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This three-part series examines the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Oakdale Elementary School in northwest Charlotte. The pandemic disrupted normally stable homes, and remote learning proved problematic for families with language barriers. The school saw classroom grades plunge because so many students failed to turn in work.

For Oakdale's Teachers, Hybrid Instruction Takes Multitasking And Stress To New Levels

Romona Matthews helps her Oakdale Elementary second-graders with a math lesson while Ryan Jenkins leads the lesson on screen.
Ann Doss Helms
Romona Matthews helps her Oakdale Elementary second-graders with a math lesson while Ryan Jenkins leads the lesson on screen.

This is the second in a three-part series on how the pandemic played out for students, educators and families at Oakdale Elementary School in northwest Charlotte. Read Part 1 here.

When the pandemic first hit, schools across the country had to figure out remote instruction on the fly.

Over the summer in 2020, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools administrators and teachers scrambled to prepare for the coming school year. They created online lessons for every subject and grade level. And the district talked about matching students whose parents opted to keep them home with teachers who would teach them remotely throughout the year.

The reality turned out to be messier.

In Romona Matthews’ second-grade classroom at Oakdale Elementary, it sounds like she left something playing on her laptop while she teaches her kids to add and subtract.

Actually, her colleague Ryan Jenkins is in a classroom across the hall, using Zoom to teach math to all the second graders. That includes the kids in her room, the Full Remote students learning from home and — at least in theory — the students in Matthews’ class.

Matthews is getting a break, or what passes for a break during hybrid classes. In reality, she’s talking to her in-person students almost constantly.

Romona Matthews
Romona Matthews

As Jenkins speaks from the computer, Matthews puts the math problem up on her screen and talks her students through it.

"How many fewer green apples are there than — say 'than,' " she says.

"Than!" her students chorus.

" 'Than' is a clue word to do what, Miracle?" Matthews asks. "When you see 'than' on your screen it's going to be a clue word: You're comparing two objects."

As she leads her class to recess after the lesson, Matthews explains what was going on.

"I was just making sure that they understood and just breaking it down," she says, "because a lot of our kids don’t understand it the first or second time. Just repeating it, finding little things to get them engaged, like repeat after me, call and response."

Reality Collides With Theory

Oakdale Principal Mary Weston isn’t happy with the way hybrid learning is playing out at her school, but says it's the best she can do.

"I do not think it’s the best way," Weston says. She says the notion of having separate remote and in-person teachers sounds great but isn’t realistic.

"I don’t have enough bodies in order to make someone full remote at every grade level," she says.

Eating lunch in the classroom is part of the safety protocol at Oakdale Elementary.
Ann Doss Helms
Eating lunch in the classroom is part of the safety protocol at Oakdale Elementary.

Oakdale, in northwest Charlotte, has roughly 500 students. COVID-19 has hit a lot of families hard, and about half opted to keep their children in Full Remote Academy throughout the year.

Each school has pieced together its own approach. But during this pandemic year, schools across the country have been forced to rely on teachers doing remote and in-person instruction simultaneously.

For teachers, hybrid classes take multitasking to a whole new level. Weston says it’s not ideal for students, either.

"When you have a teacher trying to attend to kids online and in the classroom, if a kid doesn’t have someone at home that’s able to support them, they are definitely not getting the best experience," Weston says.

She Needs The Praise

Tammy Williams was eager to send her 8-year-old granddaughter, Miracle Davis, back to Romona Matthews’ second-grade class. Learning from home, Williams says, "it was hard to stay focused at times, because of course there’s other people in the house."

But mostly, Williams says her granddaughter missed the social aspects of school and face-to-face contact with her teacher.

"Miracle is the type of child that thrives off of praise," Williams says. "If she knows that she’s on point and she gets that praise and those accolades, she will just do her very best."

Matthews says she was glad to get her kids back in person. They showed up in November, got sent home during the winter COVID-19 spike and came back in February.

"I wanted to bring them back only because we saw the struggle with the students on Zoom — being frustrated, cameras off, no participation," she says.

New Layers Of Work

But having in-person students adds another layer of work.

In March, Romona Matthews helps a student who forgot his iPad. She's carrying her laptop to keep up with students learning remotely.
Ann Doss Helms
In March, Romona Matthews helps a student who forgot his iPad. She's carrying her laptop to keep up with students learning remotely.

"We come in, we have to get the board ready, we have to get the class ready, we wiping down, we’re cleaning, making sure the students have all of their materials," Matthews says. "Then we have to teach the lesson — and we’re teaching hybrid, so we’re teaching students in the classroom and we’re also on Zoom teaching."

The CMS online lessons provide support, but technology is a constant challenge. Students have to switch platforms when they move from one activity to another, such as logging into Kahoot! to take a quiz. During each switch, there's a pause while the teachers check to make sure all remote and in-person students are connected.

"We have glitches," Matthews says. "Zoom goes out. Wi-Fi doesn’t work: 'Your Wi-Fi is unstable, you’re blinking in and out.' … Friday, Canvas was out. That’s the home of all of our work."

Keeping Up With Devices

For most of the year, in-person students attend two days a week and learn from home the other three. Sometimes children show up on the wrong day — or they show up on the right day without all their gear.

Having their iPads is vital, because even in-person students spend their mornings on Zoom lessons with their remote classmates. CMS sent iPads home with all K-2 students and provided take-home laptops for older students.

"We just gave a scholar another device, and he brought the device. He doesn’t have the chargers, so we have extra chargers," Matthews says. "Some of them have broken devices. If we have a loaner, we can lend them the loaner."

Safety Shapes Schedules

Safety measures shape everything that happens at Oakdale.

Oakdale Elementary students spend recess on the bus lot.
Ann Doss Helms
Oakdale Elementary students spend recess on the bus lot.

At recess, kids can play on the bus lot, but as of early May they keep their masks on and they’re not supposed to touch each other.

Matthews has a phrase to remind students that they need to pull up their masks: "Your nose is cold."

The kids can’t have balls or other shared equipment that could spread germs. And even though Oakdale got brand-new playground equipment at the start of the school year, it’s off limits for COVID-19 safety reasons.

Lunch is delivered to classrooms. Until March, Encore teachers — the ones who do music and art and other special subjects — came to classrooms to prevent students from mingling in hallways. Now, Matthews can take her kids to the music class and have her room to herself for 45 minutes — the only time during the school day she can remove her own mask.

Teaching Music Without Spreading Germs

Music teacher Dasha Smith has to adapt, too. Students can't share instruments or gather in tight circles.

Dasha Smith uses a "Carnival of the Animals" video to teach Oakdale Elementary students about the xylophone.
Ann Doss Helms
Dasha Smith uses a "Carnival of the Animals" video to teach Oakdale Elementary students about the xylophone.

"We have to be careful about singing, make sure there’s enough ventilation blowing through," Smith explains. "They have to keep their masks on."

In March, the second graders watched part of “Carnival of the Animals,” a video that combines Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and a live orchestra performing Camille Saint-Saëns’ piece. Smith tells them this part is about fossils, and the music will sound like bones.

"OK, so listen for the instrument that’s the bones," Smith says.

When a student correctly identifies the instrument — "A xylophone! Absolutely right!" Smith brings out a xylophone to demonstrate.

But she doesn't pass it around.

Like A Bounty Towel

Back in her briefly empty classroom, Romona Matthews reflects on a year like nothing she’s seen in her 18 years as a teacher.

She worries about children who had to jump into second grade after missing a crucial quarter of first-grade reading last spring, and then learn amid the turmoil. She says she’s trying to meet their needs without putting pressure on them.

"I just want the babies to stay afloat," she says. "And if there’s something that I see that a group or one or two don’t get, I know I need to scratch whatever I wanted to do for small group (lessons) out and fill this void."

She worries about her students getting sick or bringing the virus into school. But she has decided not to get vaccinated until there’s more evidence that it’s safe.

"I’m not completely against it," she explains. "I just want to see the effects. 'Cause it came real fast."

She’s exhausted by policymakers who keep changing plans and leaving it to teachers like her to execute the changes and explain them to frustrated families.

"You have to think of life like a Bounty towel," Matthews says. "You are the Bounty towel. You are the 'quicker picker-upper.' And so you just have to clean up that mess and go forward."

And sometimes she wishes all the second-guessing and complaining would stop.

"We need a break. Just give us a break," she says. "We’re trying. We’re doing our best."

As a second-grade teacher, Matthews does catch one break. Her students are too young to take the state’s End of Grade exams in May.

Coming Thursday in Part 3: What happens when state exams are used to sum up a year of trauma and turmoil at Oakdale Elementary School.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.