Seen through a sliding glass door, Noah Hall, wife Jessica and children Evan, 6, and Ruby, 2, sit at the kitchen table of their Salem home on Wednesday, April 23. The Halls are both elementary school teachers who are currently teaching classes from phone via video while also caring for Ruby and helping Evan with his kindergarten classwork. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

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Aside from daily walks with his family, Noah Hall hasn’t left his house in over a month.

Like many Salem parents, he’s doing his best to care for his kids and keep them engaged in remote school while also working at home.

His challenge? He and his wife Jessica are both Salem-Keizer teachers, juggling their own elementary school classrooms with their son Evan’s kindergarten work, and 2-year-old daughter Ruby’s desire to intrude on her parents’ video calls.

“It’s rough,” Hall said. “One of us has to be with him and one of us has to be keeping her engaged.”

Tens of thousands of parents, students and teachers are two weeks into distance learning classes in the Salem-Keizer School District, a shift no one was prepared for when the first Marion County resident tested positive for COVID-19 on March 8.

Students last set foot in school buildings on March 13 and went nearly a month without any classes as state education officials first planned to re-open schools, and then said buildings would stay closed for the rest of the year.

For parents, the experience has been mixed. Some said they’re frustrated and have had trouble getting connected to classes, while others say their kids are doing as well as can be expected.

Joseph Perez said he’s been unable to get his two oldest children, first-grader Isaiah and kindergartener Amirah, logged in to video classroom meetings with their Four Corners Elementary School teachers.

Perez worked in a downtown restaurant before losing his job about a month ago. The family had to cut back on expenses, so they dropped their internet service.

He had his first contact with teachers just a few days before remote classes were scheduled to start on April 13 and learned they’d need internet access to do the work.

“They should have reached out to the families sooner and actually gotten the families’ input,” he said.

School workers have been giving families information about a Comcast program which provides free service to low-income families during the pandemic. But it’s only available to people who have never had Comcast service before, Perez said, which doesn’t help him since he used to have Comcast.

Instead, he uses his Verizon phone service as a mobile hotspot. But then his children had problems logging into the classroom website. Their teachers told them the online meetings weren’t required, so he’s helping them complete packets of schoolwork instead.

“It’s still challenging but it’s not as chaotic and hectic as having to get online and do it online,” he said.

He’s worried his son and daughter will fall behind in their schooling. They miss their friends and had trouble understanding why they couldn’t go back to school.

Perez said he’s heard from other parents facing similar challenges with remote classes and the speed at which Salem-Keizer rolled them out.

“I think it’s a really flawed system,” he said.

Teachers and district administrators said they want families to know online classes and paper worksheets can’t replace the education kids would get in a school building, especially for younger kids who can’t work independently.

“We are not expecting them to be teachers at home. We know they have lives, that they have work, that they have other responsibilities,” said Olga Cobb, director of elementary education for Salem-Keizer.

Parents, she said, should give themselves “grace” and not worry.

State guidelines in early April set much lower requirements for school time in a remote setting.

Kindergarteners, who would normally get about six hours of classroom instruction each day, now receive 45 minutes. Middle school teachers were told to aim for an hour and a half to two hours of instruction in each class per week, down from five under normal circumstances.

Administrators worked with teachers to pare down the list of learning goals they’d normally incorporate into spring classes. The Common Core standards that guide teacher’s classes have been cut to a list of what educators think is most essential.

“We’re really looking at trying to cut those basically in half,” said Matt Biondi, middle school director for Salem-Keizer.

School administrators acknowledged that connecting students with technology has been a challenge, meaning some students could fall weeks behind in their schooling.

Alejandra Guerrero, a special education teacher at Auburn Elementary, works with 51 students who spend most of their day in a regular classroom, then come to the school’s learning resource center to get extra help.

She said some of her families have a daily schedule they can stick to, while others have circumstances such as two working parents trying to supervise three elementary school children.

“I hear the frustration of not being able to monitor all of the kids at once, trying to find time,” she said. She’s trying to meet in small groups or one-on-one with her students to give them the extra help they’d normally get during the school day.

Families wait in a line for walk-up Chromebook distribution during an event at McKay High School on Thursday, April 2. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Kelly Schoonover said her experience with her first-grade daughter, Abigail, varies daily. Abigail is a student at Kalapuya Elementary School, and Schoonover said sometimes getting her to sit down and understand her computer lessons are part of school is difficult.

“Some days are really good. Some days are a bit more of a struggle. You try to keep everything to a routine,” she said.

Schoonover is a substitute teacher for Salem-Keizer, which means she’s now out of work and not getting paid. She’s also free to help her daughter with classes during the day, something many working parents can’t do.

Her teachers have suggested a daily schedule with reading, math worksheets and watching short video lessons, with some breaks for stretching or other physical activity.

Some days, they’re able to follow the schedule closely, Schoonover said. Other days, it just doesn’t work. But she said she appreciates the effort from all school staff to stay in touch with students, fielding questions about assignments and taping encouraging videos.

“This is definitely uncharted territory. I think teachers have done a fantastic job (with) what they've been given,” she said.

Teachers said their work hours and habits have shifted so they can be available for families and manage their own lives.

Heather Rutkowski, who teaches English at Crossler Middle School, said she’s working about as many hours as she did during regular school. Most parents aren’t dragging kids out of bed to start online classes at 8 a.m., she said, so her day has shifted later.

Typically, she responds to parent, student and coworker emails for a few hours first thing, she said. Then, she goes into one-on-one meetings with students and families using Google Meet, and checks in with her department and colleagues to make sure their teaching plans work well together, and responds to student answers on discussion prompts and gives feedback on assignments.

Knowing how much work to assign and what to expect is hard, she said. She doesn’t want students to fall behind, but also doesn’t want to overwhelm them or disadvantage those who can’t access lessons.

“I want to provide quality learning experiences that could somehow replace what we would be doing in my classroom, but I have to do that knowing that many of my students will not have access to technology, will not have an ideal learning environment at home, will have care-giver responsibilities for their siblings, will be worried for sick family members or parents working in essential fields, and who are simply not with me,” she said in an email.

Hall, who teaches fifth grade at Brush College Elementary does most of his instruction from 1-3 p.m., meeting online with his fifth-grade students as a whole class or in small groups. Then, he holds office hours at 8 p.m., once his kids are in bed.

Teachers said some bright spots have emerged.

Hall can work with his students more often in small groups, which lets him answer questions from students too shy to ask in front of the 28-person class.

“That is my favorite part of what we’re doing right now,” he said.

Many said collaboration has improved, both among their colleagues and with district administrators, who have sought their comments on curriculum and instruction.

It’s not clear at the moment what instruction will look like when kids head back to physical schools. Cobb said administrators and teachers already are working on a plan for the fall, adjusting the regular curriculum to account for what didn’t get covered this year.

Teachers said for now, they’re more concerned about kids’ well-being than their academic progress.

“We're anxious about kids who normally beg for a granola bar in sixth period or who sometimes borrow our sweatshirts to walk home in or who ask us for a new binder when theirs breaks, because we're not sure if they're eating or if the lights are on at home,” Rutkowski said in an email.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.