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A Nashville kindergarten teacher tells how delivering food, improvising online learning, and sharing his cell phone number helped him forge a powerful bond with families in crisis during COVID-19

During COVID closures, a school was not just a school

A Nashville kindergarten teacher tells how delivering food, improvising online learning, and sharing his cell phone number helped him forge a powerful bond with families in crisis

At the beginning of March, Nashville was hit by a major tornado. In Metro Nashville School District, where I teach kindergarten, 85 percent of our students are on free and reduced lunch, so when schools closed due to COVID-19 a few weeks later, our focus was on meeting the humanitarian needs of our families, many of whom were still recovering from a natural disaster.

At first, the district chose to not formally engage in distance learning, although teachers were encouraged to provide resources and lessons at their discretion. Every day we provided breakfast and lunch for the 85,000 students in our district through meal pickups. If families couldn’t get to the pickup site, we delivered meals to the homes while following all necessary safety precautions. The district also provided work packets online and printed packets for pick up.

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Another reason we didn’t immediately jump into formal instruction online was that, because of the population we serve, we knew there were issues with technology access. Each teacher surveyed our parents about what devices and internet access they had, then the district was able to distribute laptops and iPads to families who needed devices.

I checked in with my families every day using the Remind app to make sure they didn’t need anything. There were a couple of instances where families needed financial help with bills, and we were able to work within our district to assist. I also did a lot of FaceTiming with my students. Being there to talk to them was a way to help some of the anxiety they had.

Online teaching with new and familiar tools

Even though there was no formal distance education in place, my families wanted their kids to be learning at home. I directed them to Teach@Home, a free website that has simple activities and printable manipulatives that cover the basics for pre-K through 5th grade. All I had to do was share the link to the website, and families could watch videos for kindergarten lessons, then download and print worksheets for their kids. They would then send me pictures or videos of their work.

The district started official distance learning in early May. As a kindergarten team, we first reached out to our families and asked them about the easiest way for us to do distance learning. The families told us that YouTube would be easiest because they were already familiar with it.

Then we looked at our remaining standards and units for the year, and we settled on animals. That’s our end-of-the-year unit, and we also figured that would engage the kids. We did an animal a day, following the same model that we used in the classroom. We did a read-aloud plus a graphic organizer about each animal and posted those videos on YouTube. To make the lessons richer, I used some of the same manipulatives I had used in the classroom, like the balance and counting cubes from hand2mind. After each lesson, the kids had a task every day to draw a picture and write about the animal. We did that for three weeks.

A new connection with parents

With our focus on humanitarian needs in the early days of the pandemic, I definitely bonded at a human level with my families. Even with school out, I’m still doing my daily check-ins with them. We’re still providing food. The families all have my cell phone number and they can call me any time.

I’ve also provided some professional development for parents. For example, I got a message from a mom about a video that my teammate did. She said, “The teacher is spelling the words wrong.” I watched the video, and the teacher was doing a phonics lesson. We teach our kids to spell words with the sounds they hear, so she spelled “eagle” E-G-L. The mom was very concerned about that, so I made a video to explain to families that this is how we teach our kids to write, and the teacher was just modeling what we want the kids to do.

Maintaining face-to-face time with students

Since our school closed, I’ve been in touch with 12 of my 13 students. (I’m pretty sure that one family moved.) For our grade, we had 60 percent participation during the three weeks that we did formal instruction. Our district average was 25 percent.

To maintain face-to-face time with my students, every Monday I did a whole-class Zoom meeting. The parents would interact some, but mostly it was just me and the kids. The Zoom meetings were very much like being in the classroom: everybody’s talking; they want to tell you random things. We saw lots of animals and pets and bedrooms. It was fun. It was controlled chaos like you would expect with a bunch of five-year-olds.

Summer school by request

With the missed instructional time, we didn’t cover the curriculum that we would have in the classroom. My families asked me to continue teaching this summer, so I’m going to be doing some videos and lessons as well. My plan is to work on basic phonics and math skills so that when we start next year and they go into 1st grade, they have a solid foundation to build on.

My hope is that this pandemic and the way it has impacted our schools has shined a very bright light on the fact that a school is not just a school and that teachers aren’t just teachers. We’ve made sure families have food every day. We’re building those relationships, and I think now people see that schools are a vital and necessary part of the community.

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