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    *Photos provided by Benner Elementary School second-grade teacher Lata Anantheswaran.
    She's been taking the time to connect with students during the state-ordered school closure.

  • Teachers still part of students’ day, reassure parents they are still there to help during school closure

    Just about any teacher at Bellefonte Area School District will say how much they miss their “kids,” right now. By “kids,” they mean the students in their classes that they teach throughout the school year.

    And like most other teachers at all the other district buildings, those at Benner Elementary School have been working daily to connect with students since Gov. Tom Wolf issued a mandatory closure of all schools in the commonwealth due to the COVID-19 pandemic, also known as novel coronavirus.

    With Benner Elementary fifth-grade classes, teachers Laura Covone and Nick Downs have been using a combination of email, Google Classroom and Zoom video applications to get in touch with students they said they “miss.” In fifth-grade across the district, students work with each grade-level teacher on curriculum. At Benner, Covone teaches math, science and social studies, while Downs teaches English and language arts. The 43 total fifth-grade students switch rooms once a day to learn a variety of subject areas.

    When the closure started on March 16, Covone said she also created an online meeting place through Google Classroom called “school closure activities,” which is accessible to students in both Benner fifth-grade classes. Posts are made daily with different activities, websites and videos that could benefit students. Her student teacher also helps organize the page.

    “My favorite way to connect is Zoom,” Covone said. “I had about 75 percent of the two fifth-grade classes attend. It was so great to see the kids that I started to tear up when they started popping into the meeting. They loved it and even asked how often I would be having the meetings, so my grade-level partner Nick Downs and I, along with our student teachers, will be holding two meetings a week.”

    Covone holds Zoom meetings on Thursday, while Downs hosts it on Tuesday.

    “It's been very positive," Covone added. "I feel like parents know we're still working to reach kids and parents, and some have even reached out to tell me how appreciative they are."

    *Laura Covone and Nick Downs

    On Monday March 30, Bellefonte Area School District introduced a learning plan that targets all district students. The state requires public school districts to offer continuity of education, which can be done in one of two ways – enrichment and review, and formal instruction. The enrichment and review option enables the district to be equitable in its delivery of education under Free Appropriate Public Education. Teachers and instructional coaches have met virtually to develop a menu of options.

    Superintendent Michelle Saylor said many parents expressed concerns and feelings of being overwhelmed for having to manage the education of their child.

    “They’re parents; not teachers – and they’re trying their best, so (we created) a plan that is very user friendly,” she said. “It’s designed to continue education of our students and also designed to reach all of our students with full access, whether they have an IEP (Individualized Education Program) or part of the gifted program and more.”

    The menu of options was created at all levels – primary and intermediate, by grade level and team at the middle school, and by course and content at the high school – and will also include core and special areas with on- and offline options to meet the needs of those with and without access to technology devices and web connections.

    And as the optional learning program continues, teachers indicate they will still be available to help. When asked what teachers miss most about not physically being in school with students, Covone said, “Two things – a sense of normalcy and routine for not only the kids, but for all the district staff, and just being with the kids and my coworkers. I miss them all."

    "This all seems so surreal, especially since there are still so many unknowns," she added. "Take a deep breath and know that everything is going to be OK, even though it may take some time. Your kids' teachers will be there for you, so don't hesitate to reach out. We can help you try to find a new balance.”

    *By Brit Milazzo, public relations director, BASD

  • Q&A with Benner Elementary School teachers

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    *Benner Elementary School second-grade teachers Lata Anantheswaran and Nicole Harris, and kindergarten teacher Kimberly Rosenberger talk about initiatives they're taking part in with their students and class families during the state-ordered school closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Lata Anantheswaran, second-grade teacher

    Question: Like so many teachers, you’ve taken the time to connect with students. You indicated it’s something you enjoy. Do you see they appreciate it, as well?
    Answer: I have had positive responses from parents – they expressed their appreciation via posts and announcements, and when I talked to them over the phone. Parents shared with me that their child had a big smile when they talked with me over the phone last week! Everyone really appreciates all that we are trying to do for the students at these uncertain times. I connected with my parents last week through Bloomz, a parent-teacher app. I posted announcements on Bloomz that included educational resources in math, English-language arts, science and social studies that their children could use during this school closure. I also connected with my students last week via phone. I was able to talk to most of my students and parents. I (also) had a Zoom meeting with my students. We were all very excited and happy to see each other after almost two weeks. The students shared what they had been doing at home. It was comforting to see their smiley faces and be able to talk with them. I have also responded to parents’ questions or concerns on a regular basis either by Bloomz or a phone call, and will continue to communicate with them.

    Q: What do you miss most right now about not being in the classroom?
    A: I miss seeing my students everyday coming in with their smiles! This is the time of the school year when we are into so many projects and fun learning activities that the students are looking forward to. I miss the everyday teaching, learning, discussions and just the everyday fun and craziness that happens in a classroom.

    Q: What would you tell families to reassure them things will be OK?
    A: I would say that the most important thing to do right now is to stay calm and take it one day at a time. I do understand that this is a very stressful time for all of us, but we can do things that are in our control. Take the time to enjoy time with your family and try to do fun things with each other. Since all of us, including kids, are so dependent on computers and technology to do our job or schoolwork, please make the time to play board games, play outside and go for a walk, make music, read, draw, cook or do something fun. In all this, please remember to be safe and healthy, and be there for each other

    Nicole Harris, second-grade teacher

    Question: How have you been connecting with students?
    Answer: Each Friday throughout the school year I email a newsletter to the parents in my class explaining what we've done in each subject during the week. Since this has been disrupted, I started by emailing a newsletter of activities and resources for each subject area. I have a Facebook page for where I've posted various links for students and their families to explore, as well as a conversation-starter. I've also connected with students via Google Classroom where I've posted books for students to listen to, and we've (discussed) what we enjoyed about the book (and more). We've also shared jokes on Google Classroom. Each Thursday I connect with students for an hour on Zoom. Students have shared what they've been doing during their time at home, (what) books they've read, (their) favorite toys and pets, and some students have even given us virtual tours of their homes – we may have some future real estate agents in our class! I love using Zoom with my students. There's nothing better than seeing my students and hearing their giggles as we chat each week. It's an easy way to connect with students and it allows them the opportunity to see and talk with the classmates they miss. The students who have joined our Zoom chats have really enjoyed (it), and their parents have also expressed as soon as the chat (ends) that the child is already talking about and looking forward to the next time we're virtually together.

    Q: As the district goes into its continuity of education plan, will you still be available to help and connect with students?
    A: Absolutely! I'm here to support my students in any and all ways possible. I'll continue to be available to my students' parents via email and still plan to hold our weekly Zoom chats. 

    Q: What do you miss most about not being in school?
    A: Where do I begin? Since not everyone is able or interested in joining our Zoom chats, I miss seeing them. I miss hearing their jokes, listening to their giggles and I miss teaching them. There's something special about helping children learn and seeing their faces when they reach their ah-ha moments. While I miss seeing them succeed in the classroom, I know they're learning to succeed in different areas of life right now – at the very minimum, they're learning love, patience and cooperation. 

    Q: Do you have any messages for families during this break?
    A: Pause. Breathe. Everything will be OK. Look around and count your blessings. The children running around your house are little blessings. Wrap them in your arms. Read them a book. Take a walk. Love them. Enjoy this time with your child (or children). Try to make the best of a less-than-ideal situation.

    Kimberly Rosenberger, kindergarten teacher

    Question: You’ve been connecting with kids frequently. What’s the best method so far?
    Answer: While we have been out of class, I have been connecting with my students and their families through email, Bloomz posts and messages, and Zoom meetings. … Zoom has definitely been the most fun since we all could see and talk to one another. I had 14 of my 18 students participate in our first Zoom meeting. I have (also) invited (Principal) Mr. (Kris) Vancas to join us. I think the kids really enjoy seeing him (and) I think parents are always appreciative of the attempts we make to connect with them and their children. The students really got a kick out of seeing each other during the video chat. There was a lot of smiling from all of us!

    Q: The district is starting the next phase of its new optional learning plan. Will you still be available to help and connect with students?
    A: I will definitely still be available when the optional learning plan is rolled out. We may see more of a need for connecting when parents or students have questions about activities or want to share what they have been doing. I encourage my students to share their work through the Bloomz app. It gives them some motivation for doing the activity and I get a chance to give some positive feedback. For example, I put a link to Lunch Doodles with Mo Willems on my Bloomz page and asked kids to share their doodles if they attended any of the sessions. I had a little girl share her doodle with me in a Bloomz chat. It was nice to see that she had taken the time to do the activity and to share it with me.

    Q: What do you miss most about not being in school?
    A: I miss the kids. I miss their energy and enthusiasm for learning. I miss our routines of reading together and talking together and figuring out things together. I also miss my colleagues. We take a lot for granted when we have it every day. These times of being out of the classroom really highlight how much community means to you and how much you miss it when it is gone.

    Q: Do you have any words of advice to families during this break?
    A: I would tell parents and students that this is a rare opportunity to spend a lot of time together as a family and not to waste it or ruin it by stressing out. I would tell them to enjoy being together doing simple, everyday things like reading together, playing games together, going outside and enjoying nature together. I would advise them to come up with some kind of daily schedule that works for everyone, so the expectations are clear for when parents are free to interact and play and when they need to be busy doing work or other chores. Children are very adaptable and can usually cope pretty well when they know what to expect. A daily schedule with familiar routines and clear expectations can help them feel safe and secure, despite all the uncertainty going on around them.