City students, families, teachers adjust to new styles of learning during a year with pandemic

Ronald E. Carrington | 3/25/2021, 6 p.m.
Tisha Erby has four children attending Richmond Public Schools.
Tisha Erby keeps things moving and the learning going for her four school-age sons in their family’s home. The living room has been turned into a vibrant classroom, with desks and laptops for each of the boys. They are, from left, Emanuel, 3, a pre-schooler at Summer Hill Elementary; Christopher Jr., 13, a seventh-grader at River City Middle School; Elijah, 5, a kindergartner at J.L. Francis Elementary; and Lamar, 11, a sixth- grader at River City Middle. Seated in a high chair in the room, but not pictured, is year- old Tristan, who was working on his own activities given to him by his mom. Photo by Regina H. Boone

Tisha Erby has four children attending Richmond Public Schools.

There’s 3-year-old Emanuel who is in Summer Hill Elementary’s pre-school; Elijah, 5, a kindergartner at J.L. Francis Elementary; and Lamar, 11, and Christopher, 13, sixth- and seventh-graders, respectively at the new River City Middle School.

They love virtual learning, Ms. Erby said. And they are thriving.

Ms. Erby is home with them every day. It sometimes drives her insane, she said, because she also has a 1-year-old, Tristan, who cries when she pays more attention to the other children.

But even Tristan, enjoys the school activities of the older children, Ms. Erby said, especially physical education, movement or dancing. That’s when he tries to imitate his siblings, she said.

Since March 6, 2020, when Richmond schools were shut down because of COVID-19, the family’s South Side home has been turned into its own schoolhouse, with Ms. Erby sitting between Emanuel and Elijah to make sure they are not distracted from their schoolwork.

She also says the two elementary children interact online with their classmates and teacher using Chromebooks provided by RPS while doing a lot with hands-on writing, music and dance at home.

“My 3-year-old was typing all of the time until I made sure he learned to print. Now he is always printing verses typing,” she said. “I see my daily hard work paying off.”

While she is happy with all of her children’s progress, she is not happy about their ability to wander around the internet exploring websites not associated with their classes, playing games, listening to music and getting into other distractions that take them from their RPS instruction.

The older boys, she said, also prefer being in school and socializing with friends.

The past year under COVID-19 has been an adjustment for the thousands of Richmond students and their families, as well as for hundreds of teachers using some students are suffering under social isolation, family stress and technology that doesn’t always work.

Richmond School Board members, administrators, teachers and parents alike also are worried about education gaps created by the year under COVID-19, and what it may mean for students’future success, particularly once schools reopen for in-person learning in the fall.

At the School Board’s March 15 meeting, Tracy Epp, RPS’ chief academic officer, presented results from the Pho-nological Awareness Literacy Screening, or PALS, for elementary students between fall and winter 2020-21.

She said the report showed an average 8 percent drop in kindergarten growth in letter sounds; a 10 percent drop in proficiency in letter sounds; an 8 percent drop in reading proficiency; and a 7.4 percent growth in spelling for first- and second-graders.

Many teachers and families are supported, however, by Stay RVA, a solution-oriented, action-based organization of parents and others who help by delivering equipment to students — computers, instruments, worksheets or textbooks.

For students learning to play music in band and orchestra classes, teachers many times must meet them at their homes or at school to repair instruments.

On the positive side, art instructors said they have a variety of media platforms that help teach and support students on their level of performance. These platforms help teachers and students work together in real time, in large or small groups, in a shared electronic space. They said the technology was not available to them before the coronavirus shutdown.

While many art instructors said they are looking forward to schools reopening for in-person learning this fall, they want to make sure some of the technology and virtual platforms return to school with them to enhance future instruction.

RPS parent Amy Wentz said she listens to her 6-year-old daughter Zoe’s vir- tual classroom interaction every day. The teacher, she said, is bilingual in English and Spanish and proficient in the new teaching technology.

She said she has witnessed the students — from various ethnic backgrounds and with various skills — having fun learning at J.L. Francis Elementary.

“Their growth has been amazing,” Ms. Wentz said.

She said she is amazed to see Zoe’s classmates help each by doing little things — letting each other know when to turn the mute button on or off — and how they communicate with their teacher.

“Since September, Zoe’s class has gone from knowing only sight words to reading chapter books.

“My Zoe likes virtual learning and doesn’t want to go back to the classroom.”

However, Ms. Wentz, who works from home, said she is aware that everyone isn’t thriving in the virtual school environment. She said she regularly participates in School Board Zoom meetings and keeps up with the daily communications from the RPS administration.