OPINION: I’m a first-grade teacher in Anchorage. Here’s what the COVID-19 pandemic taught me.

Patty Hamre, Campbell Elementary, Campbell Elementary School, Elementary School, School, Stem, Stem Class

When COVID-19 escalated in March 2020, our growth skyrocketed as we learned how to embed reading curriculum into daily Zoom classes. We created our own daily presentations, recording phonics, posting online and teaching via Zoom with our classes. COVID rocketed a huge learning curve for all kids, parents and educators.

Previously, “the digital divide” was something that I had read about, but now we were scrambling with urgency to distribute resources, assuring that all children would have equal access. Explaining computer programs such as “Seesaw” to grandmothers and families was a multi-step process requiring patience from the receiver, as well as the teacher doing the explaining.

We taught, assessed and proctored online. It was difficult for teachers to determine the accuracy — whether or not kids had “at home” help during their assessment of individual letter names and sounds, sight word assessments, spelling tests and fluency in curriculum-based measurement and math while on Zoom.

Families learned to trust teachers in the personal space of their own homes. We witnessed home environments which were confidential. “How can a child focus?” I would ask myself. People were struggling, as parents, grandparents and siblings tried to figure out how to be at home while still working and encouraging their kids’ learning.

Our school district embraced new anti-poverty measures, as hungry kids can’t learn. Teachers tried to connect families with nutrition, and new food banks popped up all over our city.

No outdoor education or field trips

When we came back face-to-face, no volunteer parents were allowed into school to support learning. I missed parent volunteers for small group reading in my classroom.

Teachers embraced virtual science learning when the Seward SeaLife Center, Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and Campbell Creek Science Center kicked into high gear for our school children. They offered live streaming, so students could see black and brown bears, moose, bison, porcupine, trumpeter swans, puffins and sea lions in their natural habitat and salmon fry dipped from upper Campbell Creek.

Before COVID, our first graders raised salmon eggs provided by the Department of Fish and Game, and in spring we released the fry into our inner-city Taku Lake. Those walking field trips allowed the children to observe nesting bald eagles, mallard ducks, trumpeter swans and, in the fall, returning silver salmon. This all came to a halt during COVID.

Returning to in-person learning

At the beginning of COVID year two, kids and teachers were happy! We were back in school, with all people wearing masks, eating lunches in our own classrooms and sanitizing.

In August 2021, my students were having a hard time settling in, and I shared with our principal that many students were at a kindergarten level developmentally. These children had a hard time becoming friends, making good choices for listening and personal space, and were struggling to focus on text and numbers.

What is the biggest “aha” moment that has changed readiness for learning to read? While diving deeper with observation, assessments and repeated movement breaks, I realized that time-on-text was mostly while using online materials, and that the skill of the “reading scan” had not yet not been developed.

Their eyes were all over the map. Were the children evolving with attention deficit disorder or ADHD? Yes, I believe, due to prolonged computer or device usage, as well as extended screen time.

Reading instruction

How could I modify my classroom routine for successful learning and reading instruction? Training their young eyes the “left-to-right scan” is like learning to kick a soccer ball or learning to ski — a physical skill, and one that requires mental focus as well.

I’ve learned to say “Reading fingers ready,” expecting all children to point their reading finger below the word that they are reading. This discipline was established with strict consistency early on, as I noticed children’s lack of attention to text. We have gradually built our skills, sight words, phonics and phonemes, and reading fluency, with the stringent routine of “reading finger.”

All instruction is broken up with periodic “movement and brain breaks” that we do every day: movement, focus on text near; movement, focus on text far; movement, write, spell, movement.

Attendance rollercoaster

Six or more children were absent many weeks as COVID spread through families. Sometimes students experienced initial symptoms at school: fever, cough, sneezing, stomach ache, vomiting, etc. We had to teach and reteach as students were in class one day, gone for two weeks, and then back. This cycle is still going on.

Sometimes a child will talk about COVID in our morning “talking circle.” This year, children have repeatedly expressed concern for their family members, as some were hospitalized.

“Choice time” is an important developmental activity, as the opportunity for interaction with peers was lacking during year one. Daily play is important for learning how to be friends, learning to read and language development.

The good news is that our kids are learning how to read! They are thinking about what they are reading, asking questions and sharing with their peers. The lightbulb goes on and kids can read, and are proud to share a book with the whole class or with their family at home.

I asked students, “What did you do over spring break?” Most kids played computer games like Xbox. Few interacted with text. This is a big change everywhere.

Staff movement and support

We have had four certified educators leave during year two of COVID. Many days this year, teachers were out with COVID, and children were impacted by teachers’ absences. Our administrator daily rearranges personnel to support our students. It’s constant.

I have worked with eight different first-grade teachers throughout the years in my school. I ask why is that? How do we become experts, when many first-grade teachers move on? Is there enough support for first grade students and the teachers who are responsible for their learning?

Years ago, I had the privilege of teaching in Seward. The principal at Seward Elementary taught a group of children to read during “Walk to Read.” I have never forgotten that. He continued to teach kids to read. Just because you teach a skill doesn’t mean a child will learn it. Break it down; try to make it a little fun.

Where we are today

The students are learning to read! The kids have worked really hard this second year of COVID, and so have all educators. Every day the children walk in the door smiling, eager and wanting to learn. This hasn’t changed.

How can we support first-grade children, as young brains and attention are changing with increased exposure to technology?

Experienced first-grade teachers (and kindergarten, second-grade teachers, and para-educators) are the “reading specialists.” Teaching first grade is mountains of work and requires an ability to filter busy little people while juggling growth and instruction. I’d put my money into these people who are in the classroom, working directly with children.

I think first-grade classrooms need full-time aides to support every student and reading growth for all. In rural Alaska, many teachers come and go. The paraprofessionals or aides who live within the community are committed to education for children and working within the school hub. Para-educators know the families, kids and history of the people in their small town. Invest in these people. Encourage them as equals, and pay them as professionals.

If we truly want to see big leaps of growth in reading, we should train and hire para-educators for full-time daily primary classroom support.

First grade teachers are responsible for Special Education student referral, and this process often takes eight-plus months. We deliver instruction, try new interventions and track growth (or lack of), brainstorming how to support a child’s continuous growth. More support is needed at an earlier stage, for children who are struggling.

Will future generations have brain development influenced by screen time?

We agree that we need to work hard with literacy learning.

Alaska’s children will become reader leaders when all of us jump on board.

Support and fund public education. Read with a child.

Patty Hamre is a first-grade teacher in the Anchorage School District.

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