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Upper Valley students, parents and educators navigate the age of remote learning

  • While working from home as head of school at Thetford Academy, Carrie Brennan and her son Henry Mann, 11, watch a Zoom meeting with one of his teachers at their home in Thetford, Vt., on Friday, May 8, 2020.(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • Ella Gessner, of Grantham, N.H., who is a ninth-grader at Lebanon High School, shares her chair with her cat Milo during a Zoom meeting for her social studies class on Thursday, May 7, 2020 at her home. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

  • During a Zoom meeting, Barb Coulter, who is a special educator at Thetford Elementary School, works with student Henry Mann, 11, on Friday, May 8, 2020. Mann's mother Carrie Brennan, who is head of school at Thetford Academy, carves out portions of the day to work with her children and the staff at Thetford Academy.(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • Daniel Mann, 11, of Thetford, Vt., takes a physical education break while his mother Carrie Brennan throws the ball for their dog Lila at their home in Thetford, on Friday, May 8, 2020.(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/9/2020 8:52:16 PM
Modified: 5/9/2020 8:52:10 PM

When Vermont and New Hampshire closed their school buildings in mid-March, students, parents and educators scrambled to embark on a far-reaching experiment in remote learning.

Now, nearly two months in, interviews with Upper Valley students, educators and parents give an idea of the shape that experiment has taken so far, and hint at its results. Students who were faring well in school appear to be faring well learning at home. In some cases, they are doing even better, learning at their own pace and finding time away from their busy school schedules to pick up new skills and follow other interests.

For students who were struggling, or for whom the school day was an oasis of structure, remote learning is often a challenge, not only for students but for their families. Special education students, some of whom have one-on-one aides for an entire school day, are at home with parents who aren’t always equipped to provide educational supports.

In other cases, students have fallen off the map entirely. They might lack reliable internet service, or be in an unstable home situation. School social workers and truant officers have made the rounds in some districts to check on the welfare of students who haven’t been communicating with teachers.

“It’s definitely a challenge for all kiddos,” whether they’re in regular or special education settings, said Ben Nester, special education director at SAU 6 in Claremont.

The variety of experiences with remote learning is as great as the variety of students and schools in the Upper Valley. What most concerns educators are the ways in which remote learning amplifies inequities in students’ ability to learn. Some students will regress, losing hard-won attainments. Others sail along.

As a freshman at Lebanon High School, Grantham resident Ella Gessner’s school days were full from the minute she got in the car with her brother, Eric, a senior who drives to school, until she finished her homework after dinner. She had a class every period and is a three-season athlete.

Studying at home, she isn’t so busy.

“I definitely feel like I’m learning school-related stuff,” Ella, 15, said in a phone interview.

She just isn’t learning quite as much of it. The pace is slower, the workload is lighter, and she undertakes her assignments with a greater willingness than she ever did her homework.

She welcomes the relaxed pace. She can take a real lunch break and go for walks. She’s been cooking and baking more and watching movies beyond her previous range of interest. The easier workload seems sensible.

“I think they’re being pretty considerate of the times that we’re living in right now,” she said.

Her father, Thomas Gessner, a software engineer, is working from home. Neither he nor his wife, Birgit, a dietitian, feel a need to intervene in their children’s schoolwork.

“I think my wife and I are pretty lucky they are the age they are, because they are independent,” Gessner said, adding that he doesn’t expect this stretch of remote learning to have “any adverse effect in the long term.”

Staying connected

Schools have had to balance the need to keep students learning with the reality of life at home and life during a pandemic. Connection to the school community is as important as the academic work.

Early on, Thetford Academy heard “feedback from students and parents that students would benefit from more person-to-person experience,” said Carrie Brennan, the academy’s head of school. And “some of the feedback was that students had too much work,” she added.

“Basically, we had to pace ourselves,” Brennan said.

Hartford Memorial Middle School sixth grader Madison Moore said she’s in touch with her teachers daily.

“I think seeing your teachers every day is really, really important,” she said.

Being in contact with eight teachers offsets how much she misses her friends. While that contact is helpful, she isn’t working as hard as she was working in school.

“I feel like there’s definitely less work than there was when we’re in school, and I feel we’re definitely not learning as much as we were,” she said.

Madison’s father, Brian Moore, said he’s been very impressed with the work the middle school’s teachers are doing.

“It’s kept Maddie engaged and still wanting to do schoolwork,” he said. “The biggest driver in the success of the program is the amount of connection the kids have with the teachers and each other.”

Plaudits came from parents inside the education system as well.

“I’ve been really in awe of teachers at Thetford Academy and also at Thetford Elementary School, where I’m a parent, at this incredible pivot that many of our teachers have made,” said Brennan, who noted that teachers had to “put themselves in the learner’s seat” to make the switch to remote learning.

For the most part, teachers are staying in touch with students via email and through such videoconferencing tools as Zoom and Google Meet.

Even before the public health crisis, most schools were using such platforms as Google Classroom to assign work to students and to track their submissions. Now, most students have daily assignments in their core classes, particularly math and English, while other subjects might have assignments once a week. Some school districts hold classes on the internet, while nearly all hold regular advisory classes, at least weekly, where students meet with their advisory teacher, who might have been called a “homeroom teacher” in generations past.

Madison Moore has a Google Meet every day in which her teacher “talks about some announcements and everything we need to know,” she said.

Even so, education moves more slowly: Where Madison used to be able to raise her hand and ask a question, now she sends an email and sometimes gets an answer the next day. At most schools, teachers have set up weekly “office hours,” when they can be reached for a video chat.

Thetford Academy set up a tab on its website titled “RemoteTA,” where students can find activities, school announcements, an overview of the school’s remote learning plan, contact information and other resources. The page started out as a way to inform the school community, but it’s evolved into a hub, Brennan said.

Managing limitations

Still, there are limits to what teachers can manage in this new environment. Children bring their backgrounds to school with them, but what happens when the background becomes the foreground and school is a distant building?

In considering students more broadly, Nester said it will be hard to gauge the effects of remote learning. Claremont schools are planning an assessment in the fall to see “where kids are” in their learning.

“I guess the thing that we’re all grappling with is what skills are going to be lost during this time, if any,” Nester said.

Students report that they’re learning less, regardless of the engagement of their teachers. At a particular disadvantage are special education students, some of whom work with a one-on-one teacher or aide, and might see specialists in speech therapy or occupational therapy during the school day. For students who are profoundly disabled, progress at home depends heavily on parents.

Claremont has 30 special education teachers and around 80 paraprofessionals who work with special education students. They currently offer a range of support to parents, including daily direct instruction via video chat, as well as recorded video instruction, Nester said.

Interactions with students vary by family, though. Some interact with school staff daily. Others have been hard to reach. Internet access at home is a barrier, but “it’s also contingent on the family’s interest in receiving communication from a special educator,” Nester said.

Even when families are in contact with educators, the effort of aiding a special education student through remote learning can be onerous.

Brennan and her husband, Michael Mann, who is teaching English at Thetford Academy as a long-term sub, have 11-year-old twins. Daniel is an independent sixth grader. His brother, Henry, is developmentally disabled. “It takes a 100% parent involvement” for Henry to access remote learning, Brennan said. And that learning is intensive.

He has speech language therapy three mornings a week, time with a special educator and a paraeducator learning about colors and letters, occupational therapy, adaptive physical education and other sessions, all via Zoom. Thetford Elementary, she said, is doing an amazing job.

“We’re pretty fortunate we have two educator parents in the household, but it’s very challenging for us, and I would imagine it’s very challenging for other families,” Brennan said.

For Henry, remote learning is a bridge to returning to in-person instruction, she said, not a replacement.

“It certainly is a lot harder to deliver services,” said Barb Coulter, a special educator at Thetford Elementary. “We’re sort of learning as we go along what works and what doesn’t work,” she added.

Special education teachers function both as educators and as case managers, who make sure students receive the care set out in their Individualized Education Program, or IEP. During remote learning, schools are required to keep working toward students’ IEP goals. Coulter said her school’s approach is to give families as many points of contact as possible, ranging from online resources to materials they can either pick up at the school or have dropped off.

“We’re just trying to give families a lot of conduits,” she said. Some families, it’s plain to see, are overwhelmed.

“I’m sure some things will be lost,” Coulter said. “I don’t know how they couldn’t be.”

Tech requirements

At the outset, schools had to make sure all students, even down to first grade, were equipped with technology that would provide access to educational resources. Thetford Academy deployed laptops from the school to make sure everyone had what they needed, Brennan said.

Claremont helped families without high-speed internet service to set up wireless hotspots.

Even so, families without service either must go in search of it, often at school buildings or libraries, work around it or do without. In Vermont’s remote Northeast Kingdom, spotty high-speed internet service has forced some teachers to park their cars on school grounds so they can log into meetings with students, according to VtDigger.

Blue Mountain Union School, a pre-K to 12 school in Wells River, last Monday received a donation of 250 Chromebook computers from internet service provider Comcast, a gift arranged by the state Attorney General’s Office.

“As we transition to remote learning, every kid should have a laptop,” Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan said in a phone interview. He has a relationship with Comcast, through his office’s regulatory authority, Donovan said, so he called the company’s “government relations guy” and the company agreed to make a donation. (Comcast’s CEO, Brian Roberts, donated $5 million in late March so Philadelphia schoolchildren would have home computers during the public health crisis.)

At the start of remote learning, all Blue Mountain students in grades 7 to 12 had Chromebooks, said Scott Blood, the school’s elementary principal.

“We felt that we needed to find a way to get devices for fifth- and sixth-grade students,” Blood said. The school purchased Chromebooks for those grades, which left the school still in need of devices for younger elementary pupils. The gift from Comcast also provides computers for elementary paraeducators who didn’t already have a school-issued device, Blood said.

Even so, “we have a lot of areas in our district that don’t have great access to the internet,” he said. Blue Mountain comprises Wells River, Ryegate and Groton.

Schools with robust technology and internet service face other barriers to internet-based learning.

While Thetford Elementary uses Zoom for communication between teachers and students, not all families are able to work with it.

“I have two that I don’t see at all through the Zoom platform, just because families say it’s not going to work,” Coulter said. Some families find it easier to pick up packets of materials and hand it in by photographing it and emailing it to teachers.

And not all schools are making use of the internet. Savannah Bernard, a senior at Claremont Christian Academy is doing her coursework on paper.

“My school’s not very tech-y,” she said.

She picks up a packet on Monday and turns it back in the following Monday, when she picks up the next one. Her teachers are available via email, Facebook or Instagram, she said.

For public schools, it’s possible that three months of remote learning could lead to more lasting change, though the shape of that change won’t be clear for some time.

“I think there’s a lot to learn from the experience and can imagine that schooling and learning will look different going forward,” said Brennan, of Thetford Academy. “It’s hard to predict right now, but I think certainly there’s a lot to learn from this environment.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at or 603-727-3207.

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