Portsmouth distance learning: Growing pains, yet optimism

'Yesterday was a little rocky, but I’m assuming it was rocky for everyone,' says one parent

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PORTSMOUTH — On Monday morning, Madelyn and Logan Collins were woken up by their parents just before 8 a.m. 

Spring break was officially over; it was time to go back to school. The siblings got dressed, had their breakfast, then were off — fifth-grader Madelyn to the big dining room table, second-grader Logan into a room nearby. 

For at least the next two weeks, these will be their new classrooms, as Portsmouth joins public schools across the state in their shift toward distance learning in efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus). 

All last week, teachers, staff and administrators in the Portsmouth school district worked to create a largely Google-based distance learning plan for all pre-K-to-12 students, tailoring their approach depending on the grade level. 

High schoolers would be given bi-weekly virtual playlists, specified by day and uploaded to their individual course Google Classrooms, while middle schoolers are given a weekly virtual playlist specifying assignments in need of completion by Friday. Elementary students, meanwhile, follow more of a daily schedule, utilizing programs such as Freckle, RAZ Kids and Zearn to complete reading, writing, math and integrated science assignments. 

“Our goal is to be able to provide robust and rigorous remote learning experiences for all students (PK-12) at a grade and age-appropriate level,” Superintendent Thomas Kenworthy wrote in an e-mail communication to families last week. 

That looked different for each of Laura Barth’s four children, ranging from pre-K to ninth grade, evident from their morning check-ins alone. While freshman Tristan touched based with his advisory teacher through the app Remind, fifth-grader Payton engaged in a live chat with her homeroom teacher through Google Classroom. Hathaway third-grader Greyson, meanwhile, typed his name into a Google Doc in order to track his attendance. 

It was not the smoothest start to the school day the Barths have had. 

“Yesterday was a little rocky,” Ms. Barth said, “but I’m assuming it was rocky for everyone.”

Planning for next day

Later that night, the family reconvened, establishing a plan for the following day: Wake up at 7 a.m., get showered and dressed, have breakfast, and be ready to go by 8 a.m., when assignments are posted. 

Though the only “scheduled” activity for each day is attendance from 9-9:30 a.m., Ms. Barth tried to mimic their school-day routine, including lunch and recess and incorporating “movement breaks.” Payton and Greyson sat at the kitchen table working on their Chromebooks, Emerson fiddled with her iPad, and Tristan went off and worked independently on his own. By the time their daily check-ins were even completed, Ms. Barth said Greyson had already completed a good amount of work. 

“It’s totally better when the expectations are out there,” she said. 

The lectures and assignments themselves have varied widely, some more interactive than others. For one of his assignments, Greyson had to complete a presentation on a composer, using Flipgrid to post a poem for other third-graders to see. For band, Madelyn was to continue practicing her scales on her clarinet, while other courses have had her watch videos on subjects like Harriet Tubman. 

“I’ve been able to go at my own pace and get the assignments that I want to be done, done,” Madelyn said.  

Grandparents help out

Though Madelyn is able to work more independently, Logan has needed more supervision — something that would have been a challenge for mom and second-year law student, Crystal Collins and her husband, had their own parents not been able to come and help out. 

“I honestly don’t know how we would make it work,” she said. 

But so far, the transition to distance learning for them has been relatively smooth. Madelyn and Logan have woken up both days excited for school, and Ms. Collins has appreciated the kind messages and accessibility from their teachers during this time. Ms. Barth, too, is optimistic the week will only improve in her own household. 

“Yesterday was difficult, today smooth, and tomorrow will be even better,” Ms. Barth said. “We just have to think positive.”

While neither mother expects distance learning to come to an end April 3, they are both enjoying the extra time they are getting with their families. Ms. Collins said they went on a scavenger hunt around the neighborhood, while the Barth’s have started to have game nights and family dinners. 

Said Ms. Barth, “We’ve never spent so much time together.”

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