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Anderson County virtual first graders navigate classes like college students

In Anderson County, virtual elementary teachers sit in empty classrooms, teaching students how to log on for lessons before the kids even know how to read.

ANDERSON COUNTY, Tenn. — Some of the youngest students in Anderson County are navigating the school day like they're in college, before they even know how to read.

Inside Norwood Elementary School in Oliver Springs, first grade teachers Lori Nickelson and Jamie Rhea sat in an empty classroom preparing for the school day.

There were no kids accounted for in the room, but around 9:15 a.m. they slowly appeared on the computer screen in virtual boxes, ready and eager to learn.

“It’s kind of sad looking," Nickelson nodded. "It’s kind of bare. I know I miss having the comradery of the kids in here.”

Nickelson greeted each one with a "good morning!" and wave before the lesson started. Rhea watched and took notes at the beginning of the day. The warm up activity got each child's brain moving, as they learned how to sound words out.

The reality of the pandemic is those first graders are learning how to read through a computer screen.

Nickelson and Rhea spend all day in the same classroom Nickelson has taught in for two decades. This is the first year of her 21-year career there have been no students in seats.

Each teacher takes turns live streaming and recording lessons in front of the camera, something neither ever dreamed of doing before the pandemic.

"We're basically building the ship as we sail it, so it's interesting, but I mean I feel like we're doing a fairly decent job with it," Rhea admitted.

They are expert multitaskers, balancing three laptop screens at one time. They switch between Zoom and Google Classroom, watching their email and making sure parents aren't calling them in distress through each lesson.

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Both teachers admit they have taken their work home with them and feel like they never stop working. They admit it's getting better as time passes, but still find themselves thinking of things for their class in the middle of the night.

"There were very much days that I just wanted to pull my hair out, but I kept going and I have learned these programs and I think I’m doing pretty well with it," Nickelson laughed.

The kids' schedules look a lot like a college student's. Each class and break is well-planned out and orchestrated to get them through each subject.

"They're getting on and off Zooms, they're going in to Google Classroom, I mean for first graders, they are navigating a lot of new things," Rhea smiled. "They are very tech savvy! We never thought they would get this stuff done.”

Anderson County has elementary teachers solely dedicated to virtual learning. Each school is different, but the school district's virtual elementary coordinator, Lyndsay Foust, is over 15 teachers. She helps coordinate the online platform, curriculum and family experience.

Foust said it has always been Anderson County's intention to focus on the students. That's why they chose the option for certain teachers to focus on virtual rather than creating blended classrooms.

"With kids, especially elementary school, it's so nice to have that more one-on-one individualized instruction and it would have been more difficult with a classroom of in-person kids and virtual kids," Foust explained.

It's so when this classroom is filled again, it's like no one ever left. There are two options for virtual learning: the hybrid path allows students to watch live lessons on Zoom. The full-time virtual path means students are watching recorded lessons each day.

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"We want them to receive the exact same education in-person students are receiving, the best we can," Foust said.

Virtual teachers are putting in extra hours for lessons, hoping those tiny boxes on the screen will turn back in to students in seats soon.

"I'd love to have my kids back in here with me, but at this point, you know, I don't know what the future holds," Nickelson shrugged.

When asked what the most challenging part of virtual learning is, Nickelson and Rhea both said organization and not being able to hug their kids.