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Struggling to find structure in online-learning for N.H. public schools

  • Concord 9-year-old Zoe Crumrine (left) and Amelia Crumrine, 12, work on homework at a table at their home during Concord School District’s first week of remote learning.  Courtesy

  • Violet Crumrine, 6, works on a remote learning activity at her home in Concord last week.  Courtesy

  • Concord High School English teacher Heidi Crumrine set up a whiteboard to help keep track of her three daughters’ work.  Courtesy

  • John Stark High School teacher Tiffany Smith, of Weare, helps here fifth-grade son, Josh, with homework in their home last week.  Courtesy

  • John Stark High School teacher Mike Smith helps his ninth-grade daughter, Natalie, with schoolwork.  Courtesy

  • John Stark High School teacher Mike and Tiffany Smith help their children with remote learning in their home last week.  Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 3/29/2020 4:04:44 PM

Every morning when Nikki Bourget leaves before dawn for her job as a licensed nursing assistant at Merrimack County Nursing Home, she wonders if she’s doing the right thing.

As she stands at the facility’s entrance, checking other staff members’ temperatures as they file into work one by one, in the back of her mind she fears the possibility of being exposed to COVID-19 and bringing it home to her family.

She feels guilty about leaving behind her children – 4, 8 and 13– two of whom are still in school, and in the state’s remote learning program.

“As their mom, I feel like I should be home to help them when they need it,” the Loudon mother said.

The outbreak of COVID-19 has been particularly challenging for New Hampshire families. Parents have been caught between two sometimes conflicting needs: providing for their children financially and supporting them at home.

New Hampshire’s transition from the classroom to remote learning, adopted by districts across the state in a matter of days in mid-March, was originally introduced as a two-week temporary precautionary measure. As COVID-19 continued to spread across the state and claimed the life of two Granite Staters, Sununu announced last week that the program would be extended at least by another month – until early May.

School district officials are now re-evaluating their programming, facing the fact that remote learning is turning into more than a temporary experiment.

Many schools in the region have a one-to-one technology program, so students can access most of their work on devices through applications like Google Classroom. The amount of support and structure students have at home varies, depending on resources. Some parents don’t work, others are home because they were one of the thousands laid off in the state because of the virus. Others work from home, or are dubbed “essential employees” and still work outside the home.

A number of families don’t live in districts where access to devices to connect to the internet is limited, or they don’t have online access at home.

“This model is going to reveal the inequities that we have in our system,” said Concord High School English teacher Heidi Crumrine, who is teaching 125 students remotely. “The reasons that many kids don’t engage in school have more to do with what’s going on at home or what they have access to, than their actual interest or investment school.”

One positive outcome Crumrine hopes for is the school to better identify and support students who don’t have access to the resources needed to succeed.

“All parents want their kids to do well in school, and want it to be successful for them,” she said. “When they’re not, it’s not because no one wants it for them, it’s because so many things have just gotten in the way that they’ve sort of just, turned and looked the other way.”

Juggling it all

Bourget depends on her 56-year-old mother Sandra, who lives in Concord, to come over each day at 6 a.m. to begin supervising her children after she and her fiance leave for work. She said she feels lucky to have that support.

Bourget’s fiance works as a maintenance technician at the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant for 12 hours, six days a week. Every morning, he is out of the house a 4:30 a.m., drives an hour to work, and is usually home by 7:30 p.m. His job is also to screen employees’ temperatures before entering the power plant building.

Bourget wakes up at 5 a.m. and arrives back home at 4 p.m. She also works six days a week. In the few hours she’s home, she’s able to make dinner for her family and review the work her kids have accomplished that day.

Merrimack Valley School District doesn’t have a one-to-one program for every student in the district, but officials were able to provide Chromebooks for both of Bourget’s children by loaning out devices that are usually kept in the classroom. Most of her seventh grader’s work is online, which she gets through quickly.

Her second grader has an Individualized Education Program in which she receives services like occupational therapy and support from a teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing for her Childhood Speech Apraxia and Auditory Processing Disorder, her mother said. Trying to keep up with these services requires more hours of the day than the computer time, her mother said.

Bourget said in this unprecedented situation, her daughters’ teachers have been good about being in constant communication with parents. It’s hard for her to keep up with all of the emails she receives while at work, she said.

During her one day off, she struggles to catch up on what her kids have been working on while she’s not there.

“I’m not really seeing what work the girls are doing daily, and then being home that one day, it feels overwhelming,” she said. “It would be easier if I was able to work from home or was a stay at home mom.”

“I am very thankful that my fiance and I both are still working, but some days it’s very stressful trying to juggle it all,” she added.


Many parents who are trying to juggle work and school have cited the need for structure to get academic work done, even as things seem chaotic in the rest of the world.

“It makes you feel like Sisyphus,” Crumrine said. “The Greek one where you’re rolling the ball up the hill and it keeps rolling down. If you don’t set boundaries for everyone in the house you’re just going to become miserable.”

Crumrine said she learned that quickly. After her first day of trying to organize her 125 students and her three children at home, she spent Monday night creating a weekly checklist on a giant whiteboard to put in the family’s living room. Each child has their own section of the board, which is color-coded, and lists the tasks that each child must complete for each day of the week.

This includes activities like reading for thirty minutes, practicing an instrument, math, science, and even chores. A banner at the top of the whiteboard reads, “Go outside every day!”

“I just felt like I wasn’t remembering anything. It’s a lot to carry in your brain at one time,” she said. “It made it easier for me to list out what they needed to do and then they can go at the order or the pace they want. They also get really excited about finishing tasks.”

“They love it,” she added. “In fact, even my little one has said, ‘Can I check it off now?’ I think that was part of our problem on Monday, that no one really knew what they were supposed to be doing – me included.”

Tiffany Smith, of Weare, who is a teacher at John Stark High School, said her family put a lot of thought into their remote learning schedules.

She and her husband Mike, who is also a teacher at John Stark High, said they tried to stagger their kids’ schedules so that they weren’t working on subjects that were challenging for them at the same time, and parents could be available to help. They also tried to schedule the kids’ breaks at different times throughout the day.

They also set “classroom norms” for the family. One was doing a few minute check-in periodically. During check-ins, kids will either give a “thumbs up” or a “thumbs down” to indicate whether they need support from their parents.

Even after trying to create as much structure as possible, there are still challenges.

“I’m exhausted. It is like working more than two full-time jobs at one time,” Smith said. “I’m hoping that eventually, I will find balance in my life, but it has been challenging for the whole family.”

She said she knows her kids are probably in one of the best situations in this unique process.

“It is not lost on me that my kids have two educators sitting in a room all day and can turn to them for help,” Snith said. “Most students aren’t going to have that.”


Even as families have tried to create structure in their lives, uncertainty about the future remains paramount.

Erin Hallgren, the mother of a six-year-old first-grader at Mill Brook School, said it feels like she is adjusting to new changes every day. Hallgren, thee owner of Pure Ten Nail Spa in the executive suites in Ralph Pill Marketplace in Concord, was still working during the first week of remote learning, trying to keep her business afloat.

She spent half of her day at home helping her daughter with school work, and went in to work with two or three clients each afternoon on a one-on-one basis. Her fiance works from home and was able to support her daughter when she wasn’t there.

Now, with the stay-at-home order in place, she is being forced to close down. She’s worried about supporting her family financially.

“This is really hard for us, it doesn’t matter if you make a million dollars a year or a $100 a week. It’s hard and it’s affecting everybody very differently. I’m happy to be able to stay home with my daughter and support her. I just worry how the economy is going to come back from something like this.”

“It’s just the unknown – are we going to be in this method, this madness for four more weeks or four more months? When does it stop?”

Another challenge has been meeting the needs of some special education students remotely.

After being laid off from her hotel job, Elizabeth Brodeur Smart satys at home with her four children, all under the age of 12. Her youngest daughter, who is 6, has Cerebral Palsy and other serious medical conditions, her mother said.

Smart said she worries her daughter, who usually receives regular support at school and outpatient occupational, physical and speech therapy, will have set back without those services.

“She has really tight tone in her muscle and they have relaxed her a lot,” Smart said. “She was also in pool therapy which she loved. They also were going to start a trial with a communication device.”

Smart said she’s tried to mimic some of the services her daughter received out of the house, but it’s not the same.

“Most of her success has been because of repetition and structure,” Smart said. “As hard as I try, I hardly ever win in that department.”

School officials say they are continuing to evaluate the remote learning model and how it can be improved to meet students needs in the long-term.

Early next week, Assistant Principal at Concord High School Timothy Herbert said the district is going to start evaluating which students participated and which ones didn’t. The goal is to find a way to engage every student and give the resources they need to succeed.

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