POMERENE — Every morning, sisters Camryn and Paige Fulcher are up by 7, eat breakfast, do a few chores and are logged in for Zoom classes by 7:45.
Camryn, a Benson High School freshman and Paige, a Pomerene Elementary School sixth-grader, have adapted to the somewhat unchartered world of remote learning as they work on lessons in the comfort of their home, surrounded by their parents and a plethora of family pets.
On this day, Paige is sitting at the kitchen table of her Pomerene home reading through an English lesson on her computer while sharing table space with a dozing cat named Izzy.
Meanwhile, Camryn is seated at a desk in her bedroom where she is participating in a student council meeting. As one of two representatives of her freshman class, Camryn also serves as class secretary. She finished eighth-grade as Pomerene class salutatorian, and is now enrolled at Benson High School, which is where her parents, Lance and Amanda Fulcher, attended school.
“Even though I don’t mind studying at home, I was excited about starting my freshman year at Benson, seeing my friends again after summer break and meeting my new teachers,” Camryn said. “I understand that COVID has created this ‘new normal’ for all of us, but I’m looking forward to getting back to a regular school routine.”
Younger sister Paige had similar comments about starting school this year.
“One of the things I like about doing class work at home is that I can focus better on my assignments,” the 11-year-old said. “It’s easier to get things done because I’m not distracted by my friends.”
Paige did, however, admit that she misses her friends and working in a classroom with her teachers.
“If I’m doing an assignment in school and don’t understand something, it’s good to have my teachers there so I can ask questions and get help,” she said. “Even though working remotely isn’t that bad, I’ll be glad when school reopens.”
Both Pomerene and Benson school districts started classes on July 23, using a remote learning format while waiting for state officials to give districts the OK to reopen campuses.
As COVID-19 made its advance across Arizona last January, Gov. Doug Ducey, in collaboration with state Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman, closed schools across the state to in-person classes around the time students started spring break in March. Students finished the 2020 school year remotely, fully expecting to return to a regular class format in the fall.
But COVID cases continued to rise in Arizona, stalling in-person classes until Aug. 17, at least for now. That date could change as state and local officials watch COVID numbers.
Pomerene School District Superintendent Mike Sherman spoke with the Herald/Review about some of the challenges teachers and families face because of the ever-changing climate that COVID has created for public education.
“Our staff and community have really taken some high ground in this situation,” he said. “Teachers are working extremely hard and families are being very supportive while students are finding traction in this process. Most of all, I feel an overwhelming desire from our students, their families and teachers, to return to school in-person. We have to be smart about how we return, but the vast majority of our staff and community feels that it needs to happen sooner than later.”
Lance Fulcher weighed-in on the situation from a parent’s perspective.
“One of the biggest obstacles with this whole remote learning process is the unknown of what to expect,” he said. “Both schools — Pomerene Elementary and Benson High School — are doing the best they can with the information and technology that is available. But information from the state changes constantly.”
Lance also pointed to socialization and sports programs that students are missing because of school closures.
“An important part of school and growing up is socializing with friends and participating in extracurricular activities,” he said. “Camryn may miss out on volleyball, girls basketball and softball this year, depending on how this plays out across the state.”
Families living in rural communities like Pomerene are challenged with unreliable internet service at times, said Amanda Fulcher, an application support specialist for Arizona Electric Power Cooperative who works from home.
“At the end of the school year, we had four kids at our house working on computers, and I was on a computer as well,” she said. “So, we had five systems going at the same time. Fortunately, the internet service at our house has been fairly reliable, so we were able to help other students.”
When it comes to their girls’ studies, Amanda said that she and Lance make a great “tag team.”
“I’m good at English and social studies and Lance is good at math and science, so we’re managing pretty well,” she said.
Both parents believe teachers are doing their best to deliver quality education despite some of the challenges.
“Most parents recognize that the greater risk for returning in-person lies with our staff,” Sherman said. “Our staff here at Pomerene school believes that it is our duty to take care of the needs of our students and their families.”
Sherman added that members of the healthcare profession are doing the job they signed up for, even with the increased health risks associated with the pandemic, and the schools should follow suit.
“We, too, are here to do the job we signed up for,” he said. “Just as sick people need doctors, nurses, and hospitals, students and their families need teachers and schools.”
Meanwhile, the Fulchers are adjusting the the changes that come with remote learning.
“We have no idea how much longer this is going to continue, so all we can do is make the best of it,” Amanda said. “The girls are really good about following their class schedules, and we just move through the lessons each day. Hopefully, they’re going to reopen the schools on Aug. 17 as planned, but we’ll have to wait and see.”