First day of school in Concord a mixture of optimism, frustration 

  • Laura Prewitt, Spanish teacher at Concord High School, conducts a remote class on Zoom from her classroom on the first day of school Tuesday. Eileen O'Grady—

  • Instructor Jesse Gregoire teaches an automotive technology class to five students in the CRTC program on Concord's first day of school Tuesday. EILEEN O'GRADY / Monitor Staff—

  • CHS principal Mike Reardon and interim superintendent Kathleen Murphy talk outside the main office at Concord High School. There is a wellness station at the entrance to the building, where everyone who enters has their temperature taken and can help themselves to gloves, masks and hand sanitizer. EILEEN O'GRADY / Monitor Staff—

  • School bus monitor Pam Gardner does double duty on Tuesday morning, September 8, 2020 as she and bus driver Julie Worthen pick up Chromebooks from transportation director Terry Crotty to be delivered to students around the district as some of the computers had not been delivered on Friday. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Quincy Martin, a third-grader at Abbot-Downing School, poses for his family's traditional first day of school photo outside his home. Quincy is one of four students learning remotely in the same house this month. Courtesy of Peter Martin—

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    Blair Huntington (left) and her friends Katy Simard and Maeve Russo got matching shirts that say "third grade rocks" in advance of the first day of school Tuesday. All three started remote learning at Abbot-Downing School Tuesday. Courtesy of Peter Martin—

Monitor Staff
Published: 9/8/2020 7:06:54 PM

The halls of Concord High School were quiet Tuesday morning, as interim Superintendent Kathleen Murphy and Principal Mike Reardon, both wearing masks, walked through the school to check in on the first day of online classes, with Reardon’s white Maltese, Peanut, scurrying behind.

One of the state’s largest high schools was mostly empty except for teachers, about 150 students from the Concord Regional Technical Center (CRTC) program who were in the building for a phased-in start, and about 15 other students who were in the building for special education or English language learner classes. 

“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate walking in here and seeing everybody with a little distance and wearing a mask,” Murphy told one CRTC graphic design class. The nine students were sitting around a horseshoe-shaped table and every other seat was empty.  “I have to prove to everyone that you are going to be safe. And the only way that I can do that is if you go by the rules.”

“You did just miss a group hug,” the teacher joked.

“Okay, I’m glad I missed it,” said Murphy.

But for some in the school district, the first day of school was an exercise in frustration. Many families trying to log on remotely couldn’t connect, some students still lacked computers, and parents calling in for help flooded the district’s phone lines. 

One parent told the Concord Monitor her daughter tried unsuccessfully to join her morning Zoom class at Concord High School for a full hour Tuesday morning, and had difficulty reaching anyone in the school’s main office or IT department to get assistance. 

At 11:28 a.m., Concord School District’s technology director Pam McLeod sent an email to families saying that so many people have been trying to contact the district offices that it temporarily overwhelmed the phone system.

“We have never before experienced this volume of calls, and we did not anticipate this, so you may find it difficult to reach us today,” McLeod wrote. “We are working with our telephone service provider to see if it is possible to bring in a larger ‘pipe,’ but this may take some time.”

The task of delivering Chromebooks and supplies to Concord High School students’ homes also took longer than expected, leaving some without the supplies for their first day of remote classes. Many students picked up their devices in-person last week, but about 50-60 had received one as of Friday before Labor Day weekend. A bus was sent out to deliver the remaining computers to students’ homes, but Murphy said some families weren’t home when the delivery bus arrived.

School buses will continue to deliver bags to student homes on Tuesday and Wednesday. 

Students return in small numbers

At Concord High School, “wellness stations” have been set up by different entrances to the school, where everyone who enters has their temperature taken and can pick up a mask, gloves or hand sanitizer. 

In one CHS classroom, Spanish teacher Laura Prewitt was teaching remotely from her desk, supervising students talking in Zoom breakout groups. She said all of her students except two logged on for the first day, and her connection had been working well. 

“So far so good,” Prewitt said. “So far I haven’t lost anybody.”

In one classroom, CRTC instructor Jesse Gregoire was teaching an in-person automotive technology class of five students, with each spaced apart across the room.

The technical school is bringing students back in small groups initially, to get everyone used to the new protocols. The full classes will be in session by the end of the week. All except one CRTC instructor has opted to return to classrooms, according to director Steve Rothenberg, and that one instructor is teaching remotely.

“I think they are very committed,” Rothenberg said. “I think they understand the nature of their industries, the nature of work, the nature of balance and I think it reflects that we’ve worked hard as a team all summer long.”

Later in the morning, Murphy visited Broken Ground School, where about 50 students were learning in person. 

In one classroom, five fourth-graders sat at different tables, each wearing headphones and masks while participating in video classes being led remotely by teachers who were outside of the room. Three staff members circled nearby, supervising and helping out those who needed it.

Tents and tables were set up outside for outdoor lunch periods and classes for the students until the weather gets cold. 

Some teachers, like art teacher Karen McCormack, were doing remote teaching from their classrooms.

“The kids are having fun, they are working on a project. They almost all made it to class,” McCormack said. She said some of her students’ classroom teachers entered the art class virtually to make sure their students had arrived, and she made sure her students knew which virtual class they were going to next. 

“We’re finding ways to help each other out,” McCormack said.

Working from home  

There were so many people using devices in the Huntington-Martin household on Tuesday, they had to call Comcast at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday to upgrade their internet package.

Concord parent Alyssa Huntington Martin was busy Tuesday, supervising the remote first day of school for her four children while her husband, Peter Martin, worked from home.

Her daughter Blair, a third-grader at Abbot-Downing School and her stepdaughter, a freshman at CHS, were both set up doing classes from their bedrooms. Her stepson Quincy, also a third-grader at Abbot-Downing, was working in the sunroom and her son Wells, a first-grader, was working in the kitchen.

“It’s all working out really well, we haven't complained about noise issues,” Huntington Martin said. “I think we have a really great group of dedicated teachers. They are doing an amazing job with step-by-step, basic instruction. Give them a few weeks and [the kids] probably will be self-sufficient.”

Huntington Martin says that despite the first day being remote, all the children were excited and awake before their alarms. The family has an annual tradition of taking first-day-of-school photos of each child, with a chalkboard that has their name and grade. They continued the tradition this year. 

To help everything run smoothly, Huntington Martin, a stay-at-home-parent, drew a giant chart to put on the kitchen table that shows what each child is supposed to be doing during the day. On Tuesday she worked most closely with her son Wells, who required more help with his first-grade classes than the older students.

“The hardest part for me is, you're the parent to your kids, they don't see you in that teacher role,” Huntington Martin said. “A teacher could get my son to write two lines of As, but I can’t do that for him.”

In the afternoon on Tuesday, CHS administrative assistant Lisa Lamb sent around an online toolkit for high school parents, that outlines students’ schedules, and details online learning etiquette and how to support students in an online setting.

“It is guaranteed to be a year like no other,” the introduction to the document reads. “It is through collaboration, communication, and support from both home and school that this success will be achieved.”

Murphy said she is glad to see students back in the school buildings, even in smaller numbers. She hopes that the district will switch to a hybrid model after the first month of remote learning, to get more students back in the classrooms. 

“I’m just glad the kids are here, they’re all wearing their masks, they’re following the protocols, they’re glad to be here,” Murphy said. “All the learning, all the academics, all the other things we have been doing are really important. But they really need social-emotional learning. Just being with their classmates and being with their peers is critical to their development.

Eileen O

Eileen O'Grady is a Report for America corps member covering education for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. O’Grady is the former managing editor of Scope magazine at Northeastern University in Boston, where she reported on social justice issues, community activism, local politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a native Vermonter and worked as a reporter covering local politics for the Shelburne News and the Citizen. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, The Bay State Banner, and VTDigger. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in politics and French from Mount Holyoke College, where she served as news editor for the Mount Holyoke News from 2017-2018.

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