Students in the Ouray School kindergarten class show off their stuffed animals, stick out their tongues and make silly faces before class gets started. Their teacher, Jennifer Feeser, reins in her giggling students by starting with the Hello Song.
“Good afternoon, dear Earth, dear sun, dear children,” she sings, and then invites them to share stories with her and the rest of the class.
“Remember, I am going to unmute you. Raise your hand if you want to talk,” Feeser says as she gazes at a screen full of individual blocks with squirmy little faces in each one.
Children share stories of making cookies, jumping on the trampoline and how one of them received a bump to the lip as others fidget, anxiously awaiting for their turn to be unmuted on the Zoom meeting platform.
One child says he is going on a walk later, and Feeser replies with enthusiasm, “Me too, maybe we will see each other and can wave from far away”
The 30-minute virtual kindergarten class — heavily dependent on the parents positioned just off-camera — continued with discussions of spring, reading a book aloud, practicing sight words and counting numbers with an abacus Feeser positioned in front of her camera.
Feeser concluded the session by giving her students homework to go outside and play in the sun and come in later to write about what they did so they can share with the class the next day.
The sudden transition to online learning due to mandatory school closures has been challenging for parents and teachers alike, but is especially hard for younger students dependent on that close connection with their teacher. Students who are used to giving their teachers hugs, having a routine with other classmates and enjoying close proximity miss that and so do their teachers.
“This is a really emotional and sensitive time to say the least. I miss my students terribly and am very concerned about them and their parents who are trying to balance keeping their children engaged in learning while struggling with financial stress because many of them are losing their livelihoods as well as fear of illness,” said Feeser, a 15-year teaching veteran.
Teachers who had initially planned for a short spring break found the situation changed in a matter of days - with health officials recommending school closures and ultimately Colorado officials ordering schools to close until at least April 17. Nov, schools are preparing to possibly close for the remainder of the school year, meaning teachers must prepare for online learning for potentially months. State standardized tests have been canceled and teachers are transitioning to online-only learning for now.
Online learning is going well, though, thanks to teachers like Feeser who go above and beyond making sure her class of is students has all the supplies they need to work on projects at home. On Monday, Feeser dropped off glue sticks and other items at one of her student’s homes.
Other Ouray teachers expressed melancholy over missing that in-person connection with their students, but overall feel positive about the ability of the school, parents and, more broadly, the community, to come together and make the most of what they have been dealt with the emergency situation.
“It shows that as a community when necessary we pull together and make it work even if it isn’t easy,” said Dee James, who teaches business and technology at Ouray School.
James said Ouray School is in good shape for the crisis as they have been inadvertently implementing changes in the last fewyears that are now paying off, such as the purchase of ChromeBooks students can now use at home and the development of an online platform so student files are accessible from anywhere.
“The hardest thing for me so far is that teaching is all about the relationships with the kids. It is so much harder to connect online than it is in person. We are all going to have to relearn how to connect as educators and students to keep the learning going,” said Jenny Hart, who teaches fourth grade at Ouray School.
“There are some really beautiful things happening during this surreal moment in our lives,” Feeser said, including ways the community has been working together and the efforts parents are making to get creative with their time at home with their children. With the younger students, their parents play a more active role, their shoulders visible on the edges of the screens as the kindergarteners smile at their teacher on the computers. It’s something Feeser looks forward to every day, now that this is the new normal.
“Being able to see my students via Zoom has been a bright spot in my life,” Feeser said.
Feeser, who is also navigating the new online classroom world with two children of her own, said it is important to let go of some expectations and allow for flexibility. It doesn’t have to be perfect right now, and they just take things day by day.
“Ice cream sundaes for dinner seem to help sometimes, too,” Feeser said.