On a Friday in mid-March, Jana Maiuri listened as her 6th-grade students engaged in a spirited discussion of the George Orwell classic Animal Farm. They had been preparing for this final student-led seminar all week, and while Maiuri was thrilled to hear their thoughtful questions and well-informed answers, inside, her mind was racing. She had just gotten word that school buildings would be closing for the foreseeable future in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We kind of knew it was coming — it had been in the air all week,” says Maiuri, who teaches 6th-grade English and drama at Edna Brewer Middle School, one of the 116 district and charter schools in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), which is attended by nearly 50,000 students. “All of a sudden, there were so many details to figure out. Who needs books? Who needs a laptop? How is this all going to work?”
Across OUSD and communities around the world, teachers and administrators were having similar discussions, making plans for how to support, educate, and stay connected to students without the established routines and in-person interactions that define elementary and secondary education.
“The classroom is a kind of sacred space for teachers and students,” says Stephen Wright, a computer science teacher at OUSD’s Oakland Technical High School. “It’s where we set expectations and build relationships with students that are so fundamental to the learning process. Now, we’re all trying to figure out — how do we do that remotely?”
The computer becomes the classroom
In the weeks that followed, Maiuri and her students worked through the ins and outs of distance learning together. They helped each other troubleshoot microphone and webcam issues, learned to use the chat function in Zoom meetings, figured out how to upload and download different file formats, and got to know each other in new ways, from their living rooms, bedrooms, and dining tables.
“This pandemic has put them into a situation where they all have to be independent learners, managing their own schedules, working with new technology, and all while dealing with their own stresses at home,” Maiuri says. “It’s a huge learning curve for them on top of their classwork, and they’ve been incredibly resilient.”