DAVID GREENE, HOST:
We've heard so much about classrooms opening or closing. But the truth is that for this semester, a lot of instruction has been online. Anya Kamenetz from NPR's education team has been checking with teachers across the country to see what's been going well and where there are still big gaps.
ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Deborah Rosenthal starts virtual kindergarten on Zoom every morning with a song.
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UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in Spanish).
KAMENETZ: There's a greeting from the class mascot - a dragon - yoga with meditation and letter sounds practice.
DEBORAH ROSENTHAL: Oso, oso. O. O. O.
KAMENETZ: Rosenthal teaches in a Spanish immersion program in a public school in San Francisco's Mission District. She's taught kindergarten for 15 years and she loves it.
ROSENTHAL: Kindergarten is just such a wonderful, physical, tactile age. And so everything in kindergarten is very, very hands-on.
KAMENETZ: But with the district all online this semester, she says...
ROSENTHAL: It's such a different experience. I mean, it's a very two-dimensional experience.
KAMENETZ: Rosenthal has been working really hard to make online learning as rich as possible for her kids, many of whom come from families near the poverty line, that are undocumented and are dealing with COVID-related job loss.
ROSENTHAL: I was a pretty dedicated teacher to begin with. But I find that I'm spending - I don't know - 10 or 12 hours a day doing lessons and thinking about my lessons and thinking about a way of bringing my lessons to the kids and making it engaging.
KAMENETZ: Very few people would tell you that doing kindergarten online was a good idea or, frankly, even possible. That was before 2020. This fall, across the country, most instruction has been virtual. I talked to educators in six states from California to South Carolina. They said the heart of the job right now is getting students connected with school and keeping them that way technologically, but even more importantly, emotionally.
THERESA ROUSE: We have a lot of staff who work really hard to build solid relationships with all of our students.
KAMENETZ: Theresa Rouse is superintendent of Joliet Public School District 86 in Illinois. They put 400 teachers through intensive training in online teaching with an organization called the Digital Learning Collaborative. They spent the first three weeks of the school year focusing just on social and emotional skills. And, says Rouse, any adult at a school, from teachers to the assistant principal, to a school counselor or social worker, might drop in during video classes to show they care.
ROUSE: If they're seeing a student that looks distressed, they pull them aside into a breakout room, have a conversation. Are you OK?
KAMENETZ: Across the country in rural South Carolina, Caroline Weathers usually teaches science at St. George Middle School. This year, her full-time job is helping families, maybe with a Wi-Fi hotspot or an app parents can download to track kids' grades. She says she'd like to continue the role going forward, getting parents more of a voice in their kids' education.
CAROLINE WEATHERS: We have the parents' attention. So maybe now is the time to really, you know, really reach out. In 10 years, we might see something entirely different in education.
KAMENETZ: But right now, teachers say, the digital divide is huge. And it's heartbreaking. Rosenthal in San Francisco teaches at a school called Buena Vista Horace Mann. It's a community school, meaning there are wraparound services, including lots of help with technology. But despite that, she didn't make contact with one of her students until 2 1/2 months into the school year.
ROSENTHAL: The little girl was going to a babysitter that was not literate. And so they - nobody could help this child get onto a computer even though the mom picked up a hot spot and so forth.
KAMENETZ: Although attendance on her daily Zooms is high, Rosenthal says, because of issues like these, no more than a fourth of her students are accessing the written assignments. What keeps her up at night, she says, are the kids she's just not getting to.
ROSENTHAL: Every year as a teacher, you will have five, six kids that are struggling, right? They came very unprepared to school. But at least they're with me all day long so I can support them literally, you know, six or seven hours a day.
KAMENETZ: She says, this year, most of her kids are learning and growing. But those five or six who started out behind aren't getting much of anywhere.
Anya Kamenetz, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF HM SURF'S "3PM")
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