The kindergartners in Jaumall Davis' class were supposed to log back into Google Meets at 11:20 a.m. Wednesday for math.
When the meeting started, Davis only had one student, Winter, on screen.
"Hey, Winter, welcome back!" Davis said into his computer, where Winter sat in front of a beach background she found in the application's settings. Davis, alone in his Oyler School classroom, prompted the lone student to get started on some warm-up questions. "These are easy, peasy, lemon squeezy," he said.
Some teachers work from home during remote school, but Davis said he prefers being in his classroom in Lower Price Hill.
Davis welcomed each student individually as they trickled into his virtual classroom. Derrick's mom said he took a nap during the lunch break, so Derrick was still a bit groggy logging in. Other students whistled and made funny faces close to their front cameras after joining.
Cincinnati Public Schools went virtual last week after officials said there were major staffing shortages districtwide. Other local school districts canceled school days, went remote or added temporary mask mandates in the weeks following winter break, citing similar issues. More than half of the region's public schools were closed Friday due to COVID-19 illness, staff shortages and weather.
The trickiest part of virtual learning for Davis was playing "producer" on top of teaching the kids, he said. He constantly switched between the Google Meet and PowerPoint windows, pausing throughout the lesson to mute and unmute students.
"Give Mr. Davis a minute here," he repeated as he searched for the right tab.
Some kids had their own technical difficulties during class: trouble finding the unmute button or getting to the right homepage to see Davis' screen, taking off their headphones in the middle of class, connectivity issues that led to frozen 5-year-old faces on Davis' laptop.
Nontechnical challenges arose, too.
"Claudia, where's your glasses?" Davis said towards the end of the lesson. "Claudia, go find your glasses."
He encouraged the kids to use their fingers to solve simple addition problems. One student used his mom's fingers, too, when he ran out of his own in counting to 12.
Davis said some of the disruptions are welcome, though: meeting his students' parents, siblings, cousins and pets.
Winter's little brother and father stepped into her frame to say hello before logging off. The class also got to virtually meet Cinsere's new baby sister.
"This is my favorite part," Davis told The Enquirer. "It cracks me up."
Throughout the 40 minute lesson, no more than 10 of Davis' 22 students had logged on.
'I want them here'
After math class, Davis said his throat was dry. He feels like he expends just as much energy teaching remotely as he does in person.
Davis said about half of his students have been logging on since the district went remote last week – which, he said, was "better than I expected." Some of his parents work and can't be around to help their kids get logged in, he said. Others have connectivity issues; sometimes he "loses" students throughout the day.
Attendance rates have varied across the district during remote learning, board of education member Mike Moroski told The Enquirer.
"The attendance reports that I have seen have not been bad. And some have been good," he said. "And there have been some schools, I think, at large, where the attendance has been better than it has since we came back from the break (while classes were in person)."
Parents and students in the community have expressed both positive and negative experiences with virtual learning. Some noted at-home distractions made things difficult, while others enjoy the individual attention they can receive while remote. The consensus among learning experts and teachers, though, remains that the best and safest option for students is in-person learning.
“We absolutely firmly believe that the best education for students is face to face with their teacher," Ohio Federation of Teachers President Melissa Cropper said earlier this month. “We also have to understand that just being in school is not necessarily good education if half the staff is absent.”
Davis said he'll likely have to circle back to the lessons he's done in remote once his students return to the classroom. Some students never logged into his virtual class, so they'll be behind, and others who were there might have had a little too much help from their parents in completing assignments.
"I want them here," Davis said. "I fear that they'll regress."
This is Davis' 18th year teaching, and second year at Oyler School. He has always taught in Cincinnati Public, he said.
The school's principal, Michael Allison, said Davis "always has the kids' best interest at heart" and has high expectations for each of his students, who must learn how to read during kindergarten.
Walking through the childless hallways of Oyler School Wednesday, Allison wore a Madhatter Baseball sweatshirt and a tie-dye face mask.
Students will need to "get reacclimated" once they return on Monday, Allison said. He saw the same transition period last year. Each student has their own specific set of needs, which requires a full staff – something the district said it didn't have in the weeks following the winter break.
Interim Superintendent Tianay Amat sent a message to district families on Tuesday affirming the district's commitment to in-person learning starting next week.
"We are looking forward to being back in person and appreciate everything that our teachers and staff, families, partners and students have done to ensure learning has continued while we've been in our remote learning model," Amat wrote.
No more districtwide shutdowns?
On Saturday, the board of education committed to only go remote on a school-by-school basis moving forward. That had been the protocol before last week's districtwide decision.
Moroski said he won't predict what could happen in the future, but is not comfortable saying there will never be remote learning across the district again.
"We may not make the decision to close districtwide like we did a week and a half ago, I think we can say that," he said. "But there is a scenario where we can end up closing school by school until every school is remote."
On Saturday, district administrators presented a health and safety update to the board, noting that early evidence showed teacher attendance and substitute fill rates had improved during virtual learning.
Davis said his kids want to be in school. He could tell some were bummed to be going into virtual learning last week on their last day in-person.
"You can see they know, like, 'Oh man, we're not coming back here tomorrow,' " Davis said.
Davis wants them in the classroom, too: to feel safe, to get a good meal – and to learn.
Plus, virtual school is exhausting. "Even for me, three hours is a long time," Davis said. His students are scheduled to be back face-to-face with him on Monday.
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Cincinnati Public kindergarten students challenged by remote learning