POWHATAN – Just as in a normal school setting, distance learning during a pandemic in Powhatan County hasn’t been a one-size-fits all process.
Every household is a little bit different and may be dealing with their own challenges – internet access, working parents, children struggling to adapt to learning at home and understand new content, technology, not understanding the grading system, and so much more.
Some local Powhatan families recently shared their experiences with distance learning in the last several weeks – both the highs and lows. Even the ones highly stressed by the situation said they recognized that Powhatan County Public Schools staff members are trying their hardest, but that doesn’t always mitigate how stressful some situations are for their families.
For some learning from home is literally bringing them to tears while others have had a much smoother transition.
For Powhatan High School senior Heidi Wiedrich and her younger brother Brigham, a freshman, the No. 1 hurdle to their education in the last few weeks has been lack of internet access in the western part of the county, said their mom, Melissa Wiedrich. With more people using the internet during the day now, the limited access they had before is almost nonexistent.
“Brigham was able to do some work a couple different nights, but not until after 12 a.m., and that is not ideal for him to be doing schoolwork,” she said.
So almost every day, she and her teenagers sit in the Powhatan County Public Library parking lot to use the internet and finish their work. Sometimes they can do a few downloads and other days it means several hours sitting in the car together. It is close quarters, and when they have to listen to a video or record a video for an assignment, it can get pretty comical, Wiedrich said. She has been driving them to the library because the family doesn’t have a third car, but she is worried how they will handle it when she heads back to work at a local dentist’s office in May.
Heidi is heartbroken to be missing the end of her senior year but is coping with her classes fine. Brigham is in the Advanced College Academy and Wiedrich worries how the flow of that course of study work would be impacted.
“I just hope that when it comes down to it, the ACA classes still count. They are on track to get their associates before they graduate high school, and I hope this doesn’t mess that up,” she said.
For Ashley Williams and her husband, Josh, the experience of distance learning with their first-grader, Avery, has been a disaster. On top of having extremely poor internet access, the Williams are both working full-time as a medical assistant and firefighter, respectively, and struggling to find childcare every day.
They wanted to pick up one of the hotspots offered by the school system to see if that would help with getting their assignments turned in but have struggled to get there during the distribution window, when they are both at work, Ashley Williams said.
Avery doesn’t understand why she isn’t in school, why she has to stay with different people when her parents go to work, or why she is expected to do school work at home, so it has all been very confusing for the little girl, her mom said.
Williams said she has reached out to Avery’s teacher, who has been fully understanding and gets back to her in a timely manner. But she and her husband feel like they are still under a great amount of added pressure. While they definitely want their daughter to continue learning, they feel added subjects such as music and art aren’t as essential right now as focusing on math, sight words, or reading skills when sending out assignments.
“It is stressful, it is overwhelming. My first-grader does not do well outside of her normal routine. She thinks she is on summer break, and unfortunately one of us can’t just stay home and continue that school schedule every day to try to keep her on that routine because we are essential workers,” she said.
While internet can sometimes be an issue for the Newland family, the really tricky part for mom Jennifer is helping students in three different grade levels. Sean Farmer is a 10th-grader at the high school while Kaitlin Farmer, is in seventh grade, and Caleb Newland, in sixth grade at Powhatan Middle School.
When they first started doing the work on their Chromebooks, the trickiest part for the youths was skipping around the subjects each day in their devices. They finally solved the problem by deciding to do one subject per day, completing all of the assignments for that week in one go in a three- to four-hour session.
“It is time-consuming but they are not at school all day. If we’ve got to do something one day, we can definitely change the times,” she said.
Jennifer is home with their children right now, so she tries to help them if they have questions. If she can’t help, her husband Kenneth Newland tries when he gets home from work. If they still have questions, they reach out to the teachers, who have been really responsive, she said.
Like many other families, the Fullers’ main struggle with completing schoolwork for their four children is tied to internet. They actually have two internet providers, but with dad Mike working from home right now, he gets first dibs on the internet bandwidth, his wife Lizzy Fuller said. Together, the couple has four children in PCPS: Evie, 10th grade, Maggie, eighth grade, Gracie, seventh grade, and Joe, kindergarten.
When Mike isn’t using the internet for work, the high schooler and middle schoolers have to negotiate their plans for Zoom meetings, watching videos, and uploading any work, Fuller said.
“Unfortunately, my youngest misses out on most of the online books, games, and videos. We just don’t have high enough speeds to share. For him, we do assigned work in bursts and incorporate as much as we can in our daily routine,” his mom said.
Fuller said she feels the schools have been supportive and the teaching staff has been really accessible, especially at Pocahontas Elementary. For her middle schoolers, even “not really techie” teachers have been prompt at responding to emailed questions.
Distance learning takes a great deal of patience and being willing to walk away from a lesson, take a break, and revisit it later, even if “later” is the next day, Fuller said. Her experience being a PCPS substitute teacher has come in handy because she has learned songs from different classrooms to use as teaching aids.
“I’m not overly worried about our students falling behind. It definitely helps to know that we are all in the same position, nationwide. I think I would be more worried if my oldest was a junior with ACT and SAT exams getting canceled. Ultimately, I think we will all be alright. I really hope things get back to normal before fall,” she said.
Distance learning for the Glidewell family has been a different experience for each of their children, mom Katherine said. For her oldest son, Christian, who is a junior, the transition has been pretty seamless. This is helped by the fact that they don’t have issues with internet and the teenager is pretty self sufficient. She said her son misses school and the social interaction but is willing to do the work.
“He is able to prioritize and he is motivated to get it done. But he does miss the classroom experience. He said today, ‘I can’t wait until we go back to school,’ This is hard to have to teach yourself,” Glidewell said last week.
The majority of her time each day is taken up with Cameron, a first-grader at Flat Rock Elementary School who is on the autism spectrum. The family had a tough transition period at first because he didn’t understand why he was expected to be doing school-related activities at home.
“I don’t know what it is like for other parents trying to explain to a 7-year-old that doesn’t have special needs what is going on in the world, but trying to explain to a 7-year-old with autism that the world is sick and he can’t go to school has been difficult for me,” she said.
Cameron has four teachers altogether – general education, special education, speech therapy, and occupational therapy teachers – and they have been a wonderful resource for Glidewell and her husband, Timothy, as they have adjusted to the changes. She admitted she dreaded distance learning at first because she does not have the specialized skills of his teachers, but they have given the family some good resources and pointers that have definitely helped, as has getting him on a regular routine.
“I really don’t know how parents who work two full-time jobs come home and have school on top of it. I cannot imagine it. I am very thankful that I can be here to help and that I have family who can help, too,” she said.
Kimberly Schmitt said she and her husband, Joseph, have actually found the distance learning experience with their third-grader, Emma, enlightening. There have been struggles along the way, but Schmitt said she has been happy with how they are overcoming them between teamwork with her husband and the wonderful help of Emma’s teachers.
To start with internet was a struggle. But the school division purchased hotspots and the family applied for and received one. Doing the schoolwork became much easier after that.
Schmitt, who is a supervisor in the Powhatan emergency 911 communications department, said she initially had some frustration trying to figure out the Seesaw program her daughter was using to turn in assignments.
“I had a struggle uploading the assignments. I work on six or seven computers in dispatch, and for the life of me, I could not figure out Seesaw. She just said ‘Mama, this is what you do,’ and she taught me how to do it,” Schmitt said with a laugh.
Part of what has been so enlightening for the couple is that they have used it as a trial run for the family. The Schmitts were already considering homeshchooling but weren’t sure how it well it would work. While they know the current distance learning is different than a regular homeschooling curriculum would be, the biggest surprise has been how well Emma has taken to it.
“Part of the reason she is so excited is because she does not work well with a lot of distractions – just the normal classroom distractions and she can’t focus. She said she loves it. It is easier for her. We have her own little office set up in her bedroom and it is very quiet,” she said.
The experience was also a trial for her parents and seeing how they could work together in a homeschool setting, Schmitt said. If Emma became frustrated doing an assignment with her mom, they would take a break. If Schmitt had to go to work for the evening shift before they got back to it, her husband would pick up where they left off and try a different approach. So far, she said, the trial run is going well.