Distance Learning Begins as Schools Close Their Doors

Kendall Riley, a third grader in Mrs. Luckingham's class at East Quogue School, works on her lessons remotely.

In many ways, it felt like any other Monday for a kindergartener at Sag Harbor Elementary School. Nina McLean attended Morning Program, with her older sister, Isla, a fifth grader, before jumping into a music lesson with teacher Gavin Lahann.

Her art class was another highlight of the day — Nina began working with teacher Gary Osborne on a rainbow collage she was particularly excited to share with her mother, Emily Weitz.

Nina’s kindergarten teacher, Nina Dohanos, was present for much of the day — continuing to work with her on the Foundations reading program, reading stories to her class and offering the comfort and reassurance found in most kindergarten classrooms.
But, of course, Nina was not in her classroom.

Last Monday, Nina and Isla joined scores of other children across the South Fork on a new educational journey — distance learning in an effort to protect students and teachers from the Covid-19 virus outbreak.

The Sag Harbor School District was the first district to impose its own two-week closure of district buildings to students on March 12. With other districts beginning to follow suit, on Sunday, March 15, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone announced a mandated school closure for all of Suffolk County through March 30. That date was extended through April 1 by New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo the next day.

“The single most effective way to slow the spread of this virus is to reduce close contacts, and that includes in our schools,” Governor Cuomo said when he announced the directive on March 16. “I am directing the closure of all schools throughout the state for two weeks as we continue working aggressively to ramp up testing, isolate those who are sick and mitigate the impacts of this virus.

“Every district will be required to submit a plan to ensure children of healthcare workers and first responders have access to childcare,” he continued, “so these closures do not strain our hospitals and that children who depend on school meal programs continue getting the support they need.”

School districts have been working with local day care centers to provide service for what the state has called “essential workers” — those in health care, manufacturing, emergency services, media and more.

The Eleanor Whitmore Early Childhood Center announced it would accept children as young as 18 months beginning Wednesday. The Bridgehampton School has also set up its own daycare program for children ages 3 and up from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. The Montauk Playhouse Community Center is another facility still caring for children of “essential workers” — the only people who are allowed to work under the governor’s “New York State on PAUSE” executive order, designed to limit who can work and get as many residents to stay home amid a virus break that is growing exponentially in New York State, in particular.
While most school districts have maintained spring recess, April 6 through April 10, last week, the East Hampton and Springs school districts announced they would move spring break in those districts to this week — March 23 through March 27.

Isla McLean works on the day’s lessons remotely.

According to Springs School Superintendent Debra Winter, while the move was certainly made in an effort to limit the time children are out of school, it was also made in an effort to give families some relief during an understandably stressful time.

“Everyone needs a break and needs some time to breathe a little,” she said on Friday. Teachers and administrators were reaching out to students late last week to ensure they had access to food, but also to internet service and a device to work on when distance learning resumes robustly on March 30. Ms. Winter called for donations to the Springs School District to help fund the purchase of 150 Chromebooks that operate with touch screens for younger children who may not have a computer they can work on at home.
As of Friday, said Ms. Winter, the district had $14,000 budgeted for that expense and a need for about $26,000 to purchase the devices.

Ms. Winter encouraged all parents with needs to reach out to their districts. “Our team at Springs — our administrators, our technology team, the teachers, the staff — everyone is working together on this and we want parents to know we are here to support them,” she said.

In the meantime, many parents find themselves in unfamiliar territory — serving as their children’s educators, albeit with school resources, while students remain at home through at least April 2, with districts from Montauk to Riverhead offering online resources as well as supplemental materials many children and teens brought home late last week.
For Emily Weitz, beginning the first day of distance learning last week with a Morning Program set her daughters up for a day of success.

“It was just so beautiful,” she said. “That experience of coming together as a school community that Monday, listing to principal Matt Malone talk to the kids, getting announcements from Ben — a fifth grader — and hearing the music teachers perform, it made me feel like we were all in this together.”

And then the kids logged into their online learning links and had a plan for the day — Ms. Weitz was even emailed the day’s schedule, which she was able to follow with her girls.
“It was funner than school — it’s true, Momma,” Nina said in a phone interview this past weekend. She said she most enjoys learning with her Mom and music classes that teacher Gavin Lahhan has prerecorded.

The Weitz-McLean family has also been taking the opportunity to work on family projects — they are feeding the chickens at the nearby Harbor Waldorf School, which is closed. Nina has named one of the chickens Lavender. Nina and Isla are practicing piano. The family is also practicing yoga — Ms. Weitz is a yoga instructor and writer, who also works for the nonprofit Paper Fig Foundation — and have started building a tree house. That project has been led by the girls’ father, Christian.

“That project has really been incredible,” Ms. Weitz said. “The girls had to start by helping to draft plans, doing a lot of measuring and math. And now they have to actually build it.”
The only pitfall, so far, has been the lack of social interaction, said Emily, despite connecting with friends in math applications like the program, Prodigy. Isla agreed. “It is a little boring,” she said. “I do like that I can really go at my own pace.”

Across the Shinnecock Canal, in East Quogue, Cailin Reilly has also gotten into the swing of homeschooling her three children — third-grader Kendall, kindergartner Claire and Sebastian, who is 3. Like most districts, East Quogue announced their two-week closure in connection with the county mandate.

On March 13, Kendall and Claire came home with packets of schoolwork and information on how children could log into the numerous distance learning resources online in anticipation of a closure. This week, Ms. Reilly received regular updates from her school district about what Claire and Kendall should be focused on. They also tune in most mornings to Superintendent and Principal Robert Long’s Facebook live posts, including the morning Pledge of Allegiance.

Kendall, noted Ms. Reilly, very quickly transformed the family’s guest room into a formal office space for her and her sister, complete with organized school work folders and supplies. “After breakfast, we try and squeeze in as much as we can before lunch,” Ms. Reilly said. “We are working worksheets, reading, Kendall does a lot of work on the computer. After lunch, it really depends on how the day is going — yesterday, we did more work after lunch because it was raining, but today is going to be nicer, so I think we might play outside.”

Ms. Reilly said she was grateful to be able to focus on her children and for the support she has received from their teachers, Kerri King for Claire and Jennifer Luckingham for Kendall. Ms. King Facetimed with each of her students earlier this week. Ms. Luckingham has been using Google Classroom with her class and even set up a tab for children to safely chat together.

“They have been great about providing us resources, giving us a daily schedule of what they should try to accomplish, but also reassuring us it is OK if they don’t get it all done,” Ms. Reilly said. “Ms. Luckingham has also been asking the kids a question every day to answer — on Teamwork Tuesday, it was ‘How have you and your family worked together as a team to get through this?’”

For the Reilly family, outside of school, that includes finding time to Facetime with cousins, talk to friends on the phone, and settle in for old school movie nights during a time when leaving the house is purposefully limited across the state. They just wrapped up the “Back to the Future” trilogy, and Ms. Reilly looks forward to introducing them to more classics.

“I think they are dealing with this as well as you could possibly deal with this,” Ms. Reilly said. “Kendall misses being at school, their friends. When they chat, you can see all the kids are expressing that same sentiment — they wish they were together and back in school, but no one is complaining about it.”