Capital Region

A new light forward for educators: Instructors adapt to unprecedented school year

Top: Amsterdam Middle School choir teacher Dalisa Soto-Peruzzi, Schenectady Middle School Spanish teacher Chris Rogers, Marie Curie Institute Elementary (Amsterdam) special education teacher Marisa White. Bottom: Central Park Middle School teacher Kathleen Wylie, Schenectady Middle School English as a new language teacher Marissa Ray and Niskayuna Iroquois Middle School art teacher Bryce Colby, and his wife, Niskayuna 3rd grade remote teacher Eleanor Colby.

Top: Amsterdam Middle School choir teacher Dalisa Soto-Peruzzi, Schenectady Middle School Spanish teacher Chris Rogers, Marie Curie Institute Elementary (Amsterdam) special education teacher Marisa White. Bottom: Central Park Middle School teacher Kathleen Wylie, Schenectady Middle School English as a new language teacher Marissa Ray and Niskayuna Iroquois Middle School art teacher Bryce Colby, and his wife, Niskayuna 3rd grade remote teacher Eleanor Colby.

Categories: Fulton Montgomery Schoharie, News, Saratoga County, Schenectady County

This school year has looked quite different for Katy Perry, a 7th grade science teacher in Schenectady. It has looked different for every teacher.

Perry in recent years was working as a teacher on special assignment, overseeing the district’s collection of 3D printers and laser cutters and visiting classrooms across the district to foster interest in science and engineering among students of all ages. But during the pandemic, as the district cut staff and pulled back special positions, she was sent back to a middle school science classroom.

Only she had to teach it online from her home.

“I felt like a brand-new teacher even though I have been teaching for 18 years,” Perry said in a recent interview, echoing nearly identical comments from other teachers in Amsterdam and Niskayuna schools.

  • Katy Perry, Schenectady, middle school science
  • Dalisa Soto-Peruzzi, Amsterdam, middle school choir
  • Eleanor Colby, Niskayuna, teaching all-virtual third grade class
  • Chris Rogers, Schenectady, middle school Spanish teacher
  • Kelly Peugh-Forte, Amsterdam, high school English language arts
  • Kathleen Wylie, Schenectady, middle school social studies
  • Bryce Colby, Niskayuna, middle school art and design
  • Marisa White, Amsterdam, special education teacher
  • Marissa Ray, Schenectady, middle school English as a new language
  • David Bloom, Niskayuna, high school social studies
  • Thomas Lester, Niskayuna, high school English

Teachers across the region have been forced to adapt to a new way of teaching – sometimes multiple new ways of teaching, all at once – while supporting students dealing with anxieties and pressures exacerbated by the global pandemic.

The teachers collectively painted a picture of students and educators struggling to grapple with ever-changing rules and teaching formats. Sometimes whether students are learning in class or at home changes on a day-to-day basis. In some classrooms, teachers are simultaneously teaching students in their room and online – sometimes they livestream to a nearby classroom, too.

The changing teaching styles makes it impossible to perfect any single method, and teachers broadly agreed a remote format presents challenges to engaging students and building constructive discussions among students. More than one teacher mentioned a daily quandary facing students: log in to class or turn on the video games? Other students are helping younger siblings or have parents who have to work outside the home or share internet while working at home.

But in the darkness of the pandemic, a new light forward for educators may be starting to shine. Teachers long accustomed to traditional classroom models are reinvisioning how to incorporate technology into their classrooms to streamline assignments and lessons and give students alternative ways to access instruction. Districtwide technology overhauls that in the past would have taken years of planning and implementing happened in a few short days.

“There’s no way you go back,” said Dalisa Soto-Peruzzi, a middle school choir teacher in Amsterdam who has her students writing their own songs this year using software she would have never thought to use in the past. “These are things we could never have explored before, and now with this technology, the kids are in a really creative space.”

The teachers have shifted to learning mode themselves, looking to alleviate scores of challenges presented to educators this year: How best to communicate with students virtually? What activities work online? Many teachers said they scrapped decades worth of lesson plans this year. With limited to no professional development and planning time, teachers are constantly adapting and changing, trying new activities or approaches, ditching what doesn’t work, building on what does. And in many places teachers have less time to teach students.

“The role of educator has become really enmeshed with the role of the learner,” said Kathleen Wylie, a Schenectady middle school teacher. “It has become imperative that we are learners right now. We don’t have much of an option.”

Here’s a look at the experience of 11 local teachers so far this year:

Central Park Middle School 7th grade physical science teacher Katy Perry with her computers and science experiment after class in her homes living room in Voorheesville. ERICA MILLER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Katy Perry, Schenectady, middle school science

Middle school students learn about how matter changes states by carefully measuring how long it takes for an ice cube to melt over a controlled heat source. In science rooms, students set up the experiment and take the measurements to learn as much about science experimentation as they do states of matter. This year, Perry broadcast a live version of the experiment to her students learning from home.

“I basically ran that in my kitchen for them,” she said. “The ideal situation would be the students had access to more material on an everyday basis, but they really don’t. I can’t say go get vinegar and baking soda.”

So Perry demonstrates experiments and has students record and analyze data; they run virtual experiments online (but the district doesn’t subscribe to the best programs); they adapt experiments to their most basic form. As she plans new lessons, Perry can’t assume that students have access to material beyond the most basic, not knowing what any student’s particular situation might enable. She said she might have students take a piece of paper and crumple it as she tries to explain the changing states of matter.

Perry said that while the doing of the experiments is a critical lesson for students, she can still work to instill an understanding of the trial-and-error, learning-while-doing nature of science.

“Science is really about messing around, learning how to make a mistake and get through it…” she said of the environment she is trying to replicate as best as possible. “This is not a good environment for traditional science, let’s set up an experiment.”

In Schenectady, students are not required to turn their computer cameras on during class, something district leaders and teachers decided would be an invasion of privacy. But that makes it even harder for teachers to engage students or read cues about whether they need extra attention.

“It’s very difficult to teach to little round profile pics and not get a lot of response,” Perry said.

Even when students log in to class, it’s hard to know how fully engaged they are, she said. When they get up to go to the bathroom, sometimes they return and sometimes they don’t. When the students are logged into the class, but don’t appear to actually be at their computer, some teachers call it “ghosting,” she said.

“It breaks my heart,” she said of the attendance difficulties.

She said it may not always be the case that the students are less engaged, just that it feels that way to her because of the unusual setting.

“I have to keep reminding myself of that: If I was in the classroom, I would only have five kids jumping out of their seat to answer a question,” she said. “It’s harder, because I can’t see what they are doing.”

Perry is still trying to keep up as much of her previous role as possible, overseeing a project to distribute new 3D printers directly to teachers, so they can have students use design software to develop items the teachers can then print from home.

“The kids won’t actually run the machine, but we can watch a video of it,” she said.

Amsterdam Middle School Choir teachers Dalisa Soto-Peruzzi at her living room piano with her computer after finishing a morning class in Ballston Spa. ERICA MILLER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Dalisa Soto-Peruzzi, Amsterdam, middle school choir

Soto-Peruzzi teaches middle school choir, where in the past students would regularly belt out tunes as they clustered on risers. While regular classes have to space students at least six feet apart this year, a music class like hers has to space students at least 12 feet apart.

“I don’t have space in my classroom to do that, so we are not singing in person,” she said. “A choir that doesn’t sing – that’s the challenge I had.”

The students did spend some time in October, November and early-December learning in person, but they spent the remaining weeks before the break learning remotely.

Soto-Peruzzi said it’s impossible to do an effective rehearsal among multiple students singing through the virtual classroom technology they have, too much feedback and disruption. “Trust me,” she said. “I tried since April last year to do a normal rehearsal (online).”

So the class has taken a different path than usual. Students are doing their own songwriting, using special software to record songs, produce beats and express themselves in lyrics. Soto-Peruzzi said students have pursued a wide variety of genres and styles – from rap, trap and hip-hop to salsa and other styles from around the world.

“It’s taken our studies in a different route, but I think it’s an incredibly creative opportunity for the kids and I think they like it,” she said.

During the holiday season, the choir in past years visited local nursing homes to sing carols. This year they produced a holiday mix tape instead. Students picked out songs.

“They chose their favorite holiday song, reimagined it, remixed it and recorded it using this program,” she said.

Soto-Peruzzi said she tried to find a way to show the students they could still support the community.

“There are a lot of things we have had to put on hold, like performance, choreography and movement, but none of those things can take place in a safe way,” she said. “I told the kids I’m not going to give up, this year is not the year to do that. This is the year we should put our brains together and use the technology we have to give back to our community.”

The remote setting has enabled more one-on-one vocal coaching, giving her a chance to review the individual recordings of students to pinpoint where they need help with their vocals. But the year has been constant adaptation and exploring new approaches.

“I feel like a first-year teacher everyday,” she said.

When students were learning in class, they hummed out songs. Soto-Peruzzi researched the safety of humming, reading state and federal research papers on the topic, and won the approval of the administration before moving forward.

“Music never stops, so we were humming, humming with face masks,” she said. “Humming was always part of what we do. That’s never going to be a bad thing; the abnormal thing this year is that this is all we can do.”

She said she looks forward to returning to class and experiencing those moments when choir comes together on a song.

“I get goosebumps even thinking about it. It is magic, the feeling during rehearsal when we get everything right, all the voices come together. It’s a reminder this is just temporary,” she said. “The moment we are allowed to sing and the moment it is safe to do so, I cannot wait, it’s going to be amazing.”

Niskayuna Iroquois Middle School 6 an 7th grade Art teacher Bryce Colby, who normally works remotely from the building, and wife Niskayuna 3rd grade remote teacher Eleanor Colby, inside their home in Niskayuna. ERICA MILLER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Eleanor Colby, Niskayuna, teaching all-virtual third grade class

With almost 30 years of classroom experience, Eleanor Colby took over an all-virtual third grade class this year of Niskayuna students who opted out of an in-person experience during the pandemic.

She was approached a few days before the start of the school year about teaching one of the all-virtual classes – made up of students from across the district – and she thought it was a chance to improve on how teaching remotely went in the spring.

It took a few weeks to iron out technical glitches and settle her students into a routine, but she said things had stabilized more in recent weeks – and noted that all-virtual students don’t face the daily changes to learning formats that other students do.

“The beginning of the school year was really rough, really ragged-edged,” she said. “We were trying to figure out how to do the thing while we were on it.”

At first, she had to communicate to families how to get into a Google meeting, so she could teach them how to get into a Google classroom. She said the start of the year included a lot of phone calls home, working out passwords and usernames and making sure everyone had a computer. Throughout she has tried to communicate to students that things aren’t always going to go as planned, and that’s okay.

“A lot of talking to kids is we are all dealing with whatever it is we are dealing with and sometimes things aren’t going to go the way we want.”

She has to make sure her students have breaks almost every hour, so they can move around and get off the computer for a short spell.

“I call it their wiggles out,” she said. “When they come back for the hour, they need to be ready to sit and learn.”

Colby and other teachers highlighted the fundamental communication challenges presented by online learning: when in a classroom, teachers can scan for students not paying attention or in need of extra help; they can look over students’ shoulders and quickly survey where their students stand on a particular assignment. Not so when teaching online.

“Teaching virtually is very different than in person, the kind of communicating that happens in person doesn’t happen virtually,” she said. “Everything takes longer. I might not be able to get to kids as quick as I would…. Nothing we are doing right now is ideal.”

She said the young students are technologically savvy and are already picking up the ins and outs of navigating the Google-based classroom environment – something even the more advanced schools were only starting to introduce to middle schoolers a few years ago.

Sometimes when she isn’t sure how to do something, she can turn to her students.

“I have my own tech support of 7-year-olds,” she said.

Colby also highlighted the isolation of students and the important role social interactions at schools play in children’s development.

“These kids, they are home alone, they are missing their peers, so they want to see each other and they want to interact,” she said. “Nothing can replace in-person instruction. That is so much better than anything we can do online.”

Schenectady middle school Spanish teacher Chris Rogers. PETER R. Barber/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Chris Rogers, Schenectady, middle school Spanish teacher

In his first year teaching public school, Rogers narrowly survived layoffs and kicked off his tenure as a middle school Spanish teacher from the comfort of his own home.

“I knew I was getting into something not normal,” he said in a recent interview. “It was such a huge curveball finding out so last minute we were teaching 100 percent virtual, that was difficult but we adjusted.”

And he still keeps up a cheery attitude with students and colleagues and turns some of his virtual instruction into the stuff of viral dance videos or funny memes.

“I have a very positive mindset about everything, I’m kind of the Positive Polly around,” he said. “I think with all the layoffs we have to be positive, at least we are going through the stress of how are we going to teach virtually instead of the stress of how are we going to put food on the table.”

Rogers grew up in Schenectady, attending Pleasant Valley, Mont Pleasant and Oneida schools before graduating from Schenectady High School in 2016. He said he was looking for a job outside of Schenectady but ultimately decided his home district would be a good fit. He was hired in May, earning just enough seniority to avoid layoffs the district imposed at the start of the school year due to budget challenges.

“I’m teaching in the community that made me who I am,” he said.

Rogers said the fact that students are learning from home fundamentally alters the approach teachers should take. Not only do students not have access to the supports of school buildings and those social interactions, they are learning from the most personal and intimate spaces in their lives – many from their bedrooms, some from their beds. Some students may feel uncomfortable sharing their home space with classmates.

“We need to be aware this is not our classroom,” he said. “When I get yelled at at home, I go straight to my bedroom so I don’t have to deal with that. How would I feel if someone was yelling at me in my bedroom?”

He said he tries to build relationships with students, making jokes, participating in some of the same activities as them – for example: choose one word in Spanish that describes you – and he knows what isn’t accomplished one day can happen the next day.

“When the students are struggling with material, my philosophy is there is always tomorrow,” Rogers said. “If you aren’t getting it today, tomorrow is a new day, maybe you need to sleep on it.” Rogers uses TikTok and other platforms to connect more directly with his students; he regularly posts videos of himself singing or dancing as he introduces a new topic or provides students a reminder of an upcoming assignment.

“The kids say it’s super cringey, but they like it,” he said.

Rogers strikes a supportive tone with his students and said it is important to recognize that there are things in their lives preventing them from finishing every assignment or focusing on every lesson. It also helps him build trust with his students.

“I don’t stress out to my students about not understanding, because they have a million and one things to focus on,” Rogers said. “The students trust me enough to go and take a leap of faith in learning another language.”

Amsterdam High School teacher Kelly Peugh-Forte in her classroom at the high school. PETER R. BARBER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Kelly Peugh-Forte, Amsterdam, high school English language arts

Working with the art department at Amsterdam High School, Kelly Peugh-Forte, an English teacher who doubles as a department coordinator, helped develop a writing and art anthology of the experiences of students during the pandemic.

She asked students to write poems, personal narratives, letters and more, urging them to draw from their own social media for inspiration and a record of what they have been through in the past year.

The Historic Amsterdam League donated over $500 to pay for a final printing of the completed work.

She said many of the students shared similar feelings of loss.

“They feel like this has happened to them, they are feeling a loss of control,” she said. “The teachers are feeling uncertainty, and kids are wondering what tomorrow will hold.”

Teachers universally described the overarching uncertainty that impinges on every school day. At a moment’s notice, an entire building can close, or maybe just one grade or one classroom. Some teachers even said they appreciated the certainty and consistency of times when all students were learning remotely for an extended period of time.

“The uncertainty is probably the biggest struggle of it all,” Peugh-Forte said. “You may have a plan for tomorrow, and then you go all remote and that jacks it up. ”

Before the district shifted all remote, Peugh-Forte simultaneously taught students in a classroom and online, struggling to connect with students in the radically-different formats and foster a classroom discussion among students in the different locations.

“Imagine one person managing 10 students in person and another 12 online,” she said. “We are just one person, and it’s a lot to manage.”

The district shortened her class period to 32 minutes which, coupled with inevitable technical delays, limits instruction time with students. Despite the challenges, she thought it was important for the class to be together as much as possible.

“You can always be on in my classroom,” she said. “I wanted us to be together.”

The district uses software called GoGuardian, which enables teachers to track what sites students are accessing from school devices and even limits students to only visiting certain sites for an assignment. She and other teachers have also pushed much further into the capabilities of Google classroom and other platforms than in the past, but they have to constantly fine tune how best to use the platforms.

“Not only do we have to learn the logistics of each tool, but to also use them efficiently and effectively,” she said. “That’s a whole other thing.”

She said she tries to be honest with students, communicating to them that things won’t always go as planned.

“I don’t know if this is going to be a disaster and if it is we will just have to try again tomorrow. “The kids are coming along. They want things back to normal,” she said. “That routine, that loss of routine, as much as they would say they hated it, I think they miss it.”

Central Park Middle School 7th grade social studies teacher Kathleen Wylie works remotely from the Staybridge Inn lobby before teaching a class in the morning in Latham. ERICA MILLER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Kathleen Wylie, Schenectady, middle school social studies

Kathleen Wylie, who has been teaching for 15 years, also said this year has taken her back to scratch as she works to build a classroom anew in a remote environment.

“I have experienced what it is to be a brand new teach all over again,” Wylie said. “It takes a minute to accept that what I was taught in college and what I have been doing might not be the thing I do now.”

Wylie, who teaches 7th grade social studies, said she and her colleagues knew the key fundamentals to develop in the online setting – especially the importance of strong relationships – but had time knowing how best to do that on the new platforms. She also said it was difficult to lose out on those interactions and student smiles and laughter in the hallway, because those were the things she enjoyed most about being a teacher.

“We just don’t have that opportunity, and it felt like the things that are so important to me are missing,” she said.

Like other teachers, Wylie said she has focused even more this year on the emotional well-being of students, regularly asking how they are doing and working to foster conversations about their feelings.

Sometimes she puts the kids all into separate virtual “breakout rooms,” hopping from one to the next for a private lesson. In that setting, students may be more comfortable turning on their camera or sharing their thoughts with Wylie.

“They are opening up and having conversations with me,” she said.” They felt like it was a safe space when it was just them and I.”

She said she is trying to streamline the curriculum, using fewer case studies to exemplify a moment in history, but is also doubling down on explicitly emphasizing the key themes students should be learning.

“We have really had to think about what we are teaching and be really sure about what we are teaching and is that the best way,” she said. In the long run, she hopes that approach will help her continue to focus her teaching on the most important topics.

“Is this to keep them busy or is this to accelerate their learning? That’s a question I will hold on to and continue to ask myself,” she said. “Given that I have such little time with their focus and attention, I will be attentive to that.”

After a small fire at their home displaced Wylie and her family, she has been continuing to teach her remote classes in a local hotel. Noting the life challenges facing so many families, Wylie empathized with the many students who don’t want to turn on their computer cameras in class or those who struggle to fully participate in virtual school.

“They all have their own things going on just like I do,” she said. “At the same time, it’s so hard to be a teacher when you don’t have the back and forth.”

The switch to online learning has not been easy for students either, Wylie said.

“If you had to do that as an adult, you would struggle with it, seven meetings a day to be on time to, to be alert for,” she said “You are home and you have your XBox or your school to turn on…. These kids are trying to do this, some of them on their own. They are kids trying to be adults.”

She said she is looking forward to once again enjoying the background music of life in a school.

“I cannot wait to hear kids laugh, I miss their laughs so much,” she said. “I know that has nothing to do with learning but boy does that fill your soul.”

Niskayuna Iroquois Middle School 6 an 7th grade Art teacher Bryce Colby, who normally works remotely from the building, and wife Niskayuna 3rd grade remote teacher Eleanor Colby, inside their home in Niskayuna. ERICA MILLER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Bryce Colby, Niskayuna, middle school art and design

Bryce Colby, who teaches art and design classes at Iroquois Middle School, has spent much of the school year moving from class to class, trying to teach students in person and online.

Cobly, who is married to Eleanor Colby, the third grade teacher leading an all-virtual classroom, said at the start of the year he felt like he didn’t know how the new teaching format would work, how he would even start.

“It was like I was performing on a state, and I didn’t know any of my lines,” he said.

He said the biggest challenge of the year has been balancing teaching students in the two different settings – online and in person – when under ideal conditions they would both call for such different approaches.

“Organizing yourself to be able to teach in both of those modes takes some effort, daily effort,” he said.

He said he has to focus a lot on the things that work for online students, and he highlighted the loss of his ability to quickly decipher a student’s problem through cues he can pick up in person.

“The kids at home have to advocate for themselves in ways they are not used to. They have to ask questions, send emails, look up information,” he said. “All the unseen communication that goes on person-to-person, face-to-face, is very difficult in that environment.”

The transition to virtual learning – as well as the need to have teachers move rooms so students don’t have to – has forced Colby and other art teachers to pull back many bigger projects and find ways to get supplies to students. For virtual students, the school hosts biweekly supply pick-up times for families.

“I’m probably the most stuff-heavy teacher in the school,” he said. “What I do is all about getting kids to organize stuff and manipulate stuff.”

Colby scrapped a large clay project and transitioned a paint project to drawing; he said he had focused a lot on student sketchbooks, asking kids to sketch ways they have developed a “new normal” in their lives.

He said he visits eight classrooms every two days, shuttling from one class to the next so that students don’t have to move around the building.

“There’s a certain lack of control,” he said. “You can’t control your environment anymore, you are in their environment, they aren’t in yours… Just being out of my space, maybe it’s because I’m the art teacher, it’s something to tackle, something to deal with.”

But the students have adapted well to the altered school environment, he said.

“The behavior has been great. They really are mostly happy to be here, happy to interact with teachers and each other,” he said. “As a teacher, I want them here, but it’s just so difficult to teach them here and there and there.”

Colby also teaches high school girls soccer and said the time at practice and games in the fall was among the best, something as close to normal as many of the students have experienced this year. And among his students he suspects many will be looking for opportunities that don’t involve a computer screen.

“I have kids coming to my class, and they are begging to not be on a computer, because they are on them all the time,” he said.

Marie Curie Institute Elementary (Amsterdam) special education k-2 teacher Marisa White after class in her parents home kitchen, with her dog Sadie, in Colonie. ERICA MILLER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Marisa White, Amsterdam, special education teacher

For some teachers, non-verbal communication plays a key role in working with students; for other teachers, it’s all they have. Marisa White teaches a special class for grades K-2 nonverbal students with autism in Amsterdam.

She and her students – a class of no more than six – have spent time this year learning both remotely and in person, but she said the inconsistency has weighed on her class, pointing out that in-person instruction is critical to supporting her high-need students.

“It’s definitely a balancing act, but being in school is so much more beneficial for them than seeing me over a computer screen,” she said. “They need so many visuals, they need so many supports, they really need the hands-on learning experience of using different manipulatives, using different sensory (items).”

The students spent the final days before the break learning remotely and White said of the five kids in the class two of them participate regularly online: “That’s a win for us.”

“I am still trying to get them online,” she said. “It’s a challenge.”

Even when the students were in class four days a week, they spent Wednesday learning remotely, a disruption just as the students were settling into a routine for the week.

“My kiddos need the consistency,” she said. “Because we finally get into the swing of things by the end of Tuesday and then they have more time off.”

She said the students have an attention span that allows for about 15 minutes of consecutive computer time at once. “These kids aren’t going to be able to type on the screen or answer math questions, we aren’t there,” she said. While learning remotely, the students receive specialized therapy online too.

When the students are in class, White and the two aides assigned to her class keep extra protective equipment on hand, because the students sometimes need physical contact to get through the school day. She color-coded the classroom so students would know what they could and couldn’t touch throughout the room.

“They knew what their color is and if it was their color they would touch it, if not they wouldn’t touch.”

When at school the students are constantly developing communications skills, working to express their needs and desires. At school, for instance, they have to communicate to their teacher that they have to go to the bathroom; at home, they get up and leave the room.

“Being at home they are not using those (communication) skills as consistently,” she said. “Just the communication and socialization are two huge, huge pieces.”

Students pick up new communication skills from school experiences ranging from overhearing the discussions of their classmates to working with a teacher or aide to express a need to use the bathroom.

“These kids don’t talk, so to have peers that are talking around them at school is one of the benefits of being in the classroom,” she said. “Autism is a social disorder, so they need to learn that social aspect to be functioning and to move forward with their life.

White created individualized work-packets for the students when they shifted to remote learning, giving students supplies and assignments based on their interests. One student was given a lot of site word practices – learning to recognize common words on site – while another received supplies to practice tracing.

“He is packed with different tracing practice for him to do, different letters, his name, shapes, things like that,” she said, highlighting the student’s interest.

White’s class serves as a reminder of the enormous variety of student needs that educators work to serve everyday and the variety of classroom types that had to shift to new virtual and in-person models.

“The high-needs special education community is something that is kind of sometimes brushed to the side, it’s not something people really think about,” she said. “I don’t think people understand the intense needs of some kids and what they can and can’t do. There’s no understanding that these kids need the support of someone who can be with them at all times.”

She said she had her fingers crossed that they would be able to return to the classroom as soon as possible.

“They are capable of such amazing things, and to be able to help them at such a young age, help them develop into who they are going to be and how they are going to move forward, is not just important but it’s amazing,” White said.

Teacher Marissa Ray takes a photo of a book to put up as a screen shot in her virtual classroom in her apartment in Schenectady. PETER R. BARBER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Marissa Ray, Schenectady, middle school English as a new language

Earlier this school year, Marissa Ray made a small breakthrough with a student. The student had been logging into remote classes but not participating or responding to her questions. Then one day he chimed in.

“Today he unmuted and said, ‘Sorry, I can’t get my work, I’m on my phone,’” she recounted in an interview last month. “Oh my god, he answered.”

The student wasn’t distracted by his phone; the student was attempting to access a virtual class on a phone.

“Maybe that’s been the problem the whole time, and he hasn’t told me,” Ray said.

Ray, who teaches English as a new language to students at Central Park Middle School in Schenectady, said the challenges of teaching students with multiple primary languages trying to learn in English have been deepened this year. Her students have learned remotely this year, complicating language barriers and limiting resources to support students.

The year has been difficult, but Ray said the students have been largely positive and have worked to support each other, even from afar. She said the students love to learn about each other’s cultures and spend part of December studying holidays around the world, and she has worked to engage students directly in what they learn about.

“I always ask the kids what kind of things do you like to learn about,” she said.

State education officials in the spring canceled a key test for students learning English as a new language, so students didn’t have a chance to demonstrate whether or not they should advance to a new learning level. So this year the students in Ray’s class have even more disparate language skills than in the past.

“In the beginners class, I have kids that speak a lot of English and have been here a few years, and I’ve got some that joined class a few weeks ago,” she said.

Her students speak Spanish, Arabic, Pashto and Chuukese, and she works to communicate with students’ families. Family and student communication can be a challenge in any year but is even harder with so many students learning from home.

“It was two days before school and families hadn’t heard anything,” she said. “It was a lot of miscommunication and these families were kept in the dark.”

Ray said she texts and calls families, often starting with text message and using Google to translate messages as she goes along. She said often when she calls a student’s home there is someone there who she can speak to in English to relay a message. If she needs special translator service, it may take a month or longer to schedule a translator through a service the district pays for.

“I’m doing whatever I can to be able to communicate with families,” she said. “I wish we had more resources for them.”

Like the challenges of special education students, the pandemic has only deepened the hard work of overcoming language barriers for students.

“I think this pandemic is shining a light to the fact that ENL students and immigrant and refugee students are constantly being overlooked,” Ray said. “The pandemic itself has done harm to our students, and it’s showing there are gaps and issues in the system, it’s showing the fact we don’t do enough for our ENL students.”

She said often her students need extra support that would have been accessible in a school setting but aren’t with students learning remotely: they should see a social worker or a counselor or need extra help with a particularly difficult language barrier, she said.

“What does that look like in a virtual world? How do we get them those services? Quite frankly, we aren’t,” Ray said.

A new student arriving this year never used Google classroom before, now it’s the basis of all his schoolwork. “I’m trying to teach him how to use Google classroom in English and he doesn’t know any English.” At one point this year she went on a home visit to teach another student how to use the online learning system.

She said the students are very supportive of each other and often serve as ad-hoc translators and tutors to their classmates.

“Something goes off in their brains, they are nurturing,” she said. “The kids embrace him and try to help him, even the kids that don’t speak Spanish were dropping links in the chat and telling the Spanish speakers to tell him to click this link.”

Ray said she tries to be honest with her students and not hide the fact that this year is hard for her too.

“I’m not going to sit here and lie to the kids,” she said. “This is tough. I tell the kids Miss Ray is having a hard time and we share our stories – our struggles and successes.”

Niskayuna High School 11th grade Social Studies teacher David Bloom inside his apartment where he teaches remotely in Schenectady. ERICA MILLER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

David Bloom, Niskayuna, high school social studies

David Bloom teaches students in his classroom, students at home, trying to get them ready for a Regents exam required for graduation that may or may not actually happen this spring – all while wearing a mask.

“It’s a juggling act, that’s kind of what it is,” he said.

Bloom, who has taught social studies at Niskayuna High School for over 20 years, said the school year has presented an array of challenges but highlighted the new barriers of connecting and engaging directly with students as the most detrimental of all.

“You can’t teach anyone something if you can’t have a relationship with them,” Bloom said.

Bloom, who simultaneously teaches some students in person and some students remotely – except for the times when all students shifted online – said it’s difficult to balance both modes effectively and highlighted the loss of cues about how students are doing in class. He said he hasn’t been able to match the same level of class discussion that is possible with a room full of kids not mediated through screens.

“It’s just too hard,” he said. “It’s very stilted, it’s very stiff.”

Bloom has no formal training in technology-based education and said there was no chance to get the kind of professional development needed to effectively incorporate remote education into his daily teaching.

“We are kind of, almost on our own,” he said of developing a remote classroom. “I don’t have a master’s degree in technology.”

Bloom also lamented shortened class periods and altered schedules, noting the challenges the schedule changes and time-consuming technical problems presented in moving through the curriculum at the proper pace. He said he was not able to move through the curriculum in his Regents course at the same pace as in past years, fearing the result if state officials go through with the test later this year.

“It’s going to be a horror show if they go through with this exam in June,” Bloom said, noting the wide variety of learning environments students will have spent the year in.

Bloom said he can notice the emotional strain the pandemic has taken on his students – adding the full impact won’t be known for a while – and said he does his best to respond to student questions and make himself available online and off line.

“I answer email almost instantaneously, I try to make kids feel better,” he said. “You try to deal with them as human beings first.”

Like other teachers, Bloom said so much about in-person instruction cannot be replicated online and said classrooms are the place students should be learning.

“They need to be in class, and they need to be able to ask questions,” he said. “They might be losing their marbles at this point, and their parents might be losing their marbles too.”

Niskayuna High School 9th and 12th grade English teacher Thomas Lester, of Wilton, stands outside the school in Niskayuna. ERICA MILLER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Thomas Lester, Niskayuna, high school English

Thomas Lester, a Niskayuna High School English teacher, has spent the year under the watchword of most teachers this year.

“We all have to be flexible all of the time, flexibility is the word of the year,” Lester said. “In terms of being able to do anything at a moment’s notice and to be able to solve problems on the fly.”

Like so many other teachers, Lester highlighted the inherent challenge of designing lessons for students learning two fundamentally different settings.

“It’s hard to have a lesson that’s geared to two audiences simultaneously,” he said.

Lester, echoing a sentiment of other teachers again, said in some ways he actually felt having the entire class learning remotely was preferable to the mixed model. With everyone online, at least he could address them from an equal footing and not have to split his time and energy between students in the different settings.

“That actually felt paradoxically more intimate to me,” he said. “I could fully 100 percent invest in the audience that was in front of me, which was fully remote.”

But Lester also acknowledged that students seem to engage better when they are learning in person and highlighted the many distractions facing students at home and the difficulty teachers have in pulling them into a lesson. “Even my 9th graders will readily admit they can pay attention more at school than when they are at home,” he said.

Lester said the change in teaching style has forced him to adapt quickly to new technologies and styles and that he has discovered applications and other practices he will carry with him throughout his career as an educator.

“It forced me to take risks, and I’ve had to learn to navigate all of this digital world,” he said.

But he also said he fears the potential long-lasting consequences of a pandemic that may alter how students relate to the very idea of what an education looks like.

“For younger students, I worry about their ability to interact with each other, and I worry about how they are going to see education,” he said. “It’s easy to disengage if you want to, it’s easy to turn your camera off. I just worry what they are learning about what education is.”

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