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How Students At A North Carolina Elementary School Are Faring With Remote Learning


Millions of students haven't been in real classrooms, surrounded by friends and chitchat, for nearly a year. They may not only miss out on friends and teachers, but some of the essential services schools provide, including free and reduced lunch and extra support for students with learning disabilities. And for many, remote learning has been very remote, indeed.

In our series we call Learning Curve, we've been trying to check in with parents, educators and students to try to understand how they're handling schooling during the pandemic. Barbie Garayua Tudryn is a bilingual school counselor at Frank Porter Graham Elementary School in Chapel Hill, N.C. She joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

BARBIE GARAYUA TUDRYN: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: I understand that you check in with students as a regular part of your efforts in a classroom or one-on-one remotely, and you visited with some fifth-graders this week. So what did they tell you? What do you notice?

GARAYUA TUDRYN: The kids are definitely missing school. They miss their friends. They miss the interactions that they were used to having, you know, on a daily basis. There's some students, of course, that are living their best life. They're adjusting well. Most...

SIMON: Yeah.

GARAYUA TUDRYN: But most are terribly missing their friends and the structures of their day and life as they knew it.

SIMON: And help us understand that from the student's point of view because, of course, school is not just about learning things in a classroom, but learning things from each other.

GARAYUA TUDRYN: A lot of kids are, you know, starting to feel a sense of isolation and a sense of hopelessness, feeling like they don't have anything to look forward to. Like you said, you know, this is the age in elementary school where they get to really practice those human skills, talking and listening and empathizing and observing even body language in other students. And not having that opportunity to do that definitely comes at a cost for them.

SIMON: I'm sure you're an excellent school counselor, but let me ask you this directly. Can you really have a good conversation with a student on Zoom?

GARAYUA TUDRYN: Oh, my goodness. You know, I started the year trying to adapt to this virtual environment, and, oh, my goodness, it is so difficult because you can be engaging with a student and trying to connect at an intimate level, and then all of a sudden, you know, there's a lack of privacy. There's noise in the background. There's challenges with the connection itself. And then because they're so young, sometimes, you know, I would set up a time with them to connect, and they just didn't show up because they forget or their parents lost the link.

So as the months went by, what I started doing was actually, you know, seeing the most urgent students outdoors. And, of course, with all the precautions, I would go on hikes or take walks in the park with them or sit away from each other at the park so that I can give them that opportunity to connect. But my own children, who are older, ended up working in pretty high-risk environments for COVID, so I no longer felt confident in being able to see kids in person and exposing them. So now I'm back to virtual, and it is hard.

SIMON: Well, and I'm going to guess - tell me if I'm wrong - that for a student who really feels isolated and that they're in trouble, that's got to be hard to say over a Zoom link

GARAYUA TUDRYN: It is really hard to offer them help. And as a counselor, we walk into our practice with a high level of empathy in order for us to really be able to assemble that net of support that the student needs. And so when you're behind that screen and you're not able to really provide the supports that the student needs because of COVID and because of that physical distance, it's devastating, you know, for a counselor because there are way too many variables that are beyond your control. So it is truly heartbreaking.

SIMON: What can parents who may be listening do to help their children and other children?

GARAYUA TUDRYN: I think starting to have those conversations, you know? Of course, we have parents that have noticed that their kid's mental health is suffering, and they're already reaching out to us. I would say do not delay if that's the case with your child.

And then beyond that is explaining to kids, like I did to my fifth-graders this week, is that you've been out of the building for a year, almost. And so you need to push yourself to replace those behaviors that you were actively practicing when you were in the building, the behaviors of trying to interact with other people, turning the camera on during your classroom, virtual needs. If you don't have extraordinary circumstances, try to push yourself to engage, to participate, to be seen because your brain has created that habit - right? - of not seeing the hundreds or dozens of people that you were used to seeing every day and interacting with. So you need to push your brain and teach your brain to engage virtually in order to start getting ready for when you go back to the building.

SIMON: Barbie Garayua Tudryn is a bilingual school counselor at Frank Porter Graham Elementary School. Thanks so much for being with us and best of luck to you and your students.

GARAYUA TUDRYN: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.