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"A great example for society:' DeKalb County students, teachers adjust to new classroom set-ups

The jokes were everywhere, from professional development meetings to online quips – just how exactly are teachers going to get young elementary students to keep masks on their face all day.

But as the school year stretches into its third week for some schools in DeKalb County, mask-wearing is among the adjustments that have gone smoothly, say many teachers across the county.

Getting used to the new normal

Cassandra Wyruchowski, a fourth-grade teacher at St. Mary in DeKalb, said that her students have set an example since they returned to school in person on Aug. 19.

"They really want to adhere to the rules as well as they can and they have been awesome about it," Wyruchowski said. "They are a great example for society on how to deal with masks and hand-washing even though they are eight to 10 years old. They are doing such a great job of all that."

Colleen Tumminaro, a third-grade teacher at St. Mary, echoed the sentiments.

"We all saw the jokes ahead of time online about wearing masks on their heads or sharing them," Tumminaro said. "I can count on one hand the number of times in two weeks I had to remind them to wear it properly. It's just a simple reminder to pull it up over their nose usually."

Like Wyruchowski, Julie Headley, a third-grade teacher at Indian Creek Elementary School, said that students (also attending in person) so far have done a good job keeping masks on and doing their best to stay 6 feet apart.

One of the trickier compnents, Headley said, has been the inability to work in small groups – everything needs to be individualized to maintain social distancing.

"The best part of class is working with a small group," Headley said. "That kind of situation has changed for sure. It's a lot more of whole group work as opposed to small groups. They can't share supplies, we have to make sure they're not touching, all those things."

Indian Creek is doing a hybrid schedule, with half the district in-person one day and the other half remote, save for the families that chose the fully remote option.

Lisa Fleming, a math teacher at Indian Creek High School, said the small class sizes are very different.

"We really missed the kids but it's just not the same," Fleming said. "I get this time of year, we're ready to go back. But with only half the kids it's just not the same."

What does a remote classroom look like?

In a fully remote district like DeKalb District 428, however, it is definitely not the same.

Teachers are in their classrooms in school buildings, but conduct lessons over live video chats reaching their students who are set up at home.

Anthony Jordan, a physical education teacher at Lincoln Elementary, said while the experience is very different, it has been educational for him. Instead of students coming to him, he goes into a virtual classroom "to pick the student up" before PE.

"I get the chance to see a little of what they are teaching there, which is unusual," Jordan said. "Normally they walk down to me. Still, it's something great to be a part of."

Not that classrooms are totally empty in DeKalb.

Jordan is taking advantage of a D-428 policy that lets district employees bring their own children into their classrooms to engage in their remote learning if there's no one else to watch them, and since teachers (who are also parents), need to be in the building for work.

Jordan's daughter Rylin Jordan, a fourth-grader in Sycamore, has been with him remote learning this week. Sycamore began remote classes on Monday while DeKalb went back Aug. 24.

Ashley Carlson, a special education teacher at Founders Elementary, has been teaching with her two kids in the classroom. Both go to Tyler Elementary – Sebastian is in kindergarten and Aubrey is in the third grade.

"It's been challenging but really rewarding," Carlson said. "I can directly see what my own kids are doing and it gives me insight on my caseload. It's help me with some general education classes, where I've noticed a problem to troubleshoot before the problems happen because I saw it with my own kids."

Although she said her daughter is pretty independent when it comes to remote learning, they still have a system in place.

"Sometimes she has to ask me something and we have a hand signal in case I need a minute or two," Carlson said. "The kindergartner sits next to me but away from my screen so I can kind of listen to and help him transition between activities."

Even without her own children in the classroom, things are different this year for Carlson. Her mornings are spent bouncing between virtual classrooms to provide direct support to students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and other needs.

"It's really kind of neat to navigate between my own kids and do live instruction in the afternoon," Carlson said. "It gives me a unique perspective to help families out within the district."

Technology first

Obviously technology is a strong presence in the remote classroom, but Fleming pointed out just how much technology plays a role in the in-person classes at Indian Creek.

"We've got an iPad that's projecting and a Chromebook that is streaming and another iPad next to us for looking up other information," Fleming said. "It's amazing how much it takes to run a classroom efficiently now."

In DeKalb, Jordan said the toughest part of the remote learning for him is hearing the kids.

"A lot of times the kids are muted so you can teach and talk," Jordan said. "I miss getting that instant feedback. I miss them telling stories about how their weekend went. I'm hearing my own voice a lot which is kind of weird."

That in-person experience was important for Wyruchowski. She has been teaching at St. Mary for three years, she said, and for the first time has her children – Adeline, 10, and Teddy, 4 – attending there with her.

She said she has definitely seen an improvement in her children, as she has seen the joy on the faces of all the kids in the school, even with so many parameters in place such as masks, social distancing, and lack of group work.

"It's amazing how joyful the kids are to be together," Wyruchowski said. "Even with all that in place they are so happy to be together. I really think following those procedures... doesn't even phase them as it might adults. Just the joy of them being back together in a social-emotional setting shows how overlooked in child education that component is."

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