Five-year-old Brownell-Holmes resident Janae Felton and her mom Sherrita Felton walk up to Brownell STEM Academy’s entrance. They’re met outside by a cart full of learning materials like flashcards, crayons, and picture books.
Deanna Maher, an educator of over 25 years and Janae’s kindergarten teacher, walks out to meet with mom and daughter. Sherrita steps aside as Maher and Janae sit down at the table outside the school’s entrance. Maher pulls out a stack of paper cut-outs of numbers and Janae starts excitedly blurting out the numbers on the paper and displaying them with her fingers.
Maher, along with other teachers at Brownell, came up with an idea called "sidewalk school" that would allow students a one-on-one meeting with their teachers as well as an opportunity for teachers to provide training to parents on software like Google Classroom. At Brownell, nearby Holmes STEM Academy, and across the city of Flint, teachers like Maher and parents like Sherrita are making school work for their children during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Maher and Janae Felton go over the letters of the alphabet.
Many children see online schooling as an alternative to traditional in-person education. For kids like Janae who are just starting their academic careers, however, online schooling is the only type of education they know. Parents like Sherrita have a love/hate relationship with this new reality and what it means for them and their kids.
"I work thirds, so I was used to taking them to school and going to sleep," Sherrita says.
Things are a bit easier with her 10- and 13-year-old sons, Sherrita says. They’re more mature and have a better grasp of what online school is. But she says Janae doesn't really "get" the concept of school.
"It’s more like playing on the tablet for her," Sherrita says.
On top of that, Sherrita says she’s had to dedicate a lot of her time to making sure her five-year-old daughter can stay engaged in front of a computer from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. every weekday.
"I think the hardest part was actually to stay focused. She was so used to not doing anything and sleeping in and suddenly it was all like, ‘We gotta get up, gotta get to school,’" Sherrita says. "She actually thought she was going to school, so that was a problem at first."
Maher and her fellow teachers Brownell attempted to solve that problem, at least in a small way, by offering "sidewalk school."
"We always do a beginning-of-the-year assessment with our children," Maher says. "Normally we do it when they’re in the classroom. Due to the fact that we couldn’t this year, we ... had their parents bring them in and we set up a table outside of the Brownell entrance and did assessments with them."
According to Maher, these assessments, which were only to be held a couple of times, soon turned into an opportunity for children to get some much-needed time with their teachers.
After the initial assessments were finished, Maher and her colleagues started scheduling sidewalk school sessions with parents and students who reached out asking for more independent time with teachers. Though not following a strict schedule, these sessions are available to any students who need them.
"We’ve had other times that we’ve had children come in if they’re struggling with something," Maher says. "… With sidewalk school, we are able to interact one-on-one with a student and actually really support them with what they need."
Maher says parents, especially with children as young as Janae, are having to split the work with teachers.
"There are a lot of parents that are helping them with their work afterward with things that we would normally do in class," she says. "I always tell my parents we’re a team. … We need to work together and feel comfortable talking and interacting with each other to make it a successful year for your child and my student."
Sherrita agrees. She says the most difficult aspect of being a parent to an online-only kindergarten student has also been the most rewarding and important to her. Sherrita says as a parent who is able to be present during the day, "you find out first-hand what your kid needs more help with and you can focus on that, as opposed to just sending them to school and waiting until you get the progress report."
Maher and Sherrita Felton go over study materials Janae has to work on at home.
Taking on the additional role of teacher has given Sherrita peace of mind in a time where there is little of it to go around. As a mother of two older sons, she says she’s seen how quickly kids can pick up bad habits – and Janae is no exception.
"She mimics other things," Sherrita says. "She’s so nice and polite but she picks up on everything. Right now you can control the environment."
Maher motions for Sherrita to come over to the table and hands her a bag filled with flashcards, pages from a coloring book, and reading material. Janae grabs on to her mom’s hand but hesitates to leave when Maher starts saying goodbye. Though she wants Janae to have all of the typical social experiences that come with attending school, Sherrita says she’s in no rush to have her daughter return to school.
"I want her to have the interaction with the other kids but at the moment I just want her to be safe," she says.