To move ahead in the COVID era, elementary schools have to go back in time

Sophie Grosserode
Rockland/Westchester Journal News

Maddalena Andrade’s first-grade classroom at Post Road School in White Plains looks very different than it did a few months ago. It has an "old school" set up, but with stark reminders of why this school year is unlike any other.  

Each desk is its own island, spread six feet apart from its neighbors instead of placed together in groups. Affixed to the front of each desk are two name tags, one for each of the two students that will sit there on alternate days. 

An iPad sits on a tripod at the front of the room, which Andrade can move as she teaches her students remotely. White Plains is all-remote until hybrid instruction begins Sept. 21. 

Maddalena Andrade, right, a first grade teacher at the Post Road School in White Plains, shows Ruth Rodrigues and her daughter Beatriz, 5, a box of supplies she will use, during a tour of the school, Sept. 11, 2020.

Picture books with titles like “Lucy’s Mask” are propped up against the white board. The water fountain in the back of the room has been hidden by a smiling puppet, holding a little sign that reads “Wash your hands!” 

“It's important for the public to know how collaborative schools are,” said White Plains Superintendent Joseph Ricca. “So when we talk about physical distancing in schools, that is so not 21st century education, and that was a big hurdle for us.”

For years, the clear trend in elementary education was toward classrooms that would foster collaboration among students. Students sat together at tables rather than alone at desks. They were encouraged to work together, move around, and share both supplies and ideas. They no longer faced the same direction, like in decades past.

But at Post Road, and elementary schools everywhere, the need for a six-foot distance between people in the COVID era has sent classrooms back to the 20th century — minus the roving iPad.

“We're believers in progressive education,” said North Rockland Superintendent Kris Felicello. “We had a lot of those collaborative spaces, flexible seating, welcoming looking rooms….(now) it does look more like it did in the past.”

Several school districts in the Lower Hudson Valley still have students learning remotely for a few more weeks. But more students in the region are returning to school each week to become acquainted with classrooms that have old and modern features.

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'Being socially distanced is a challenge'

The philosophy behind so-called collaborative classrooms hasn't changed, despite COVID.

Classroom set-ups that encourage students to work and play together help students build interpersonal skills, said Elizabeth Smith, assistant professor in the School of Education at Pace University and former principal of George W. Miller Elementary School in Nanuet. 

Jesimae Ossorio, the principal of the Post Road School in White Plains, is pictured in the cafeteria, Sept. 11, 2020.

“Teaching right now, for early childhood, is all about being collaborative in the classroom, about children working in groups, because these are skills we know they need later for their school and careers,” Smith said.

“Very often the teacher is purposeful in how the students are sorted, so that kids can benefit from having that interaction with each other. Being socially distanced is a challenge for that.”

Small group work is increasingly popular in elementary classrooms, in part because when the entire class is learning together as individuals, a small portion of students are likely to be left out, said Jennifer Darling, principal of Concord Road Elementary School in Ardsley. 

“That's why I truly value small groups,” Darling said. “You have children that want to participate in whole groups, and then you have children who don't. It really gives an opportunity for all voices to be heard.”

Especially for young children, working together fosters socialization that is vital, said Leandra Fulgione, a third-grade teacher at Alice E. Grady Elementary in Elmsford.

“Being able to make the most important connection, the social-emotional connection, is very important for younger learners — to be able to sit close together, learn from one another and have that sense of feeling welcomed and included,” she said.

But this fall, schools have other priorities.

Joseph Ricca, the Superintendent of the White Plains Public Schools, is pictured in the library/media center at the Post Road School in White Plains, Sept. 11, 2020.

Fulgione’s students have been moved to individual desks, with a protective shield around each child.

At Concord Road, Darling is keeping kindergartners and first-graders at their tables, separated by polycarbonate dividers and limited to two students per table. But in all classrooms, K to 4, there is still an area for small-group instruction.

“The kids will always have their masks on, the polycarbonate barriers are there," Darling said. "So we hope to still move in that direction.” 

Darling said they aim to start utilizing Zoom breakout rooms, a feature that allows a meeting host to put participants in separate virtual groups within a session. This way students at home can benefit from being part of a small group as well.

Technology is the puzzle piece allowing schools to keep the collaborative environment alive at Post Road Elementary School, Principal Jesimae Ossorio said.

“Whether children are physically present in school or at home, we're still a class,” Ossorio said. “We have a morning meeting every day, to build that community. We also have a closing meeting every day. How did today go? They get to see each other."

'School is about those connections'

Flipping classrooms back to an exaggerated version of a 1970s class was a labor intensive effort, as well as a mandated educational switch. Districts had to move out a lot of tables, couches and furniture designed to bring kids together.

North Rockland needed an all-hands effort from facilities staff to put much of their collaboration-inducing furniture in storage and bring out single desks, Felicello said. 

But, he said, if there's a benefit to losing opportunities for collaboration, it's that everyone has been reminded how important connections really are, particularly at a time when students face all sorts of pressures, 

(One) of the positives that (came) out of going back in time, so to speak, is the realization that school is about those connections with kids,” Felicello said. 

“We're trying to take advantage of this and saying to our teachers, the most important thing, as we're opening our schools, is getting our kids in and building those relationships with them.”

Sophie Grosserode covers education. Click here for her latest stories. Follow her on Twitter @sdgrosserode. Check out our latest subscription offers here