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'We're doing what we can' | Parents and teachers weigh in on COVID-19, at-home learning

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced at least 43 states to order or suggest schools to close.

At least 43 states across the country have ordered or urged schools to close for the rest of the year. 

That means more than 40 million students will now be learning from home, and that includes students right here in East Tennessee, from seniors to the state's littlest learners.

Being the mom of a senior at Austin-East High School is LaSheka Jones's pride and joy. 

“When she does things I feel like it’s happening to me,” Jones said. “I’m probably more excited than she is.”

Her daughter Aaliyah is headed to Fisk University.

“Not being at school right now has just shifted my focus straight to college,” Aaliyah said.

But that does not mean she isn't looking forward to all of the traditions that come with ending four years as a high school student. Aaliyah is also top 10 in her class.

“We haven't taken cap and gown pictures, we haven’t heard anything about prom and we haven’t heard anything about graduation,” she said. 

With schools closed for districts across the country, many parents and students are left wondering what this means for them and how will they make it work. 

That includes Lee Forgety. He is working from home and so is his first grader, Emma.

"Tadah," Emma said as she worked at her dad's computer.

“This is all just a complete adjustment and we've just got to figure out as it comes,” Forgety said. 

While he sits at the kitchen table, Emma works at the desk and together they craft their own workspace.

An hour away from Forgety in Monroe County parents feel creating a workspace is hard.

“I feel like in our area because our technology is so outdated, and we don’t have high-speed internet,” she said. “So as a parent I feel alone trying to teach him material that’s critical to his education. “

Belinda Allen knows that feeling all too well. She has a family in Sweetwater as well.

“We’ve found it difficult and trying not having access to the internet here,” she said.

“A lot of people typically think, 'Oh this generation is tech-savvy. They have tech in front of them all the time. This should not be hard for them,' and I find it quite the opposite," she said.

Elizabeth MacTavish, a clinical assistant professor of STEM Education at UT, said working learning from home is something that will change our the way our education system works.

“And really develop that blueprint for what can we do better to support our students to support our teachers in going forward,”  she added.

But it has also pushed us to take a look at what's working and what is not working.

“It’s kind of exposed some of the holes in our system our ability to transition with ease it’s really brought to light some inequities,” MacTavish said.

Since COVID-19 became a pandemic, the topic of inequities has been at the forefront of many conversations, and teachers add it is not lost on them that some students face barriers.

“Some days it’s great and then some days you know you're working very hard,” first grade teacher Christy Bruchey said. 

“I read Junie B. Jones to my students,” she said.

For Bruchey, the time away from her students has been hard.

“I miss them tremendously when my son and I found out we wouldn’t be able to go back to school we were both crying," she said.

Over at Lenoir City Middle School, Rachel Browder is having fun with distance learning but understands the barriers that come with it.

“Barriers would be being able to reach every kid, I have 60 kids in a Zoom meeting, but what about the other 90 I haven’t been able to reach,” she said. 

She teaches 6th grade English language arts and loves it.

“It's been very interesting to see how well they are adapting,” she said. 

Her district is a one to one district, which means every student has a device they can use for schoolwork. A couple of times a week she sees her students face to face on Zoom to check-in and guide them.

"Hey guys how are you doing," Browder said as she logged on for another class meeting.

She adds that even after the lesson is over if they need to talk a little longer she is always there to listen.

“They are kids they have fears and they are looking for their teacher to stay consistent,” she said.

But in the end she, Bruchey, Jones, Vasquez and Forgety agree everybody is doing the best they can until they can do more.

“The lesson is kids are resilient, we can overcome and defeat that challenge with the itty bitty resources we are given,” Browder said.

Students like Browder's will now finish about a 3rd of their school year at home, but teachers and parents believe the way forward is to address the barriers and figure out how to best serve our students. 

The State Board of Education has always ready taken steps to try to help schools get through this transition. That includes a set of emergency rules it passed in early April, creating a unified grading system and lowering graduation requirements for seniors. 

However, board members added the plan was only a starting point, things would probably change in the future and some of the rules could last longer than anticipated.

School districts including Sevier, Anderson, Campbell among many more have already pledged to continue distance learning for the rest of the year.

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