How three Pennsylvania teachers tackle remote learning in the time of coronavirus

Friends’ Central School teacher and mother of two, Tiffany Borsch, creates routine at home amid school closures with daily chalkboard schedule. (Photo courtesy of Tiffany Borsch)

Friends’ Central School teacher and mother of two, Tiffany Borsch, creates routine at home amid school closures with daily chalkboard schedule. (Photo courtesy of Tiffany Borsch)

Tiffany Borsch says that schools are the place students and teachers go to work together and become better people. Borsch is an elementary science teacher at Friends’ Central’s Lower School, an independent, co-ed Quaker day school located in the heart of Wynnewood.

Friends’ Central (FCS) is one of the many schools across Pennsylvania impacted by Governor Tom Wolf’s recent school closure mandate, which called for a shutdown of all K-12 schools for ten days in response to the growing COVID-19 crisis.

Borsch, a mother of two, recognizes the tremendous impact school closures will have on her children and her students, who have looked to Quaker values and tenets to inform their sense of community.

“Our mission statement is that we are going to go out there and peacefully transform the world,” Borsch says. “And we do that not as an island, but we do that by working together…. [Remote learning] is the antithesis of Quaker education, and yet, our sense of community is what actually makes it doable.”

At Friends’ Central, faculty, staff and administrators have been working together since December to prepare for the possibility of a school closure. The school community made use of faculty and board members with medical knowledge of epidemiology, and constantly updated the school community with new findings and the most up-to-date COVID-19 protocol.

“I’m really proud of FCS because they had their ear to the ground, really listening to scientists for the past [three months] … That foresight, and that communication, and again, being in community and listening deeply.”

The teachers at FCS have taken an asynchronous approach to virtual learning in the wake of school closures, meaning students can complete online lessons and activities on their own, individual schedules. Borsch and her fellow teachers wanted to provide an online curriculum that takes into account the fact that more parents would be working from home, without as much time to attend to their children’s learning.

Seesaw, the online learning platform FCS students are using, allows teachers to easily communicate with students and give them individualized feedback on various assignments.

“Thinking about materials … not everybody has a cache of crafting materials in their home, not everybody has a printer. With Seasaw, the teacher can upload something and the kid can work directly on it and it’s saved just for them,” Borsch says.

Quaker philosophy puts a big emphasis on listening to the voice within. Devotions at FCS are a daily classroom activity where the teacher may pose a reflective question, practice a mindfulness technique, or read a story that illustrates the Quaker-focused theme of the month.

“I’m sitting here in front of my hibiscus plant, it makes me smile. Can you take a picture of something in your home that makes you smile?,” Borsch asked her students on Seasaw this morning. Though students won’t all be physically gathered in one room today to answer the devotion question, Borsch says the remote learning platform still makes space for community-building and a grounding practice of gratitude that she identifies as an effective anti-anxiety technique for her young learners.

Springfield High School teacher, Fonda Akins (far right) with colleagues at 2015 school diversity night, which may be cancelled this year due to the spread of COVID-19. (Photo courtesy of Fonda Akins.)

Fonda Akins is a high school teacher at Springfield High School, one of the many Delaware County schools that have been shut down in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. Akins, who serves special education students in grades 9 through 12, says teachers at Springfield High School had to think creatively about how they would continue to reach students virtually for the next 10 days.

“Most of my kids have a specific learning disability, in reading, writing or math,” Akins says. “We have students that are considered autistic-support or emotional support … [As a Special Education teacher], you need to devise lessons where students are not sitting the whole time, where they are doing different things.”

For auditory, visual or kinesthetic learning with special education needs, Akins says it’s important to offer flexible and activity-oriented assignments. Her school is using Google Classroom as their remote learning platform, which she describes as an engaging, multidisciplinary resource composed of readings, comprehension questions, and activities.

At Springfield, the social fabric of the school is being hit hard. Sports tournaments, the school band, prom, and their annual international food bazaar may all have to be put on an extended hold due to the threat of coronavirus. Despite all this, Akins remains hopeful. She says cooking has been helping her relieve the stress of this uncertain time.

“[This week] I’m cooking spinach tortellini soup,” she says excitedly. “It’s very healthy … It’s really easy and it’s something we can have for a couple days.”

Alice Hollingshed at Mayfield Elementary in Northeast Philly, where she’s taught for over 26 years. (Photo courtesy of Alice Hollingshed)

Alice Hollingshed, a third grade teacher at Mayfair Elementary, has also developed a robust self-care routine amid school closures.

“For my mental stability, I read my devotions, quilt — a craft my mother taught me — and binge Netflix,” she says.

Hollingshed, who has taught at Mayfair for over 26 years,  is a survivor of a rare lung disease, so she’s taking special care to safeguard her health during this global pandemic. But her students continue to be one of her main priorities, even as in-person school sessions have been cancelled throughout Philadelphia.

ClassDojo serves as their online communication network. There, Hollingshed can upload literacy, grammar, math, and spelling packets for students to complete. But it’s also a platform where Hollingshed can share mental health advice and CDC-recommended protocols for avoiding contracting coronavirus.

“I tell them, if necessary, unplug from social media and television so [you] don’t get anxious … go out in the yard, take walks, have family time, and play games with each other.”

Mayfair Elementary, located in Northeast Philadelphia, boasts one of the largest populations of English-learning students in the city. Arabic, Mandarin and Spanish are some of the many languages Mayfair students speak at home. Hollingshed says ClassDojo is a crucial part of ensuring remote learning is inclusive for all kinds of learners. The online platform allows parents and students to translate assignments and messages from teachers directly into their native language. And ClassDojo works on many devices, including tablets and smartphones, meaning students without computers at home are also accounted for.

The Philadelphia School District recognizes that many students depend on their schools to receive adequate meals each day. Mayfair is one of the many city public schools providing up to two shelf-stable meals for youth during school closures.

Hollingshed says continuing to meet the needs of her students, while practicing school-wide social distancing, is a priority.

Friends’ Central Lower School teacher Tiffany Borsch accompanies her children on a bike ride during the first day of state-wide school closures. (Photo courtesy of Tiffany Borsch)

For Borsch, meeting that need at home as a parent is just as important. Her remedy for the struggles of social distancing at home? Routine.

“For us as a family, keeping all of those regular routine things that we usually do [is important] … We eat dinner at this time, and after dinner you practice your musical instrument, take a shower, and then we do bedtime stuff.”

Borsch writes her family’s daily schedule on a massive chalkboard in her home. The day’s activities are detailed in colorful pastel colors in 30-minute increments. While routine is grounding, she says spontaneity and fun are also great resources for curbing the anxiety of this moment. This could look like taking a bike ride in a solitary location or watching a television program as a family.

Borsch recently posted in her neighborhood Facebook group, encouraging community members to decorate their yards and homes with festive lights. She says she imagines the neighborhood going for family car rides after nightfall to take in the makeshift light show — a much needed reprieve from being cooped up in the house

“I think there is a really beautiful opportunity here, to slow down … I know that is a very privileged position to be in. I’m not worried about my job, food, I’m not worried about my health. For me, being able to take a breath, still deliver my work, and be with my family, that piece of it can be a gift.”

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