Across the country, school districts have had to completely rework how they operate. After lockdowns forced school online and after a long summer vacation, students are back in school and learning in unfamiliar ways.
The Middletown Public Schools are currently operating on a hybrid model, with students broken up into three cohorts (A, B, and C) with cohorts A and B alternating between two days of in-person instruction and three days of online, and cohort C being fully online. According to Superintendent of Middletown Public Schools Dr. Michael T. Conner, about 27% of students have opted to attend school completely online this semester.
On Oct. 13th, the Middletown Board of Education voted 5-3 to continue this hybrid model after an initial trial period. Although some parents have expressed their disapproval of the hybrid model, Conner stressed that decisions are being made based on the schools’ data and the area’s current COVID-19 situation.
“[We’re] looking at environmental statistics, looking at the increases or steady cases of COVID, whether it be state-wide, or locally, looking at the hospitalization rates, looking at the percentage of positivity rates,” Conner said. “The primary focus is keeping students and staff safe.”
The several University student groups that interact with Middletown students have also had to adapt to the pandemic. According to Assistant Director of the Jewett Center for Community Partnerships (JCCP) Diana Martinez, the Office of Community Service’s (OCS) 15 student-run volunteer programs must all abide by the new Allbritton Center Guidelines for Community Engagement. These guidelines prohibit on-campus civic engagement and any off-campus engagement that is face-to-face. No-contact drop offs are permitted, as is off-campus, no-contact engagement.
As a result of these new safety restrictions, all of the JCCP’s programs–currently, there are over ten–are being held online. To make getting involved with virtual programs easier for local parents, the JCCP has streamlined the process this year by creating one platform for registration.
“One way we’ve helped connect local families to our programs is our JCCP Virtual Youth Engagement program, which is just one registration form for families to get connected to our myriad of programs based on the child’s age and tutoring needs,” Martinez wrote in an email to The Argus.
Faced with these new challenges, some student groups have stopped their community engagement work altogether.
WesReads/WesMath, which tutored students at MacDonough and Farm Hill Elementary Schools in reading and math, has gone on hiatus this semester.
“We [the coordinators] were told at the beginning of the semester that we would not be able to go into the elementary schools at all, and as the entirety of our program is in-class assistance/tutoring, we are just taking a bit of a break right now,” WesReads/WesMath Coordinator Zali Hock ’22 wrote in an email to The Argus.
In contrast, the University’s Individual Tutoring group has gone completely virtual, conducting tutoring sessions via Zoom. Tutors teach Middletown K-12 students in a variety of subjects. In the past they’d meet on-campus for sessions, forming meaningful connections with students.
“Tutors would play games, check-in with their tutee, and build not only a tutor relationship, but one of friendship and mentorship,” Individual Tutoring Coordinator Daniela Alvarez ’21 wrote in an email to The Argus. “Some of our tutors have met at separate times with their tutee to play tennis or even to have a meal at Usdan!”
But now, things are different.
Denny Yu ’21, who has tutored a 7th grader for about a year and a half, spoke about some of the challenges he has observed with adapting to virtual tutoring.
“It was much easier to do tutoring in-person, and I had not anticipated many of the problems that accompany Zoom tutoring,” Yu said. “It may be especially more difficult for younger students or new tutors who haven’t had time to gel with their tutees.”
Other groups, unable to conduct their regular programming, are changing how they normally operate.
One student group, Adolescent Sexual Health Awareness (ASHA), normally leads sex education workshops in seven local schools. Since in-person workshops aren’t permitted, the ASHA coordinators are working with schools to determine the best way to provide their services, whether through Zoom workshops or other alternatives. The club is also using the time to revise their goals and curriculum, and work on other projects.
“Rather than rush ahead this semester to haphazardly squeeze our in-person workshop into Zoom, we wanted to use this non-normative semester to take a breath, reevaluate our mission, our materials, and go from there,” the ASHA coordinators Grace Stanfield ’21, Leah Baron ’22, Carolina Mahedy ’21 wrote in an email to The Argus.
With a little extra time on their hands, ASHA coordinators shared that they are looking to make their curriculum more inclusive.
“I think a lot of our curriculum is gender blind and race blind and sexuality blind and even though we bring it in, it’s just not intentional enough,” Stanfield said.
Another group that centers on involvement in the community is Cardinal Kids, which used to offer after-school classes taught by University students at the RJ Julia Bookstore. These classes were open to any kids in Middletown. More recently, as school days went longer, attendance declined and the group expanded into Snow and MacDonough schools, running a recurring program with classes taught over the whole semester. University students could pick anything they were passionate about to teach, so class topics varied from journalism to acting to history to eco-crafts.
Co-Coordinator Saoirse Lewis ’22 spoke to the value of working with Cardinal Kids getting to know local families.
“Wesleyan just feels like such a bubble sometimes, and we just really don’t feel connected to the community at all,” Lewis said. “Actually getting to know the people who live here, actually getting to know the community at large is really cool.”
The group has had trouble contacting families and getting responses this semester, but they’ve still run some fun activities, mostly outdoors.
“The activities we did do, were painting rocks with festive halloween and fall decorations and then scattering those rocks at McCarthy park for kids to go on a scavenger hunts with their families, Zoe [Austin ’22] made a map for an interactive walk through Wadsworth park, and we are also hoping to have a zoom mindfulness workshop!” Austin and Lewis wrote in an email to the Argus.
Closer to campus, the Traverse Square After-School Program serves the community of Traverse Square, the federally subsidized housing project next to Junior Village. In the past, the program offered after-school programming every weekday for kids ages two to 13.
“It’s a combination of homework help and then structured activities and free play time,” Traverse Square Coordinator Sophie Williamson ’22 said. “And then we do a Friday program every week…sometimes it’s just us, and we make slime, and other times we partner with other groups or go to places to play basketball, or go to Kid City with them.”
Because of the informal setting, kids and University students formed strong connections and created fun mentoring relationships.
“You really get to know the kids and their individual personalities and then you see them around later on when you’re walking around campus and they start shouting your name, and you go over and chat with them,” Williamson said. “And it’s just really special because they’re so excited to be involved.”
The group was planning to do a virtual version of their activities; however, they had difficulties reaching out to parents and those who they did get in contact with were not interested in the programming they were offering. Feedback prompted them to change their approach.
“Our tutors are now working in two groups,” Williamson wrote in an email to The Argus. “One is focusing on Community Outreach and they are working on creating packets to drop off for the kids and one-off zoom activities. Another is focusing on planning programming for next semester, such as Friday programs, how to host a hybrid or more appealing online version and just generally thinking about the future of Traverse.”
Like Traverse Square, the student group WesBuds also focuses on students living right next to the University. The program partners with the Middlesex Transition Academy (MTA), located on campus off of High Street. At MTA, students ages 18-21 with intellectual and developmental disabilities take classes, complete vocational training, and gain skills to help them transition to adulthood. WesBuds holds various activities for MTA students and teachers to get together with University students, from dances in Beckham Hall to soccer games.
“The students at MTA love coming onto campus and interacting with Wesleyan students and we love that part too,” Co-Coordinator Sela Adegbile ’22 said. “It’s getting to know each other, and a lot of Wesleyan students don’t even know that there’s a school right on our campus, who spend so much time with us and in our spaces, and we share so much space.”
Because of how abruptly last semester ended, students never got to say goodbye to each other, one of many difficulties that the group has faced since the onset of COVID-19.
“Long story short, we have not had the opportunity to spend as much time with the MTA students as we had hoped for,” Co-Coordinator Destinee Castillo ’22 wrote in an email to The Argus. “We did conduct an asynchronous event where we had Wesleyan students film around different locations on campus, ranging from Usdan to their dorms, and conducted a virtual tour.”
Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, some groups are succeeding virtually.
“The motivation for the club is that learning to read as a child is so important for literacy and education going forwards,” Bookbuds Co-Coordinator Leila Etemad ’21 said.
Bookbuds is devoted to promoting children’s literacy in Middletown, especially in low-income and minority areas. In previous years, the group hosted book drives and distributed reading materials through partnerships with local schools, libraries, and the Middletown BookMobile. Additionally, the group also ran literacy-based events with local kids. Now, they’re compiling reading resources for parents, planning a fundraising event for this semester and a book drive for the Spring, and growing their social media.
“We are also still working on distributing books we collected last semester to our community partners, although actually getting these books to kids has been quite difficult due to the pandemic, but this is a work in progress,” Etemad wrote in a message to The Argus.
Coordinators noted the difficulty of communicating with school administrators, parents, and students during a chaotic time. Student leaders said they hope that the JCCP’s new streamlining of parent contact through the virtual youth engagement portal will make this easier for the future.
“Giving us that parent contact is really—I think—something that is beneficial, because it’s giving us direct engagement with the town, rather than being facilitated through third-party people,” Austin said.
Students also commented on the difficulties that online or hybrid learning has posed for local families, teachers, and students.
“I think [students] are tired of being online all the time,” Williamson said.
Lewis echoed the sentiment.
“It’s definitely, I think, a struggle for a lot of families right now. So many parents are also working full-time and they have their own jobs and they can’t really monitor their kids all the time,” Lewis said. “[…] Online learning in general just isn’t the most engaging thing for anyone.”
Conner agreed, but noted the adaptability of teachers in their transition to online education.
“When you have a new paradigm, this radical shift in the paradigm, there’s going to be growing pains,” Conner said. “And I think that every day, we’re getting better at what we’re trying to do.”
Sophie Griffin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.