Teaching during COVID-19 in Napa County Schools

An interview with Jen Ellison, Phillips Elementary

Jen Ellison, Teacher, NVUSD
Published on April 10, 2020

During the COVID-19 shutdown of Napa County schools, Mario Piombo, Director of Innovation for NapaLearns, caught up with Jen Ellison who is a technology specialist at Phillips Elementary Magnet School to find out how the virus is impacting teachers, students, and parents.

WATCH THIS SHORT VIDEO EXCERPT: Jen Ellison talks about the #1 thing that needs to happen in Napa Valley in the current environment of schools closed but instruction continuing. 
WATCH FULL 18-MINUTE INTERVIEW with Mario Piombo, NapaLearns, Director of Innovation

How has COVID-19 shifted life as a teacher and parent?

Mario:   So, Jen, in talking to our NapaLearns team and our leadership, we wanted to be able to provide the opportunity for our donors and other stakeholders to really understand what’s happening right now in education as we deal with the COVID-19 epidemic. We naturally thought of you, having been one of our NapaLearns Fellows as well as a Teacher of the Year for Napa County, among many other accomplishments. I just have a couple of questions that I want to get your perspective on and unpack as we think about how teachers are having to pivot and adapt in this new world of learning.

So my first question is just a very nuts-and-bolts question. How has your life shifted as a result of what’s happening?

Jen:  As a result of all that has been going on, my life and the life of people around the world has, of course, shifted completely. For one, as an educator, it’s really difficult for me not to be able to be with my students; having limited access to them is really frustrating and worrisome, especially as we know that for many students, school is a safe harbor for them. Thinking about those kids and wondering what’s going on for them and what their lives are like right now is pretty stressful.

Instead of being actively teaching school and also engaged with my after-school clubs, I normally would get home around 5:00pm. Now I’m home all the time, trying to reach out to my students and hoping that they can respond. So things are really different.

How is this different than other challenging times in Napa County?

Jen:  Well, as a school district, we’ve had many challenging times. We’ve had some fires and some smoke days where we weren’t able to go to school, but this particular situation is dramatically different in that it’s unprecedented. It’s nationwide, worldwide. It’s much longer lasting than our smoke days ever were.

There is a lack of access to our community, not just that I don’t get to see my students on a daily basis anymore, but I also don’t get to see my coworkers. It’s amazing what those tiny minutes that you have with each other, passing each other in the hallway, or just eating lunch together in the lunchroom can really encourage and sustain you and tie you together as community. We don’t have that as much. We’ve had several meet-ups on Zoom, both official and unofficial, just so that we can see other.

I think that one of the things that happened, too – that was really shocking – was that we didn’t really have a lot of warning or time. We were together on a Thursday, and by that late afternoon, after we’d all left, we were told we weren’t coming back. So we just had very little time to prepare emotionally but also to prepare physically by making sure that we have all the things that we needed after we had left.

What did you do to prepare?

Jen: We were given about twenty-four hours, I think, in total to prepare. We had a day that we could return to our classrooms and take what we needed. But, of course, it having never happened before, I don’t think I could have fully understood what I needed to bring home with me. For one, at the time when we were leaving, we believed that we were just going to have a three-week closure, and now it’s extended to an even longer time. There was also an emergency feeling to it and that heightened the time that we spent collecting whatever we needed.

Because I teach technology, most of what I do is online, but even with that, there are some things that I didn’t grab that I wish I had. I wish I had grabbed my green screen and some other kinds of equipment. I didn’t grab my physical textbooks because, again, they’re also available online, but I kind of wish I had because sometimes it’s nice to have a hard copy.

We locked up our really expensive equipment to make sure it’s in a safe place for the duration, but I honestly don’t remember if I rinsed out my coffee cup. I’m really hoping that I don’t have some sort of strange mold experiment happening in my classroom. I know I didn’t turn off my coffee pot because our principal later emailed us and said that he had gone around and turned off, like unplugged coffee pots and things like that that I just at the time didn’t think about.

What are you doing to connect with students during this time?

Jen: I’m trying to connect with students in lots of different ways. Our school is a pretty technologically savvy school in that we were already using things like Google Classroom and Class Dojo. So my students are used to those, but the reality is that not every student has access to Wi-Fi or devices when they’re not at school. So that’s a little frustrating, but I’ve been posting messages in my Google Classroom and messages on my Class Dojo account. We were in the middle of reading a chapter book, and so I’ve recorded myself reading a couple of chapters of that book online so that they can continue reading it.

I’ve attended I think four Zoom meetings with students. I’m not a homeroom teacher. The homeroom teachers have been scheduling those meetings and inviting me along, so that I get to see some of my students, which is really, really nice. The first Zoom meeting I attended was with a bunch of my fourth graders. Out of a class of twenty-six, I think ten or eleven were there. When I saw their little faces, I just about cried. I hadn’t seen them in so long.

I’m finding that more and more parents are learning how to connect. I’m starting to see more views of things that I post than I did like the very first week. So I think there’s going to be a learning curve, especially if your population of students involves more economically challenged families or families just with multiple kids and shared devices because there’s just not enough time, right? You can’t do everything.

Also with families with second-language learners, the messaging process sometimes takes a little longer. Although Class Dojo has a great feature in that I can write in English, and the parents can read it in Spanish on their end. But getting to the point where parents know to look for those things, it just takes a lot of people to make sure that the message gets out to the entire population. We’re fortunate we have a great family resource center that’s been calling families and making sure that they get connected.

What do you think the biggest need is of families right now?

Jen: I think the biggest need is access. Everybody needs access to technology, no matter where they live. Sometimes when I’m talking to other educators who have different perspectives, I don’t think that people realize that there are some people who don’t have consistent access to Wi-Fi. It’s just not something in their budget, or for whatever reason, they don’t have access to it. So I think that if we could just blanket the world, our community, with Wi-Fi so that every kid has the same chance, I think an incident like this just really highlights the digital divide that exists.

My own children, I can put them online, they each have their own Chromebook. They can do their lessons and they know how to use it. If they don’t know how to do something, I’m a technology teacher, so I’m really comfortable sharing that with them, but not everybody has that. I mean, a kid might have a device, but maybe they don’t know how to use it, and maybe their grown-up doesn’t know how to use it, but they just got because they know that it’s something that their kids need to have.

I think, #1, making sure that the whole town has Wi-Fi, and then making sure that everybody has a device that can connect to that Wi-Fi would transform our community. I have a philosophy that we should treat every single kid in town like they’re our kid because once we do that, then our community will be just transformed into a place where everyone has a voice and everyone can flourish and grow because we treat them all like they’re ours. I just think that’s a really important concept, and especially at a time like this, like what would you want from your kid? Let’s do that for all kids.

That’s a really powerful concept. Thanks for sharing that perspective. I really like that.

What’s your message for parents right now?

Jen: The message I would send to parents right now is that it’s really important to think about the overall health of everyone, not just the students’ ability to keep up academically, but to make sure that students are feeling safe and comfortable. Put people before schoolwork and really just focus on the fundamentals. Kids need to read every day and kids need to think about math every day, if they’re in a mentally healthy place.

If you’re experiencing a lot of anxiety or stress or infighting that happens with homework, that’s a moment to take a step back, get that sorted out, and then focus on academics. Just like in the classroom, if my students are under emotional stress, they’re not going to be able to take in information and learn anything. That’s also true at home. For real learning to take place, there has to be a place where kids can receive information.

How can organizations that are supporting the community get involved in supporting education?

Jen: Organizations that support our families and our communities need to continue to look for ways to improve the overall connectivity of our community. Seeking ways to improve the logistics of Wi-Fi technology is a good place to look at, but we also need ways to support individual families. For example, we need organizations to provide instructions for parents so that they can help support their learners at home. All the sorts of things that we would normally do in a school year – such as parent university classes so that they can learn how to do all kinds of things from open a bank account to thinking about colleges for their students – need to continue. All those things will strengthen the support system that our students have. And during this time, I know that there are a lot of organizations that are stepping in. I personally am super appreciative of that. Anything that makes learning more accessible for my students, I’m just endlessly grateful for.

The final question is, what can organizations like NapaLearns do to support teachers right now?

Jen: Organizations like NapaLearns can support teachers—gosh, I feel like in a lot of ways. Teachers are getting a lot of support these days as far as encouragement online and encouragement in public arenas. But I think for me personally, in the beginning of the crisis, the fear and anxiety over whether or not it would mean that we might not get paid was a lot of anxiety for me, and for a lot of teachers.

I really appreciate how many organizations have been providing us access to things online that normally would have cost money, so that I can provide my students with more experiences. And again having a really powerful Internet system in our community is more important than ever because if my Wi-Fi is weak or drops out because so many people are using it right now, then that impacts thirty, sixty, ninety students, depending on what I’m teaching at that time.

So those are, I think, really important things. I really appreciated that in general a lot of people have been very supportive and recognize that we’re learning as we go. There’s not a lot of judgement, which I’ve really appreciated because we’ve never been in a worldwide lockdown before. Although I’m a technology teacher, I’m really comfortable with technology and a lot of the tools that we’re using, it’s never been like the main way that we reach out and teach our students before. So it’s just going to take some time for us to adjust and to be in a period of growth with the world around us, supporting us as much more helpful than an error of judgment.

Has the NapaLearns Fellows program prepared you to take on this challenge of distance learning?

Jen: I am super grateful that I am a NapaLearns Fellow because without knowing it, the information that I studied just a few years ago and the courses that NapaLearns has shared with us has really prepared me to be a more digitally impactful teacher. I have been exposed to everything that we’re currently using now in the program, and so it was easier for me to jump on board than I think some other teachers. I know that I have contact through our staff with other Fellows, and when we had a staff meeting the other day, we were like, “No, all you’ve got to do is this. You’ve just got to click this.” That’s 100 percent because of the support and the training that we’ve received through NapaLearns.

But more than that, I think participating with NapaLearns has sort of opened a door towards this idea that you can explore and learn and not be so concerned about failure – that making mistakes is just part of the journey. If you attempt something and it doesn’t work out, that just means that you’ve got to come up with a different iteration of it. You’ve just got to keep at it, which not only impacts me as an educator, trying to prepare lessons, but it also impacts me as a learner, and how I even teach my students to learn. You just have to be open to the process and make mistakes and change and try again. I think that’s a really, really valuable piece of the NapaLearns experience.