Not knowing the date, anyone driving past Marengo Elementary School might guess it to be a weekend or holiday, given the semi-abandoned appearance of the facility.
Mid-September in South Pasadena is typically accompanied by flocks of young people scurrying here and there, the notion of the return to classes and activities still fresh enough to provide mountains of optimism before the whole dance begins to settle into a familiar groove.
But at least for a while, much is new: teachers, clothes, classmates. Much, if not all of our previous experience with this time of year, however, has been altered and in some cases altogether purloined by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has probably affected education more than any other national institution.
Where classrooms once buzzed with activity, computer screens now hum from muffled isolation, as students and teachers adapt to the almost oxymoronic concept of “distance learning.”
Once the most active part of the educational process, teachers, counselors and aides have been relegated to the familiar role in an adolescent’s life of just another in a long line of images on a screen. But with the expectation of providing a consistent opportunity for learning in an unfamiliar setting, teachers have looked for unique ways to strike the match of inspiration.
Ron Aschieris, a 5th-grade teacher at Marengo, who is affectionately known to all simply as “Mr. A,” has found that the best way to thrive in this environment is to keep things consistent. Rather than settling down in some corner of his home and open his virtual lesson plan, Aschieris faithfully executes his daily routine and drives the mostly abandoned streets to teach from his classroom.
“I am very energetic and I didn’t feel 100% professional teaching from my home,” Aschieris explained. “My son is studying at home and I was teaching from my daughter’s room, which is next to my son’s, and I was making too much noise. My wife said to me, ‘You can go out to the laundry room.’”
Extending preconceived beliefs of the measures a man won’t enact in order to avoid laundry, Aschieris asked the SPUSD if he could opt for the familiar surroundings of his classroom as his educational home base.
“Mrs. Cheadle was nice enough to let me come to the school,” quipped Aschieris, referring to Marengo Elementary School Principal Patty Cheadle. “I have everything I need here to teach. I have three computers and some cameras. I can teach from the board. The students can see me and I can see them. It’s much more like a real classroom.”
Aschieris and Taylor Giberson, a long-term substitute, are currently team-teaching the school’s 62 5th-graders, equally splitting the responsibility at 31 apiece in their respective home rooms. Giberson occasionally comes to the school, but Aschieris is typically the lone ranger. Approximately a quarter of Marengo’s 40 educators teach from their classrooms and Aschieris feels he is more efficient in his familiar surroundings.
“To do it right, this arrangement is better,” Aschieris said. “If I am going to do an effective job, it is important that I have access to all of my material. I like to get up early. I get a ton of emails, which is pretty much the only way we can communicate, so I am able to get to them early, and there are less demands on my time here in the classroom.”
Giberson is filling in for Rachael Wong, who is currently on maternity leave. Aschieris said that the two have developed a solid rapport, which has made the arrangement more tolerable for everyone.
“Teaming together has been super-helpful,” said Aschieris. “As far as the curriculum is concerned, we can divide and conquer, and hone in on our own lessons. The students are bored enough simply due to the fact that they are at home, so we want to liven things up.”
Aschieris said it is also helpful to have “a second pair of hands” due to enhanced technological requirements.
“There is a lot of work to do,” he said. “We have to create virtual break-out rooms and sharing the instructional and technological burdens has been beneficial and has created a true partnership. We have it down to a science. It is important that we understand the limitations of each student and what he or she can do. Distance learning is not a one-size-fits-all arrangement.”
Aschieris said the SPUSD did “a great job” over the summer of preparing educators for the longer run of distance learning, which most feel will last at least until the new year.
“Chad Bryant, our head of technology, presented us with new techniques for presentation. It was like we were given new tools. Also, our 5th-graders are old enough and have had enough experience with technology. This would be much harder if they were in kindergarten or 1st grade. The kids and the parents have been great. We are in a good flow and are learning which lessons work and which don’t work.”
While doing his level best to make the most of the challenging situation, Aschieris mourns the loss of interpersonal interaction among the students and staff members.
“They are social animals,” Aschieris said. “It is much more difficult for them to read each others’ cues and add on to a conversation or share an idea. The real tough part is for a kid who needs to see the process and see other people’s thought process to complete the learning equation. We also want to make sure each student is heard. Is their voice heard? If they have a question, are they assertive enough to let us know that they need help?
Over time we are developing an idea about how each student is progressing. Our biggest challenge is whether or not their needs being met and are they making us aware of that.”
A small portion of distance learning is actually beneficial, according to Aschieris.
“Because they are by themselves, the students are able to concentrate more on the work,” he said. “In essence, the actual academic information is easier for them to have access to while they are at home.”
Aschieris was also able to find a little humor that arose recently.
“The district has given every student a Chromebook, and there were a lot of things getting fed to one of our printers,” he explained. “I wasn’t printing anything and none of the other teachers were printing anything. As it turned out, the Chromebook that was being used by one of my students had been used by someone at the district and it still had the old settings.”
Aschieris feels that the pandemic has extended the workday for educators, a wrinkle experienced by many professions.
“It seems like I am working from 7 a.m. until I go to bed, but I feel like I should be there for my students all the time,” he said.
That being said, Aschieris is looking forward to the day life and learning returns to “normal,” whatever that will entail.
“I’m ready,” he said quickly. “When it happens, it is going to be kind of weird. There are a lot of mannerisms and behaviors the kids are going to have to learn when the students are together again. But I’m ready.”