In May, the final learning triumphs of a topsy-turvy school year occurred at converted breakfast tables, in living rooms, or bedroom corners across the state.

Deegan Ortega, a fourth grader in Eminence, spent weeks working from home to understand the logic of fractions and how they connected with the string of numbers behind decimal points.

With no desk, the family’s kitchen table became Deegan’s fourth-grade work space. Coasters were pushed aside to make way for his laptop computer, spiral notebook, and a marker. The rest of his school materials were stashed in a backpack on the bench seat.

His computer screen became a window to weekly assignments, work files, instructional videos, or scheduled class discussions. The monitor also became a vital connection with classmates and teachers.

“It’s been pretty good,” Deegan said of making progress as he worked from home. “They make it like at school. If I need help, I get in touch with my teacher right away.

Deegan explained that one May Thursday was typical: Wake up, fix breakfast, watch a few minutes of TV, then start school work. He finished a science lesson and watched short informational videos about the White House and Air Force One. Next up: a math assignment that involved a recording describing how he answered the problems.

“On some parts I get confused, but I get to where I know it,” Deegan said. “Our teachers have made us feel comfortable about learning at home, even though I really want to see everybody.”

As Kentucky still faces challenges to operating schools during a pandemic, the spring of 2020 showed how a hurried push to provide remote learning and continued connection provided students and teachers ways to connect, network and move learning forward. The process was makeshift. Implementation could be chaotic. Reach and attention spans were limited. Still, educators, parents and students created novel pockets of school and classroom atmosphere where important learning grew.

MEGHAN OLIVA, A FOURTH-GRADE TEACHER at Eminence Elementary, explains a lesson on fractions during a videoconference with students as schools were closed during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are keeping it going,” Eminence fourth grade teacher Erin Dennis said in an interview shortly after remote classwork started.

In Eminence, a school culture emphasizing student engagement and creativity among teachers aided the transition, Dennis and others said. Between a Thursday when the need to close schools became official and the Monday when learning started from home, the school equipped students with computers and supplies and set new routines. Families were supportive and, behind-the-scenes, faculty, staff and administrators interacted regularly and organized needed assistance.

Teachers spotted plenty of moments when student achievement emerged, often in unexpected ways.

“There are issues — it’s not the same as being in person — you can’t hear them the same way when they are reading or see them when they struggle,” said Dennis, an 18-year teacher focused on reading and writing. “But the thing that makes me really happy is how personalities shine through even remotely and how quickly they’ve picked up the ability to work out problems. We’ve seen interest that we may not have seen before, and more participation in voluntary things. Fourth graders are extremely excited to try new things and are very adaptable to being online.”

Eminence fourth-grade teacher Meghan Oliva, Dennis’s partner, said teachers began the sudden change with a positive tone. “We tried to figure out how to get kids excited, not scared,” she said. Oliva and Dennis cast their students as digital pioneers who needed to discover ways to thrive in an online workplace.

Their “Digital Frontier Week” involved a day for flannel shirts, but it also set a serious tone for students’ new setting. “We realize that the future is gong to be more virtual. As we talked about how to get kids pumped up about this experience, it was obvious to make sure they know that this could be how many people are going to work in the future,” Oliva said. “We talked about bringing your own snack, dressing for success, adding a lunch workout, and understanding how we treat people online.”

…The thing that makes me really happy is how personalities shine through even remotely and how quickly they’ve picked up the ability to work out problems.

— Teacher Erin Dennis

After a setting a purposeful tone, the main challenge awaited: mastering essential learning standards. For Oliva, the math teacher, that meant fractions and decimals — key parts of the fourth grade experience and a challenge even in ideal circumstances.

“In fourth grade, we spend the first half of the year working on number sense up to 1 million, only to come back from Christmas break and learn about numbers less than one. It’s definitely a huge challenge,” Oliva said.

Distance made it tough to utilize her usual approach — concrete examples and hands-on understanding. “I can’t get those manipulatives in their hands,” she said. “It’s been tough for me pedagogically. I would much rather have introduced decimals face-to-face, in-person, down-and-dirty with real base-10 blocks!”

Into April and May, Oliva’s web camera and miniature white board were in constant use to help students visualize concepts.

With no desk in her apartment, Oliva’s kitchen table became her fourth grade teaching station. Her laptop computer allowed her to access colleagues, e-mail, and video conferencing that often contained a full screen of stir-crazy students.

One rainy May Thursday morning, Oliva opened a full class session. Students in boxes on the video conference screen, were excited to see one another as class began. “Hi guys! How’s it going?” the teacher asked. Personal anecdotes and questions competed for attention. Oliva announced she would mute everyone while one girl beamed about a new kitten. After a short round of chit-chat, Oliva turned to the day’s big issue: “I know I’ve got some people on here — I’ve talked to parents — and I want to go into this decimal stuff. It’s so tricky. … I’m going to show you my screen.”

Oliva illustrated how 100 can be divided into 10 pieces, making 10 tens. She then asked the class how to divide 1 into 10 pieces. Students responded. One commented, “This is not my thing when I wake up in the morning.” Another asked whether, when 1 is divided into smaller pieces, it makes a negative number. Oliva clarified that fractions of 1 still remain larger than zero and keep their status as positive numbers, even if they are incredibly small. A few minutes later, the group is working to understand how 1/10 can be broken into 10 pieces and can be described as a fraction or a decimal.

In fourth grade, we spend the first half of the year working on number sense up to 1 million, only to come back from Christmas break and learn about numbers less than one. It’s definitely a huge challenge.

— Teacher Meghan Oliva

Nine-year-old Deegan agreed that shifting between fractions and decimals can be confusing. Seeing the connection between 0.6 and 6/10 took some time, he said. Deciding which number is bigger when one is a fraction and the other is a decimal still takes calculations and double checking.”It can take a little time to understand,” he explained.

Desarae Ortega said she checked in with her son’s teachers at least once a week. She said that parents were quick to share how much they appreciated teachers and schools as students were confined at home.

“For me it’s been good, and stressful,” said Desarae, a production manager for a cleaning company. “Trying to help my kids with their homework — I’m not really sure how to do half of these things. I don’t tell them answers. I get them to do things on their own without giving them the answers. Since I’m their mother and not a teacher, I tell them I want them to learn. I talk through what they are doing and try to lead them in right direction.”

Desarae said the disrupted school year enhanced bonds between parents and teachers. “Everyone at Eminence is like a big family,” she said. “You ask for help, and someone in that school is going to reach out with what you need. They bend over backwards to get the message out about whatever kids need to learn.”

Michael Dennis, who served as instructional coordinator at Eminence Elementary last year and starts this year as the school’s principal, said that meeting learning goals during the pandemic is the result of widespread teamwork.

FOURTH GRADER Deegan Ortega does school work at the family’s kitchen table as his brother, a kindergarten student, looks on.


The district’s longstanding focus on empowering students and cultivating teachers’ creativity proved an important asset last spring, added Dennis, who married to Eminence fourth-grade teacher Erin Dennis.

“Our teachers are masterful at creating strong learning communities and being problem solvers who think outside the box,” he said. “They had to reinvent assessment, think about scope and sequence, and consider how we structure learning during the day. They also found ways to leverage what was going on in students’ lives. When you combine that with a positive relationship with parents, you see a team dynamic.

“We also noticed that students like school more than they admitted,” he added. “Our students turned into problem solvers as they gained independence, and some really took off with more freedom and responsibility.”

Math teacher Oliva noted the unintended learning that materialized because of challenges and the impromptu atmosphere. “There are lessons in patience when you’re not with people to see or get the response,” the fourth-year teacher said. “There are lessons in independence — solving problems when a teacher or parent isn’t there. This also emphasizes flexibility. Parents are on such different schedules that it’s important to try to be available whenever and keep looking for ways to meet needs.”

“This showed how how much people want to work together for the common good,” added teacher Erin Dennis. “I thought parents might be upset because they were doing so much of our work, but we were showered with support by parents. It was great to see the success and understanding that can come out of hard times.”


TOP PHOTO: Student Deegan Ortega used the camera on his school laptop computer to record an explanation of the steps he took on a math assignment.

ABOUT EMINENCE ELEMENTARY \\ ENROLLMENT: 360 in PK-5; RACE: 25% minority; INCOME: 53% eligible for free/reduced-price meals


Lonnie covered education for the Courier Journal and the Lexington Herald-Leader. He worked as a reporter and editor at Education Week in Washington, D.C. He has served as a school board member and was a parent member of a school SBDM council.

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