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Back In Class After Six Months: Elementary Teachers In Palm Beach County Share Their Experiences

Lindsay Johnson

Tens of thousands of students headed back to brick-and-mortar schools in Palm Beach County Monday. It was their first time back since March.

Robert DeGennaro teaches fifth grade at Hagen Road Elementary School in Boynton Beach. He said it's been difficult to juggle between face-to-face students and distance learning students for some of his colleagues.

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The Palm Beach County school district has taken the hybrid approach, allowing parents to decide whether to keep their children home for distance learning sessions or enter physical classrooms. Either way, teachers in the county have to simultaneously instruct students through both methods.

DeGennaro said it will take time to get used to the act of dividing a teacher's attention and resources, but he remains optimistic. He added that despite wearing a mask during the length of the pandemic, wearing one for a full work day has already made in-person teaching "exhausting."

“Today was the first day I had the mask on for that long. I’ve obviously been to the store. I’ve been to Home Depot and what have you,” DeGennaro said. “But I haven’t had it concentrated for that many hours and it’s not wonderful. But it’s better than getting COVID.”

DeGennaro says he’s lucky to have well-behaved students but he worries about the long-term mental effects that physical distancing will have on kids in classrooms. He says his students, like his own children at home, are social beings who are bound to explore spaces around the campus.

"We’d be foolish to assume that kids aren’t going to transgress some of these COVID restrictions either by accident or on purpose,” DeGennaro said. “So, we’d just have to take it when it comes.”

Jessica Estel teaches fifth grade at Poinciana Elementary School in Boynton Beach. She said she maintains a positive outlook about the future of virtual teaching and in-person instruction but worries about the inability for teachers to monitor body language, behavior and comprehension through a computer screen.

"The teaching monitoring piece is lost because a child can decide to turn off their camera. Are they paying attention? Are they working? Are they writing? Are they frustrated?,” Estel said.

"Body language has decreased a lot because sometimes you can pick up if a child needs help by their body language — the way they’re sitting." She said teachers usually can see whether students are "attentive or not attentive."

"If they’re gazing into space. Usually if they’re gazing into space you can snap them back."

Estel says most students are digitally savvy. She's more concerned about technical issues like bad wifi, which would prohibit a child from keeping up with the rest of the classroom. Estel asked her students about some of those difficulties and made assessments.

"They only said that the hard part is the technical part,” she said. "If they’re losing internet connection or if they just don’t know how to type on a Google document or anything like that — it’s the maneuvering of the technology, not the receiving of the information."

The Palm Beach County school district launched a COVID-19 dashboard Monday to keep track of confirmed cases in schools.

Wilkine Brutus is the Palm Beach County Reporter for WLRN. The award-winning journalist produces stories on topics surrounding local news, culture, art, politics and current affairs. Contact Wilkine at wbrutus@wlrnnews.org
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