First day of school has ups and downs for Richmond families with online learning
Ronald E. Carrington | 9/10/2020, 6 p.m.
When the first day of school came to an end Tuesday, Richmond Public Schools parents Safiya and Kendell Wilson happily exhaled.
Their sons, Kevin, 8, and Kyle, 6, are students at Chimborazo Elementary School. Kevin is in third grade, while Kyle is a first-grader.
The brothers had an easy time logging on with their Chromebooks and being on time for the first day after a quick walk-through by Kyle’s teacher.
The Wilsons, who both work at night, were standing by to help out. They said they will do whatever needs to be done to make sure their sons stay excited and engaged as they work with their classmates and complete online and offline assignments.
For 24,000 RPS students and parents, this was a first day like no other. Because of the coronavirus, students will be learning online for at least the first semester.
“We are all about opening with love,” RPS Superintendent Jason Kamras said on Tuesday. “The administration knows virtual learning is new and scary. That’s why our mantra is ‘Low Stress. High Grace.’ Shower everyone with grace.”
Grace settled in at the Wilson household.
“Kevin and Kyle saw about 10 to 12 of their classmates and friends, as well as their teachers as they introduced themselves,” Mrs. Wilson said. “There were enough students on the screen to know that they understood the process. Thankfully, they got it.”
Throughout the first day, the youngsters had “small assignments,” Ms. Wilson said. “First Kyle did 10 jumping jacks while Kevin put together a puzzle with his class.
“My husband and I were excited because Kevin and Kyle were excited about school. It is working out,” she said. “So far, so good.”
But things were not going so smoothly for other families on Tuesday.
Sundae Smith, a single mother working the night shift at Tyson Foods, said she didn’t think RPS was ready for virtual teaching and students were not ready to try it.
Picking up lunch at Holton Elementary School for her 6-year-old daughter, Shaylynn, a first-grader, and her 3-year-old China Barksdale, a preschooler who was to attend Mary Scott Elementary, Ms. Smith felt overwhelmed and talked about chaos in the school.
“No one seems to know exactly what we are doing or what’s going on,” she said. “It feels like the district is winging it.”
To compound her frustrations, Ms. Smith said she does not have a desk at home for Shaylynn and will need to find a quiet space in her home for her daughter to participate in virtual learning every day.
Ms. Smith also wondered how preschoolers, with their very short attention span, will sit in front of a computer or laptop screen and learn.
Asked if she watches RPS School Board meetings or informational updates and discussions for parents and students on Zoom, Ms. Smith replied, “No, because my night shift does not allow the time.”
In an interview early Tuesday morning, Mr. Kamras acknowledged there would be some technological bumps as the school system, students and family get back into the educational groove.
Mr. Kamras and his wife have two sons Ezra, 11, a sixth-grader at Henderson Middle School, and Akiva, 9, at Holton Elementary School.
He said the first week is for parents and students to get acclimated to the new teaching process and to work through any technical issues so everyone becomes comfortable.
“We want everyone to be able to really dive in the second week,” Mr. Kamras said. “We have instructed teachers to not give tests or new material the first two weeks so that students can easily adjust to the new instructional format.”
While more than 16,000 Chromebooks were issued to students during the summer, more laptops were needed and are now on backlog and expected by the end of September. RPS issued tablets to students in the interim.
Additionally, tech support has been stepped up for teachers and families as the daily log-in volume has increased for full scale scheduling and ensuring access to assignments.
For families needing desks for their children, RPS is distributing 300 desks through the nonprofit organization, JUST C, that is purchasing additional desks to give to students in Central Virginia. The desks can be picked up by families and educational pods at Clark Springs Elementary School in the West End by contacting Chenice Johnson at JUST C at (804) 244-0231.
The RPS administration has said it will have monthly updates for the School Board on the progress of virtual learning, as well as data on COVID-19 and vaccination availability to determine whether in-person learning will restart for the second semester, which begins Feb. 8.
On Tuesday morning, Jessica Stewart sat on a bench in front of Carver Elementary School after picking up food for her four children. Her youngest, Dontae Taylor Jr., is in kindergarten at Carver.
The three older children are at Thomas Jefferson High School— Jamel Stewart, 17, a senior; J’Kayah Stewart, 16, a junior; and J’Kayla Stewart, 15, a freshman. All are computer savvy, enjoy virtual learning and did well following the shutdown in March when the coronavirus forced the closure of schools statewide for in-person learning.
Ms. Stewart is confident the fall semester will go well for her children. She also said she feels it’s best for them to learn at home during the pandemic.
“The online reopening is probably better for my children to learn,” Ms. Stewart said. “There is a lot of technology in the world. They will be able to use it now. All of my children have computers. This is something students should have had already.”