Fairfield’s new kind of ‘homeschool’

Dressed in scrubs for Medical Monday in her new virtual school, Geiger Elementary School child development teacher Nicole Hunter conducts class via her iPhone while her daughter Elizabeth (4) and guinea pig Marshmallow look on. Hunter was recently named Geiger’s Teacher of the Year. | Martha Ladd

RIDGEWAY – It was during the week of March 9 that Nicole Collins Hunter, a child development teacher for four year olds, at Geiger Elementary in Ridgeway, and her fellow teachers were advised by school administrators to begin preparing remote learning packets for their students in case of a shutdown of schools due to the coronavirus pandemic.

On March 13, Governor Henry McMaster pulled the trigger on something that Hunter, in her 13 years of teaching, five of them at Geiger, had never envisioned – teaching her students remotely. It was something the students’ parents had also not envisioned – facilitating that teaching from home.

 Everything was happening fast for the students, the teachers and the parents.

“We had to submit our work packet by the end of the workday. The doors closed behind the teachers, and by Tuesday morning, the students were picking up their remote learning packets as they will continue to do on Monday mornings through the end of April.

They would be learning at home.

Hunter would be teaching from home.

For the past week and a half, Hunter has been instructing her students from her new makeshift classroom, formerly her family’s dining room. On screen, it offers the same bright, cheerful walls and atmosphere as her classroom in the now empty school building.

It is from her dining room, now, that she typically begins her school day online at 9 a.m. with two consecutive 30 minute “office” periods in which parents can ask questions and/or address any concerns they have about their own contributions to their child’s school day.

At 9:30 a.m. instruction time begins in earnest on Google Meet. During the next 45 minute time slot, Hunter posts activities for students to complete that go along with her instruction on Flipgrid and in Google Classroom. Those activities are available 24 hours for students to submit at any time.

The 14-day work packets she prepared for her students include hands-on activities for ELA and math, login information for online resources, books, websites and school supplies which included crayons, construction paper, glue sticks and pencils. Hunter said she added Play-Doh and stickers to her packets as extra resources.

“Communication is key to making remote learning successful,” Hunter said. “I use ParentSquare, a communication platform the Fairfield County School District is using to communicate with parents and guardians.”

Hunter shares her schedule with her students’ parents or guardians as well as Google Meet information for instruction time, her office hours and online resources, etc.

While remote learning was initially daunting, Hunter said she is adjusting.

“I feel more comfortable as each day passes,” she said.

Unfortunately, not all of Hunter’s students have internet access, but most parents are able to use their cell phones to download the appropriate apps for their children to participate in e-learning.

“If students aren’t able to participate online, they can complete the packet of work I created for them,” Hunter said.

“This is a time of much uncertainty for all of us, but I’m available to my students and parents 24 hours a day, either online in a Google Meet, during my office hours, via email, or by messaging on ParentSquare,” Hunter said.

With two school-age daughters of her own, Hunter juggles family time around weekdays since her girls are schooled at home as well.

“It’s all about balance. When I have a break in my teaching schedule, I always try to do something with my girls. We go outside, ride bikes, swing, etc. Having a routine each day is helpful for everyone. They know what to expect, and I’m able to complete my work to the best of my ability for my students. Everyone wins!” she said.

As teachers, students and parents learn the ropes of remote teaching and learning, posts are popping up on social media comically depicting frustrated parents, and students eager to get back into the school setting with real teachers and many teachers, like Hunter, at their best under difficult circumstances.