COVID-19 turns kitchens and bedrooms into classrooms

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Miah Dray, 9, works on her laptop at home. BILLI DRAY

It may not have been a surprise that when schools were closed March 16 due to the spread of COVID-19, there were shock waves across Beaufort County when homes were forced to turned into classrooms.

If comments on social media were any indication, parents were frustrated with keeping their young students on track, trying to help with course subjects they'd studied years ago - if at all - and getting the technology in the house squared away so that everyone who had to work online was able to get online.

Adding to those factors was seeing the impact the closures had on their children who were missing school friends and activities, struggling with assignments, and suddenly lacking a routine.

For Bluffton residents Billi and Charlie Dray, parents of five children from 9 to almost 3 years old, a schedule became a necessity, but first they first had to get their children through the transition from bustling classrooms to the relative quiet of home.

"Miah is very extroverted. I asked 'How do you like homeschool?' and she said 'I hate it. I miss my friends.' JJ said 'I could do this'," Dray said. ""JJ enjoyed the Zoom calls and being in the comfort of his home because he's a little more introverted."

Miah, 9, is in third grade at Red Cedar Elementary School, and JJ is a second grader at Pritchardville Elementary School.

Dray said their son Josiah, who just turned 5 and was in pre-Kindergarten, had a bit of trouble settling into the routine. "He's a little bit harder to keep focused, and we had to really check in with him and his lessons," she said.

Add twins Skylar and Shelby, who will be 3 in July, and the Drays had their hands full while continuing their own full-time jobs.

"I had to create a schedule," Dray said. "The school hours we were pretty consistent with. It was our work hours that were changed. When they went to bed or after they sat down later, that's when we did our work. We tag-teamed with who was on tap for Zoom calls and teaching."

Billi works for the nonprofit Christian ministry Young Life as a development director. Charlie works for Custom Audio Video. "His work didn't slow down at all. They had a lot of new construction and instead of meeting with clients in person, they did it on Zoom," said Dray. "Typically, I am working remotely. There is still work to be done even if my usual travel is not happening."

Even for a family familiar with current technology, there was a scramble for more equipment.

"We were not prepared. We borrowed one laptop, and then they ended up sending a laptop from school for Miah," said Dray. "For the pre-K, we'd bring up his videos on our phones and then Chromecast them to the TV. Because we were at two different elementary schools, we had two different school programs to use."

Setting up study space took a little planning.

"Miah set up a little desk in her room - in fact, she redesigned her room a couple of times," said Dray, who has been using the dining room as her office.

Dray said that there were days when everyone had Zoom calls that overlapped because of additional calls for special classes such as art and engineering.

"There were days when there were seven Zoom calls for two kids and two or three for us," she added. "And by the end of the day we'd be all exhausted, and we didn't know why. It takes more energy than you think for the calls."

Teachers across the county kept in touch.

"I do think the teachers were supportive and they helped, but there were some days when the teachers were stressed - the technology or internet wouldn't work," Dray said. "Whenever I did have questions, they were pretty quick to respond."

Eileen Johnson, who lives on Hilton Head Island and spent the quarantine working full-time from home, said she had a few emails from her sons' teachers but would have preferred phone calls.

"Sometimes it's better by phone than email. That's just a personal preference," she said. Her son Ryan is a junior at Hilton Head Island High School and Ashton is a seventh grader at Hilton Head Middle School.

The initial reactions to being at home were different.

"Ashton really didn't have any big issues but my junior had issues the first couple of weeks being stuck at home," said Johnson. "I think it's just one of those things where he finally gained his freedom with his driver's license and all of a sudden he's locked back up, so to speak."

Both boys did pretty well overall, she said, since the schools are all tech-based. "My junior didn't have any big issues; my little guy had to adjust. He had a hard time adjusting to finding things and basically learning on his own," Johnson said. "He would do his work but inadvertently forget to turn it in."

No matter the age of the students, change was inevitable.

"I think there is definitely a learning curve along with adapting to a different lifestyle for both students and staff," said Terri Davey of Bluffton. Like every other family in the state, her two children had a lot of online time for their studies at home.

Samantha, the older, is a junior at University of South Carolina-Beaufort majoring in education; Matthew just graduated after two years at the Governor's School for Arts and Humanities in Greenville. Before that, he attended May River High School.

"I didn't hear too much from Samantha. She's in college and she just did her classwork," Davey said. "Matthew came home March 12 for a regular long weekend. The kids were told to bring home anything they would need - iPads, textbooks, papers - anything that they can't live without. That Monday he was back in school - at home - at 8:30 with Zoom virtual classrooms."

Since then, Matthew's daily routine remained the same. "He did his work, he was in class every day," Davey said. "They had their regular lunchbreaks, they followed the schedule they had in school."

Teachers teaching from home also had to adapt, even college professors.

Jessica Sparks teaches newswriting and layout at Savannah State University. Both were online classes, but her senior seminar and magazine writing courses were face-to-face, going online after the shutdown.

She and her husband, Dustin, work in communications and had already started getting their daughters acclimated to technology. Emma just finished first grade, while Lily finished pre-K.

"We had a computer for the older one and Lily had a tablet. My husband is a developer, and he has three computers," said Sparks. "If I didn't have any morning meetings and I could do everything from my laptop, I would sit at the kitchen table next to my 4-year-old and I would work while she was doing the preschool class. The older one would go upstairs to my husband's office and do her work while he was in meetings pretty much all day."

Both girls are pretty good students, she said, adding that the elementary school was so much easier than the preschool, which meant Lily needed more help with her school work.

"Part of that was attention span. She has the attention span of goldfish. She didn't enjoy the Zoom because she likes the interaction with people," said Sparks. But, "the Zoom meetings were important because she got that outside interaction. Near the end she got used to it, but at first she thought she could yell at her teacher."

There was a plus side to the stay-at-home orders.

"It really encouraged us to do more with the family. We got to have dinner earlier. When I was working in Savannah we had dinner at 7. Now it's 5 or 6," Sparks said. "The morning was school work and the afternoon was playtime outside. They'd ride their bikes, do art work, baking. I taught Emma how to cook eggs by herself."

Ultimately, it helped to be flexible when schools closed and parents, teachers, students and employees who could, worked remotely.

"I think I could have been a little bit more productive in my job if I hadn't had kids at home," Sparks said, "But you know, when you have other people depending on you, you just have to roll with the punches."

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.

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