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Thankful for parents, thankful for teachers

‘Now there’s more of a partnership’

Multiple Districts  — Remote learning for Gladiola Elementary first-grader Ethan Neibarger looked a little like this: every morning he would log onto his device to begin a school day consisting of four to six Zoom sessions for school and remote speech therapy. He also had work to complete on his own, to keep up with reading, writing and math.

Mom Jennifer Neibarger helped him stay on top of things every step of the way, including fitting in meals and playtime, while the district was closed to in-person learning from mid-November until mid-January to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“The remote time was a little challenging,” said Neibarger, a recess aide and part-time facilities cleaner for the district’s custodial services. “The kids have been resilient through all of this. It was really hard to change from regular learning and a regular, scheduled routine to having to be the mom, the teacher, the cook, the cleaner  —  the everything.”

The pandemic has expanded parents’ roles in education from homework helper and field trip chaperone to full-time teacher and Zoom monitor. Parents everywhere are more invested when it comes to their children’s education, and educators such as Gladiola Principal Cheryl Corpus are considering the benefits and how to maintain those solid connections when health concerns ease.

It was really hard to change from regular learning and a regular scheduled routine to having to be the mom, the teacher, the cook, the cleaner  —  the everything.”

— Wyoming Public Schools Parent Jennifer Neibarger

Neibarger said keeping a busy 6-year-old on task required a level of attention in his education but provided her with more knowledge about what’s involved in his school day. She said she values the collaboration with Corpus and teachers.

“The school has been phenomenal. There have been open communications lines and they stressed that if you need anything, reach out. (Corpus), the teachers, the specials (art, music and gym) teachers have had open arms, saying ‘If you need anything let us know. If you need food, if you need clothing, if you just need to talk.’ They’ve been here for the children and the parents just to make sure that we are all OK. They know this is not easy.”

While there is a litany of barriers to educating students during a pandemic, Corpus sees a silver lining: a deeper level of intimacy in teachers’ relationship with parents. Teachers Zoom directly into the homes of remote students, getting to know parents, siblings, even pets.

“I think it has created an opportunity for parents and schools to work together like no other,” she said.

Wyoming teacher Lysa Stockwell, who is spending the school year teaching her 29 students remotely, said there are certainly positives happening with relationships.

“This is a huge change,” Stockwell said. “Normally kids are at school and we educate them in building spaces. Now I am literally in a child’s home (virtually) two to three hours a day. I have never known my students’ families better and have bever had as much communication with them.”

Learning to Navigate Children’s Schedules

District surveys showed that remote learning — which about 30 percent of Wyoming students have opted for since the beginning of the school year — has gone much better than when schools abruptly went remote last spring. Parents have learned to go with the flow in navigating the different platforms teachers are using, and teachers realize the difficulties parents face.

“Teachers communicate daily with families,” Corpus said, naming  progress, completion of work, learning and growth as areas of focus tracked on ClassDojo. “Over 95% of families are connected and working every day.

“There’s also a new sense of appreciation for each other. They are grateful for what educators do,” Corpus said of parents. “It has created an understanding of all the nuances of what school is.”

In turn, educators “have had to learn to be responsive, intentional and adapt instruction,” Corpus said. “I’ve been in virtual classrooms with teachers and students, and I am so impressed with the teaching and learning happening in a remote environment.”

“It’s encouraged us to collaborate in deeper ways than we ever had before. There was always a lot of trust between parents and the school system, but now there’s more of a partnership.”

— Gladiola Elementary Principal Cheryl Corpus

Also, and perhaps most importantly, students are benefiting from the solid school-home partnerships. “Our learners have surprised us more than we thought possible with how they own their learning and how they have adapted,” she said. “They have demonstrated skills and adaptability that have surprised and impressed us all.”

Corpus, who with her staff hosted parent Zoom sessions last spring as a way to communicate with parents, said she’s interested in keeping higher levels of engagements post-pandemic.

“It’s encouraged us to collaborate in deeper ways than we ever had before. There was always a lot of trust between parents and the school system, but now there’s more of a partnership.”

Building Strong Relationships with Families

At Godfrey Elementary in Godfrey Lee Public Schools, Principal Andrew Steketee said his staff’s number one building goal is to build strong, meaningful relationships with the students and families.

“I had a teacher tell me, ‘Before all of this, I never would have shared my cell phone number with a parent, just for privacy reasons. But now every parent has my cell phone number. They can text me or they can send me a Dojo message, and it’s constant communication,’” he said. “So that relationship is building. Like, the parent knows how the kid behaves at home, but now they also know the relationship between the teacher and the student.”

Steketee continued: “There’s a sort of triangulation of relationships between the teacher, student and parent, where everybody’s on the same page because they’re communicating more frequently.”

In Byron Center Public Schools, second-grade teacher Cindy Viveen, who is transitioning into the role of Early Childhood director, said parent engagement has always been a strength for her as an educator, but now there’s a higher sense of awareness. 

“It’s been extremely enlightening to parents to see what their children are not only doing each day, but how much they are doing in so many different areas throughout the day, but also what their children are capable of.”

For Neibarger, she wants the partnership she feels with her children’s school to continue even when COVID is a distant memory.

“I feel definitely more of a part of his school now, more so than I did before. I feel now when he comes home, I can talk more in depth about his learning,” she said. “I feel like we can talk more about his education. His education is the most important thing to me.”

 Beth Heinen Bell contributed to this story.

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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