Lamoille County schools, empty of children for more than a week, have become staging grounds for delivering meals and learning materials for students who are now communicating with their teachers over the phone and internet.

“They are my heroes and they will never brag about it,” said Kate Torrey, Morristown Elementary School principal, about her faculty and staff. “This is just who they are and they love their kids — and miss them already.”

It’s still early in the process, but a few Morristown educators shared their experiences in the first week in the new Lamoille South school district system, preparing for a new education experience brought on by a global pandemic.

One of them, Peoples Academy science teacher Lesley Schuster, opted to simply share a photo of her that “summarizes my new reality as a teacher.” Accompanying her in her home “classroom” is her dog Charlie.

“Teacher’s pet!” Schuster wrote in an email.

“Nothing less than heroic”

Torrey, the principal, shared a photo of shiny plastic bags sporting “I HEART BOOKS,” spread all around the school library, grouped by classroom.

Torrey said teachers “responded with very little notice” and stuffed those bags full of learning supplies, such as reading books at each child's level, writing journals, art supplies, math and spelling games, and an iPad loaded with fun learning apps.

“Faculty and staff were nothing less than heroic all last week,” Torrey said.

Torrey said if parents weren’t able to pick up the learning materials on Monday, the elementary school office will remain open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Torrey said teachers are reaching out to connect with every family, every student, and faculty and staff will be supporting students and parents “with a variety of at-home learning plans to keep our students engaged.”

“We are encouraging parents to normalize their day by setting up routines and schedules for their kids, which will lessen their anxiety and keep their minds off the news during this crisis,” she said.

She said if anyone in the community has a need, they can reach out to the Morristown Elementary School office at 888-3101, and someone will connect them with available resources.

Torrey said it’s also important that families know about the food pickup schedule, which is three days a week at the school: Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays between 9:30 and 11 a.m.

Any parent or caregiver can pick up five free breakfasts and five free lunches a week for every child in their household (two of each on Mondays and Wednesdays and one of each on Fridays).

Torrey stressed that this is for all youth under 18 in the area, whether enrolled in the school district or not.

The school is “pulling together a volunteer team” that will do home deliveries of food and learning supplies for parents or guardians who can’t leave their houses.

“From our perspective at the elementary school, the immediate priority right now is making sure all of our students and families have their basic needs met — food, shelter, physical safety, emotional and mental supports,” Torrey said.

‘People are helping people’

Leslie Oplinger is a special educator at Morristown Elementary. Early in the new experiment, she was able to find things that inspire her and scare her a bit.

The impact on families scares her.

“Working parents are now full-time home schooling and/or losing their jobs,” she said. “The burden falls on them to provide structure and learning while trying to stay afloat financially.”

At the same time, she’s heartened by what she calls a “pulling together of our community in the face of a crisis.

“People are helping people,” she said. “People are being creative and learning to rapidly adapt when they really want to have control. Families are accepting their new reality of being home schoolers, though that presents a hardship to most.”

She said she’s “working longer and harder because guidance is changing rapidly,” while special educators adjust to such things as writing new plans, trying to collaborate with teachers — even as they are figuring out what they are going to do for instruction — connecting with families “without overwhelming them,” and making sure that what goes home from teachers is accessible for the students she supports, who are not independent learners when they are in school. This is all while not having access to the building.

She’s not a classroom teacher, but Oplinger said she has incorporated coronavirus into some brief instruction to help students with autism understand why they are being asked to do schoolwork at home.

Oplinger said most families have internet access, and the school-issued iPads can provide the tools to use that internet. There is a learning curve among parents and kids to get used to Google Meets, the platform being used to interact with teachers.

“We will be leaning heavily on that technology to conduct meetings, provide consultation and instruction, and most importantly to connect with kids face to face,” Oplinger said.

How does their training and professional development prepare educators for handling this? In short, Oplinger said, the entire country wasn’t prepared for this; educators have not been trained to tackle this specific emergency, either.

“However, administrators have been acting as quickly as they can to disseminate information, build consistency into what we are all doing, and making sure family and student needs are at the forefront, while also grappling with our own health and or family situations,” Oplinger said. “Our district has focused heavily on equity training for the past two years, and those practices are evident in how we are rolling out instruction under these circumstances.”

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