No witchcraft, but ghosts of Covid have shaped a classroom in Salem, Massachusetts.

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SALEM, Mass. – It was late April at Witchcraft Heights Primary School, and Roneline Ramoutarsingh was still feeling nervous about Covid.

Not to get it herself. At this point, Ms. Ramoutarsingh, a third-grade teacher in Salem, Mass., Was fully immunized and confident enough that she had started pulling her mask down when she spoke to her students from the front of the room so that they wouldn’t don’t constantly ask him to repeat himself.

But she feared that a decision made in the classroom – letting children work in groups, for example – could trigger an epidemic and send her students back to distance learning. Earlier this month, shortly after five-day-a-week face-to-face learning resumed, several students had tested positive and nearly the entire class had to self-quarantine.

Some students were discouraged to be homebound again. And when only half of them showed up on Zoom during their quarantine, Ms Ramoutarsingh was also disheartened.

“I’m obviously all about working with kids,” said Ms. Ramoutarsingh, a nervous 35-year-old who addresses her students with affectionate words like “sugar” and “love bugs”.

But, she said, “Now I’m more careful because of what happened in the room.”

It was the kind of dilemma Ms. Ramoutarsingh faced many times this spring, as she tried to give her students the social and academic opportunities they had missed during months of distance learning, while balancing the safety protocols and, for several months, the challenge of simultaneously teaching students who were in person and at home.

For her students, a disruptive year of learning, which ended last week, has come at a critical time. In the third year, students are expected to finish mastering the basics of reading. They are also expected to learn multiplication and division and how to compare fractions.

The Times spent several days this spring visiting Ms Ramoutarsingh’s class as she navigated this year’s balance of learning while staying safe.

A complex picture of loss and resilience emerged.

The students had missed several months of math content when the school closed last spring, but ended up progressing at a mostly normal pace.

Reading instruction had been more difficult to transfer online, and students’ average reading achievement was lower than that of grade three students at the school the previous year.

The most surprising was an unexpected bonus. Ms. Ramoutarsingh had initially worried about how she would relate to her students in a year that had started completely remotely. In the end, she felt more deeply connected to them because of it.

“I have to see their homes,” she said. “I have to see their pets. I have to see their siblings.

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“It really brought their lived experience to my classroom in a way that I hadn’t been able to do before,” she added.

Salem, a city of 43,000 people on the coast north of Boston, is famous for the witch trials that took place there in the late 17th century. The school district’s approximately 3,900 students are mostly Hispanic and White, with small minorities of Black and Asian American students. More than half of the families in the district receive some form of government assistance.

Salem originally planned to start the 2020-21 school year with Kindergarten to Grade 3 in full-time school, but changed his plans in August when cases rose locally.

Ultimately, the district brought kindergarten back to full-time second grade in November, but didn’t invite all third-graders until January.

“There are times I wish we had more kids sooner,” Superintendent Stephen Zrike said in an interview, “but you try to deal with people’s stress levels as much as possible. . “

For Ms. Ramoutarsingh’s students, the challenges of the year have been both academic and social.

There were also small triumphs in the midst of the stress.

A nine-year-old boy named Jameson Dwan, who moved to Salem in the fall from a nearby district, said he didn’t have friends in his class for the first part of the year. Then one of his classmates, Akeem Ilboudo, invited him and the other classmates to join an extracurricular Zoom. Akeem quickly became his best friend.

“He just arrived and he was like the knight or something – the superhero,” Jameson said.

When the district decided to start the year remotely, it invited around 950 students it considered to be the most vulnerable – including students who were homeless or just starting to learn English and those who had not. no internet access at home – come and do their distance learning in classrooms. which he called “hub labs”, under the supervision of teachers or paraprofessionals. About two-thirds of the families accepted the invitation.

By the end of April, over 80% of the students in Witchcraft Heights had returned to school in person.

Unlike in other years, when Mrs. Ramoutarsingh gathered her students on a mat in front of the hall for lessons, this year they had to sit at individual desks, carefully separated. Between January and early April, when most students were only there in person for two days a week, many students in the class spent part of their day with their laptops out and their headphones on so they could hear their classmates. class at home.

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Even under these circumstances, said Ms Ramoutarsingh, many students did significantly better in school than online. 8-year-old Amadith Maradiaga Sanchez had been in the central lab since September. From January, he was in class with Ms. Ramoutarsingh four days a week.

“I had a lot of trouble establishing a relationship with him when he was in the central lab because it was difficult to navigate the technology, and he’s a very calm student, so he wouldn’t interact a lot with. distance, ”Ms. Ramoutarsingh said. .

After her return in person, she said, that changed.

“The first time he saw me in person he said, ‘I’m so excited you’re here, you’re so beautiful!’ », She remembers.

He was easily distracted and sometimes drowsy in the morning, so she sat him at the front of the room where she could periodically remind him to sit in a “learner position”. She gave him hard copies of the homework so he didn’t have to work on the computer. And, as was the case with many students, she urged him to be more independent – to start working on a math problem he had asked himself before immediately asking for help.

Distance learning months seem to have had the most impact on students’ reading progress.

Ms Ramoutarsingh said that when she taught in person, she usually gave a short lesson to the whole class, then worked with a small group while the rest of the students read independently. But online, she said, it had been unclear whether these students were actually reading or were distracted by other activities.

When the district tested the reading results in February and March, the results were concerning. A year earlier, in 2020, 32% of Grade 3 students in Witchcraft Heights had achieved the lowest level on the assessment (“Does not meet expectations”). This year, 52 percent have done so.

The school assigned its literacy specialists this spring to work primarily with students in Kindergarten to Grade 3, the students most affected by distance learning.

Ms Ramoutarsingh said that the teaching of mathematics had gone better from a distance, although some pupils still had difficulties. Two mothers said their sons were often reduced to tears of frustration during distance math lessons.

The frequent absences also slowed down the progress of some students. The fact that until April students could still connect online, they and parents felt that in-person participation was optional. A girl at the central lab often persuaded her mother to let her attend remotely rather than in person, Ramoutarsingh said, so she often did not show up after lunch when math classes were taking place.

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The district plans to use its federal relief funds to help late students catch up over the summer and into the next year.

It offers more places in summer school than ever before. Starting in the summer, the district will use new math and reading assessments that can be completed in about 20 minutes on a computer to identify student gaps.

Meanwhile, he hires dozens of part-time reading and math teachers who can work with students individually or in small groups to target these gaps. In several elementary schools, including Witchcraft Heights, the district will expand after-school programs to make time for these interventions.

As per state guidelines, Salem does not plan to offer families a fully distance learning option next year, outside of limited medical situations.

Thinking back to that school year, Ramoutarsingh described it as both rewarding and trying. She spent so much time in her home office creating Google Slides for distance learning or hybrid classes, that she had no idea what her own kids were doing in their homework remotely.

A really deep problem: the gossip, especially on social media, that the kids have had a “lost year”.

“It’s hurtful, because I feel like it rejects all the work the teachers have done this year, and I think it hurts the kids if they hear this story,” she said.

Instead, she has tried more than ever to recognize when her students are progressing.

In early April, a student named Jorgelis, whose mother tongue was Spanish and who had been in the central lab for priority students, scored 88% on a perimeter and area test.

“When I noticed it, I just gushed out,” Ms. Ramoutarsingh said. “I was like, ‘We have to celebrate this.'”

She emailed Jorgelis’ ESL teacher and the math coach she worked with. When Jorgelis arrived in the morning, they were already in Ms. Ramoutarsingh’s class, and the test was on Jorgelis’ desk. Once Jorgelis was installed, the professors rushed to her desk and congratulated her.

“She was like, ‘Wait, did I do that?’ and I said, ‘You did that!’ and I started to cry, “Ms. Ramoutarsingh later said.” And the other teachers were crying and the other children were saying, ‘Ms. Singh is crying!’

She added, “I have never been so proud to be an educator.”

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