes that in large part to assistance from parents and guardians.

“I definitely didn’t expect that I would be able to do as much as I am with the students,” Whittington said. “And I think that’s a big applause to the parents, many of whom are sitting right next to the students and redirecting them when maybe they don’t understand.”

Whittington said she feels bad for the students who don’t have that one-on-one support during the day. But even the students who don’t have someone sitting next to them are doing well, Whittington said.

“They’re really where I would expect them to be,” Whittington said.

Getting into a solid routine, agreed all three teachers, has been one of the most important aspects of remote teaching.

Hirsch said that in the beginning of the school year, she’d spend a lot of time going over things that would normally take only five or 10 minutes. By now, though, the students have gotten into the swing of things quite well.

“They know what to expect,” Hirsch said. “For the most part, a lot of my kids are bringing the supplies necessary that they need to the different parts of the day.” Hirsch facilitates this by reminders in the daily morning meeting, setting up expectations for the day and going over the schedule.

Callahan agreed that routine is important. She added, though, that prep work takes a lot more time now that she’s teaching remotely. She tries to be ready for the next two weeks in advance, planning ahead because teaching via Zoom requires better preparation and new ways of doing things, especially when working with younger learners.

As for the eventual return of students to the classroom?

“We’re anxiously awaiting them to come back,” Stauder said.

Relationships built through Zoom classrooms will carry over into “real life,” the teachers agreed. And although there might be a few days of adjustment, since kids are used to getting up whenever they want to use the bathroom, for example, or walk around the house, they foresee a smooth transition.

Whittington said she’s saved a book to read to the students, a book she usually reads on the first day of school. It’s called “The Kissing Hand,” and it’s about students missing their parents when they’re at school.