NISKAYUNA -- At the start of the first Monday after schools across the state closed last month, Niskayuna parents Sarah and Shaun Neely convened a family meeting.
The parents, who both work as teachers and coaches in Niskayuna schools, laid out the family’s new routine: wake up and start school no later than 9 each morning, read, practice math and science and get some kind of exercise every day. The day’s activities are listed each morning.
“In our hallway, we have a little checklist we have to do everyday,” said Conner Neely, a fifth-grader at Rosendale Elementary.
What’s on the list? “Math, writing, reading, science,” Conner said. After he finishes something on the list, he gets to cross it off and move on to the next. Last week he was reading Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, a young adult novel about a young man stranded in the woods with nothing but his wits and, well, a hatchet.
“They feel a sense of accomplishment,” Shaun Neely, a fifth-grade teacher at Hillside Elementary, said in an interview last week. Neely said he wakes up early to put together the checklist for the kids’ day. “They like to cross things off.”
The Neelys said they were up front with their kids about what was happening, explaining how they and their classmates were staying at home to prevent the spread of a virus that was making many people around the world sick.
“We don’t know how long we will be out of school, so we want to make sure we keep your body and brain as active and healthy as possible,” Sarah Neely said of the message they delivered to their kids.
The third- and fifth-graders can grasp some of what is going on, the Neelys said, and they are even behaving better for mom and dad than they normally would. “They are giving me a bit of a reprieve,” Shaun said.
But the Neelys' kindergartner, who had spent the first half of the school year settling into this new daily activity called school like other kindergartners, was still trying to adjust to life at home.
“Every day she wakes up and gets to ask, ‘When do we go back to real school?’” Sarah said.
The Neelys readily admit that they are fortunate compared to the countless other families in Niskayuna and beyond grappling with life turned upside down in the middle of a global pandemic. Shaun and Sarah are both educators: Sarah teaches physical education at Niskayuna High School and Shaun teaches fifth grade. In the past, he taught third grade as well.
“Lucky for us we have a third-grader and a fifth-grader,” Sarah said. “I do feel very fortunate for our situation. We have other friends who are trying to do business and continue to work on the computer all day long and struggle with being able to finish that and help their kids.”
The transition to what’s effectively turned into homeschooling hasn’t been without its difficulties, they said. Shaun said at times the students get frustrated with their work, and he has to approach the situation both as dad and as teacher.
“It’s been a challenge for sure,” Shaun said. “Teaching your own kids is never ideal; you are stepping over sacred ground into the realm of teaching.”
With some activities, Shaun leaves it to the kids to take control over their own learning. In other activities, he has to be more direct with them. It depends on their own strengths and weaknesses, he said. But when things get frustrating – for him or for his kids – he said it’s important not to let the schoolwork get in the way of the parent-child relationship.
“I’ve always told parents don’t let homework mess up your relationship with your child,” he said. “It’s not worth it.”
Like other teachers in the region, the Neelys are also working from home on behalf of their students – the ones they are not related to. They have posted materials online for their students and can track which students have accessed what assignments and how they are doing.
Shaun said last week that he and other fifth-grade teachers were working on more material for students and putting together a two-week plan. As the school shutdown continues, he said, teachers will get more and more effective at working with students and families.
“As the days go by, as educators we are all going to start figuring this out, figuring out ways to get information to kids so they can continue with their academics,” she said.
He said many educators will likely look back on this time as an extraordinary way to develop new skills using technology in education, a crash course in working with students remotely and leveraging countless online and digital resources.
“One positive this will have for me is it’s really forced me to get familiar with the education technology out there,” he said. “A lot of the younger teachers are kind of the leaders here, because they are tech savvy.”
Sarah said she has looked for different exercise activities online that she can share with students, passing along suggestions for students to do yoga, go for a walk or a run or take a bike ride. She said she was also having kids log their daily activities.
“We want them to stay healthy physically,” she said. “As educators, and across the country, everyone is being very creative and just trying to work together to make the best of the situation.”
But the Neelys also said that even as the teachers get better and better at the new normal of remote learning, students will not be making the academic gains they would if they were still going to school each day.
“There is going to have to be an acceptance that there will be less learning going on than if kids were in school,” Shaun Neely said.
They said the frustration that many parents are feeling is something that teachers are feeling as well.
“It’s definitely frustrating, the change of routine is difficult for the kids and students, but it’s also difficult for the teachers,” she said. “Having to do it remotely is obviously not ideal. ... I miss being in the gym, I miss being with my students and interacting with them everyday.”
The Neelys are also Niskayuna coaches: he coaches wrestling; she coaches girl's basketball. They each concluded their seasons just ahead of the school closings, which brought winter athletic playoffs to a screeching halt. But Sarah didn’t get the chance to reconvene with her team for the annual end-of-season banquet.
“I feel like that part of the basketball season is not finished yet,” she said. “We weren’t able to celebrate all of our accomplishments and end on a positive note.”
She said the sudden nature of the closures and the end to athletic seasons makes it hard for student-athletes who have devoted so many hours and so much passion to their sport. In what seemed like a flash, everything changed.
“You are talking about kids who have spent a lot of time in their life from when they were tiny, little kids playing a sport they love, preparing to be on a high school team,” she said. “When that’s cut short, it’s hard for everyone to handle.”