Planning for coronavirus closures, this Colorado teacher made conferences a crash course for parents

The last week of school before the coronavirus closure for Kay Erickson felt similar to a looming snowstorm forecast. Something was going to happen — but what, exactly?

Erickson teaches kindergarten at Aspen Elementary School in the Colorado mountain resort community. She’s been in the classroom for 22 years. With its large number of tourists, Aspen was one of the first communities in Colorado to have a confirmed case of COVID-19, but it lagged slightly behind other districts before deciding on March 13 to close for an extended period.

Some parents didn’t send their children to school at all. Time in the classroom was set aside for hand-washing lessons, with students proudly showing how good a job they did scrubbing away a purple marker dot that was put on their fingertips.

In that waiting period, Erickson had a gut feeling and prepared, sending her students home with learning materials and using parent-teacher conferences to give parents pointers. She feels “blessed” that every student was able to pick up a device before school closed for the rest of the semester and that she’s been able to connect with each of her 17 students, though not all of her families feel ready to engage with online learning.

She spoke with Chalkbeat about her last lesson before school closure, how she approaches remote learning, and how she recreates classroom rituals in Google Hangouts.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What advice would you give parents who are being asked to teach their children at home amid the coronavirus outbreak?

Kids love routines and schedules. Start the day and decide how and where learning will take place. Be sure to make a balance of learning and breaks. If anyone becomes frustrated, take a break. If the teacher assigns too much work, be sure to communicate with them. We are all in this together, and sometimes less is more.

How are you adapting to remote learning? What about your students — how are they adjusting?

The first two weeks were hard. I had two days to build my Google Classroom, help parents get students set up in online apps, and develop lesson plans. Parents and myself were frustrated with logins and passwords. Now we are mostly connected and running. I am very lucky in that all of my students have a device or were able to borrow one from the school.

I have made 15-minute time slots in Google Hangouts where I meet once a week with each kid. It’s almost like a small one-on-one tutoring session. Having that face-to-face time with each student is so important to me, letting them know how important they are. The students love showing me what they have been up to, and they always adjust so much quicker than the adults. Once you say hi and hear what they’ve been up to, you’re down to 12 minutes, but you can do a lot with a kindergartener in 12 minutes. We talk about some ways to practice a high-frequency word and we always model writing a sentence and we always model how to do a math problem.

And parents, even if it seems like they are not in the room, they’re listening, and they come back later and say “oh, that’s how you do that.”

In this moment, what can parents realistically expect of teachers who are working remotely?

A guideline of activities to try or do. At this age level, students can work independently on an app, but I feel there should be a balance between screen time and working with others. I have expectations from parents asking what is the least amount of work they can do because of their schedule and parents who want activities for all day. What is wonderful is how so many companies have waived fees for apps and so many virtual field trips. The amount of resources I am finding is amazing.

Teacher Kay Erickson in her home classroom. (Courtesy Kay Erickson)

In turn, what can teachers realistically expect of parents now?

Parents are doing their best. We never know what is happening in other people’s lives. Be sure to take breaks, and communicate if the expectation is too easy or hard with the teacher so they can plan accordingly. I always reassure parents, “I understand this is not your job.”

And the children who are out of school — what can we expect of them?

Kids are naturally curious. They learn so much through play, asking questions, trying things out, and through books or websites. Most students who have access to materials they can use to learn, will naturally gravitate to learning. Hopefully we can find or create opportunities that they can enjoy because if you are enjoying something, you will want to do more of it. If learning becomes a chore, it will become a struggle.

Tell me about your last day in the classroom before schools shuttered.

We were having parent-teacher conferences when the school first started talking about the possibility of closing. So conferences turned into, this is how you teach reading and math to your child in 25 minutes. I prepared a little bit more than some of my teammates because I had a good feeling this was going to happen. I sent home three paper books, easy readers for kindergarteners, with high frequency words in the back and words they can sound out. And I gave them handwriting books so they could practice their handwriting.

I ran parents through how I teach these books. It built their confidence right away, instead of “I have nothing, and I don’t know what to do.”

And what about your last day with your students?

I always have them leave with a hug or a high five, so they have some contact. We had huge hugs that day. Now, when I end my videoconferencing, we do air hugs and blow kisses. Even the kids who hated it, they do it because they miss that extra contact. I consider it a huge respect from the parents to allow the teachers to come into their homes like that.

You advocated for the first week out of school to be a “mental health” week rather than a work week. Why did you think that was important, and what did you do with your week?

That last week, we had staff members who were in tears because they had to go to work, and they were afraid for their spouses’ or their kids’ health. We had staff who were fine and for whom it had not registered. When they found out about the mental health week, a lot of staff broke down in tears. Some teachers used that time to prepare. I used it to concentrate on my house and myself. I thought about the work space, but I also read books and took baths and thought about other things. And I have a coworker who cried for three days. This hasn’t happened to us for a long, long time. My grandmother talks about polio, and that was a different world.

What’s the best advice you ever received — and how have you put it into action?

There will always be more to do. You have to find a balance of taking care of yourself, your family, and being the best teacher you can be. If you are out of balance in one area, it does affect the others.