I’m a first-grade teacher in Anchorage. Here’s what the COVID-19 pandemic taught me.

As COVID-19 escalated in March 2020, our growth skyrocketed as we learned how to integrate the reading curriculum into daily Zoom classes. We created our own daily presentations, recorded phonetics, posted online and taught with our classes via Zoom. COVID has upped a tremendous learning curve for all children, parents and educators.

Previously, ‘the digital divide’ was something I had read about, but now we made an urgent effort to allocate resources and ensure that all children would have equal access. Explaining computer programs like “Seesaw” to grandmothers and families was a multi-step process that required patience from both the recipient and the explaining teacher.

We taught, assessed and supervised online. It was difficult for teachers to determine accuracy — whether or not children “at home” had help with rating individual letter names and sounds, sight word ratings, spelling tests, and mastery of curriculum-based measurements and math during Zoom.

The families learned to trust the teachers in the personal space of their own homes. We witnessed domestic environments that were confidential. “How can a child concentrate?” I would ask myself. People struggled as parents, grandparents and siblings tried to figure out how to stay home while working and encouraging their children to study.

Our school district has implemented new anti-poverty policies because hungry children cannot learn. Teachers tried to connect families to nutrition, and new panels popped up all over our city.

No outdoor training or field trips

When we came back face to face, no voluntary parents were allowed into the school to support learning. I missed parents volunteering for small group reading in my classroom.

Teachers embraced virtual science learning as the Seward SeaLife Center, Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, and Campbell Creek Science Center went into overdrive for our schoolchildren. They offered live streaming so students could see black and brown bears, moose, bison, porcupines, trumpeter swans, puffins and sea lions in their natural habitat and salmon fry dived from upper Campbell Creek.

Before COVID, our first graders were raising salmon eggs provided by the Department of Fish and Game, and in the spring we released the fry into our inner-city Taku Lake. On these walking excursions, the children were able to observe nesting bald eagles, mallards, trumpeter swans and returning coho salmon in the fall. This all ground to a halt during COVID.

Return to face-to-face classes

At the beginning of the second year of COVID, children and teachers were happy! We were back at school, everyone was wearing masks, having lunch in our own classrooms and sanitizing.

In August 2021 my students were having a hard time adjusting and I shared with our Principal that many students were at Kindergarten level in their development. These children struggled to make friends, make good choices for listening and personal space, and struggled to focus on text and numbers.

What is the biggest light-ha moment that changed readiness? As I delved deeper with observations, assessments, and repeated motion pauses, I realized that time-on-text was primarily related to online materials and that the “reading scan” ability was not yet developed.

Her eyes were all over the map. Did the children develop with attention deficit disorder or ADHD? Yes, I believe due to prolonged computer or device use as well as prolonged screen time.

reading instruction

How could I change my everyday teaching routine for successful learning and reading lessons? Training left-to-right scanning for your young eyes is like learning to kick a soccer ball or learning to ski — a physical skill that also requires mental focus.

I’ve learned to say “reading finger ready” and to expect all children to point their reading finger under the word they are reading. This discipline was established early on with strict consistency, as I noticed the children’s lack of attention to text. We gradually built our skills, seeing words, phonics and phonemes and reading fluently with the rigorous routine of “finger reading”.

All instructions are punctuated by regular “exercise and brain breaks” we take every day: exercise, focus on nearby text; movement, focus on text far; Movement, write, spell, movement.

Visitors roller coaster

Six or more children were absent for many weeks as COVID spread through families. Sometimes the students would show their first symptoms at school: fever, coughing, sneezing, stomach ache, vomiting etc. We had to teach and repeat because one day the students were in class, two weeks away and then back again. This cycle is still ongoing.

Sometimes a child will talk about COVID in our morning “talking group.” This year, children have repeatedly expressed concern for their family members as some have been hospitalized.

“Elective time” is an important developmental activity due to the lack of peer interaction opportunities in the first year. Daily play is important for making friends, learning to read, and developing the language.

The good news is that our children are learning to read! They think about what they read, ask questions and exchange ideas with their peers. The lightbulb comes on and the children can read and are proud to share a book with the whole class or with their family at home.

I asked the students, “What did you do on spring break?” Most of the kids played computer games like Xbox. Few interacted with text. It’s a big change everywhere.

Employee movement and support

We left four certified educators in their second year of COVID. Many days this year teachers were away with COVID and children were affected by the teachers’ absence. Our administrator relocates staff daily to support our students. It’s constant.

I have worked with eight different primary school teachers over the years at my school. I ask why is that? How do we become experts when many first graders move on? Is there enough support for first graders and the teachers responsible for their learning?

Years ago I had the privilege of teaching at Seward. The principal at Seward Elementary taught a group of children to read at Walk to Read. I have never forgotten that. He continued to teach children to read. Just because you teach a skill doesn’t mean a child will learn it. break it up; try to make it a little funny.

where we are today

The students are learn to read! The kids have worked really hard during this second year of COVID, as have all the educators. Every day the children walk through the door smiling, eager and eager to learn. This has not changed.

How can we support first graders as young brains and attention change with increasing exposure to technology?

Experienced first graders (and kindergarten, second graders, and para-educators) are the “reading specialists.” Teaching first grade is a mountain of work and requires the ability to filter out busy little people while juggling growth and instruction. I would put my money into these people who are in the classroom working directly with children.

I think first grade classrooms need full-time helpers to support each student and reading growth for all. In rural Alaska, many teachers come and go. The paraprofessionals or helpers living in the community are involved in the education of children and work in the school center. Para-educators know the families, children and history of the people in their small town. Invest in these people. Encourage them as equals and pay them as professionals.

If we really want to see big leaps in growth in reading, we should train and hire full-time para-educators for day-to-day elementary school support.

First grade teachers are responsible for referring special education students, and this process often takes more than eight months. We provide direction, try new interventions, and track growth (or lack thereof) by brainstorming ways to support a child’s continued growth. For children who are struggling, more support is needed at an earlier stage.

Will the brain development of future generations be affected by screen time?

We agree that we need to focus intensively on learning literacy.

Alaska’s kids will become reader guides if we all jump on board.

Support and finance public education. Read with a child.

Patty Hamre is a first grade teacher in the Anchorage School District.

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