By OWEN WALSH
LAKE ARIEL, PA — Last September, with summer vacation ending and a new school year just days away, Western Wayne High School chemistry teacher Maria Masankay was feeling “mixed emotions.” Six months had passed since she last shared a classroom with her students, and a lot had changed.
“I wanted to see the kids, I wanted to get back into some kind of normalcy; there’s something about being in a school with your students there and you get to see them face-to-face—you make relationships with them,” Masankay said. “But I was apprehensive because we were doing Google livestreaming,” meaning that she’d be simultaneously teaching students in the classroom and other students at home, “it’s a lot easier to see the clues that a kid doesn’t understand [something] when they’re in front of you than when they’re not.”
Like nearby Wayne Highlands and Wallenpaupack Area school districts, Western Wayne offered three options to parents and students to return to school amid COVID-19: learn in-person at school, learn from home by viewing livestreams of your classes in real-time, or learn through an asynchronous online program in a standard cyberschool environment.
Crafting her lesson plans to be tailored to both in-person and virtual students has essentially doubled Masankay’s regular workload.
“It takes a lot of time because, basically, what you’re doing is planning two separate lessons [in one],” she said. “For the kids online who can’t necessarily do the activities I have planned for the students in-person, I have to make sure that they have something that is equitable… so that they can learn what we’re learning in the classroom.”
Before the school year could even get underway, school districts in Pennsylvania had to complete extensive health and safety plans laying out all the new social distancing, cleaning and scheduling procedures necessary to mitigate the school’s role in the spread of the virus.
“There’s a heck of a lot more that we’ve had to deal with as a result of the pandemic,” superintendent Matt Barrett said. He added that the school has utilized several early dismissal days when students go home and complete their work asynchronously giving faculty a chance to “debrief” and “better plan for the weeks ahead.”
With these health and safety protocols in place, Masankay has felt confident that she’s not at risk of getting sick with COVID-19 while teaching. Her concerns are more centered on keeping up the quality of students’ educations with so much else going on. She’s teaching her material more slowly, because it’s been harder for students to stay focused, “just like when you’re hungry, you can’t focus either.”
Masankay has also had to rework her curriculum to allow for social distancing: This isn’t the year for students to be shoulder-to-shoulder around a bunsen burner as they work through a chemistry lab.
“In the past, my philosophy was the students don’t sit by themselves at a single desk; all the desks were grouped in sets of four or five so that they could work together utilizing problem-solving and learning how to work as a group,” she said. “I can’t do that anymore… and there are some labs that I just can’t possibly do.”
To include the livestreaming students on activities, Masankay has purchased phone stands so that those at home can watch other students’ hands as they work with lab equipment. “Can they touch it, can they use it? No. But at least they can see their classmates doing it.”
There has been no widespread infection of COVID-19 within the district to interrupt the school year.
“We’ve had a few cases of COVID throughout the district, they were isolated situations so we were thankfully able to identify all close contacts,” Barrett said. “We worked with the Department of Health to identify those individuals, contact the families, have them quarantine… but thankfully very limited and isolated [cases].”
Compared to the rest of Pennsylvania, Wayne County as a whole has had a relatively low infection rate for the virus, which is what allowed local school districts to do in-person learning in the first place. Lately, cases throughout PA have been rising at record rates. If Wayne follows suit, local districts may have no choice but to suspend in-person learning. Barrett said he’s optimistic but preparing for whatever comes next.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen in the coming weeks; we are prepared to shift to either a hybrid or fully virtual mode of education, but we’re hoping to maintain in-person instruction as long as possible,” he said. “Until it’s recommended or apparent that we need to shift gears, we’re going to continue on as long as we can.”
Masankay may miss the days when her students could sit together and collaborate, or when she could actually recognize their faces as they walked into class unshrouded by masks, but she said all she can do now is make the best of the situation.
“I would like to see our kids get the best education possible given the circumstances,” she said. “I think we’re all doing the best that we can—students and faculty—I’d like to go back to normal, but I don’t know necessarily what normal is anymore.”