An interview with David Pines, educator and former policy maker: Transitioning to remote education during Covid-19.

By Yamanda Boukmakh, Head of Partnerships

 

“I retired for about a month in 2019 and decided I was going to return to the classroom, so I renewed my teaching certifications and began teaching middle school algebra,”
∼ David Pines, M. Ed. and Humanist

 

David Pines is one of those uniquely inspiring educators that you are lucky to cross paths with once in your life. Not only has he taught in elementary, middle schools and universities, he has also worked with the federal US government on policies around youth directing activities focusing on national and international juvenile violence/substance abuse prevention, the environment, media literacy, and youth accountability. David is currently the executive director of The Possibility Fund, a local non-profit working to transform the education system in Chester, Pennsylvania, USA, where the average student is several grade levels behind in reading and math and 85% of the students are on public supported food programs, which means they live in poverty.

 

David returned to the classroom a month into his retirement, teaching 8th-grade mathematics at Toby Farms Intermediate School in Pennsylvania, something he had not done in 45 years. In this interview, I talk to David about his experience returning to the classroom merely a couple of weeks before the school closings due to COVID-19.

 

The big challenge then was how do we continue learning in a digitally divided community? So there was a bit of panic in the administration… I don’t want to characterize it as panic, but no one was prepared for this type of educational emergency. So it took a lot of creative thinking.

 

Yamanda: How has your school changed since the closings?

 

David: The biggest challenge we faced is transferring digital learning from the classroom to students’ homes. While we had Chromebooks in the classroom, most students had no computers or connectivity in their homes. The big challenge then was how do we continue learning in a digitally divided community? So there was a bit of panic in the administration… I don’t want to characterize it as panic, but no one was prepared for this type of educational emergency. So it took a lot of creative thinking.

 

Yamanda: What was one of the first steps you took as a school?

 

David: Teachers were not prepared for online teaching, nor were students prepared for online learning and the asynchronous learning model. The very first thing we decided was to give students packets of work- you know give them physical things to do. So the very first thing was creating teams of staff that were distributing packets all in that bit of chaos with curriculum instruction. But, we had 350 Chromebooks that were locked in the classroom… a group of teachers advocated for the distribution of the Chromebooks, but there was pushback because they were school property.

 

Yamanda: How did the teachers come together and did you eventually get the Chromebooks out to the students?

 

There was enough advocacy from the teachers and the principal for the administrators to realize that we needed to get the technology in the hands of students who don’t have access to it.

 

David: There was enough advocacy from the teachers and the principal for the administrators to realize that we needed to get the technology in the hands of students who don’t have access to it. Thanks to additional pressure from the state, we were able to partner with the largest local cable company to give families who were on some kind of support or assistance program free of basic Internet service and forgive any bills. This was a MAJOR step as most families couldn’t afford ten dollars a month for basic cable. So those two things, the school district deciding that, YES, we can lend out the Chromebooks and the cable company saying, OK, we’ll give out several months of free Internet.


Yamanda: That is really amazing, the coming together of the entire community. So how did you actually make that happen, how were students able to get the tools they needed to get started with remote learning?


David: Teachers really came together and put in the extra work to support their community: Overnight I created my teacher webpage, daily zoom classroom hours, weekly posting of lesson plans, and links to interactive workbooks. Then we volunteered to go to the school on a daily basis where we distributed the Chromebooks by grade level (logging every serial number) and students could come to the school cafeteria to pick them up with their parents or guardians. We also gave out physical copies of their textbooks, workbooks, and anything else they have been working with throughout the year.


Now, one of the incentives was that these students are on breakfast and lunch programs and the school continued the healthy food support program, so every family who showed up for the materials also got a nourishing meal for the day for the family… we were distributing a hundred meals a day!


Yamanda: Yes, having that extra incentive is definitely a game-changer. How has this experience been for you as a new teacher in the school?


David: One of the unintended rewards and consequences for me has been to meet the parents of my students when giving them a Chromebook or meal package. Everybody is wearing masks and everyone is keeping their distance, but it is familiar to them. I have this one student who would come every morning and pick up a meal bag, and he would just kind of sit in a chair while I gave out the packets to other parents.

 

This is important to our community… you don’t need to say or do anything, but you feel that comfort of something that is familiar to you. And it could also be an escape from the amount of civil unrest that is happening in the United States right now, particularly in communities of color and urban centers. I can’t say unprecedented, but I haven’t seen anything like this since the 60s. The injustices that these communities have suffered for so many years, their frustrations and anxieties, are showing up in these kids. They need to know that somebody really does care. And they know their teachers do. Someone once told me that crisis is both danger and opportunity. Let’s take a couple of deep breaths and thoughtfully reflect on our learnings from this crisis and take the opportunity to transform and reimagine education.

 

Want to know more about my conversation with David? Read the next blog post where he shares the best pieces of advice for teachers to best support their students during school closings. Read the post here.

 

David Pines, M. Ed. and Humanist