Distance Makes the Learning Harder

Distance Makes the Learning Harder

Even more challenges for some of ‘the most impacted students in the region’


Student making cupcakes in home kitchen  

Matthew Schmitt, a sophomore at East Hampton High School who is enrolled in a BOCES food preparation program, recently made cupcakes as part of a distance learning assignment.

Toni Ann Schmitt



By Christine Sampson

April 16, 2020


Chef Jill Hamill has quite the following on YouTube lately. In just a few days, a handful of her cooking videos have racked up hundreds of views and subscribers.


They aren’t your everyday videos for foodies — they are lessons for her students in the Eastern Suffolk Board of Cooperative Educational Services food preparation class, one of dozens of career-focused programs in which East End students are enrolled.


Ms. Hamill’s video lessons are just one example of ways that educators and students are able to connect while the Covid-19 pandemic has forced the closure of schools and moved classrooms into the online realm. The challenges appear to be particularly pronounced for students in career and technical programs, bilingual classes, and special education programs.


“Originally, I wasn’t sure how this was going to work out because this is a very unprecedented experience,” Ms. Hamill said in an interview this week. “I sent a lot of packets of work home, a lot of review. Then I felt like that wasn’t enough and I needed to supplement that. Obviously it’s very difficult to simulate or recreate the learning experience that occurs in the kitchen at school. By creating this channel, I can post recipes, tutorials, and cooking techniques. They can see me and hear my voice.”


The cooking videos are meaningful to Matthew Schmitt, an East Hampton High School sophomore who is enrolled in Ms. Hamill’s class. “It’s different every day,” he said, when asked what he likes about the online version of his program. “I like it more than regular school. Less thinking and more doing.”


“It wasn’t just sitting down and reading passages and answering questions,” said Matthew’s mother, Toni Ann Schmitt, who is a reading specialist at the John M. Marshall Elementary School. “There were interactive activities that included the family. Recipes, watching the TV show ‘Chopped’ and analyzing it, math activities where they have to double or halve recipes. There are some articles about the history of food. It’s very varied.”


Amanda Reifsteck, a Pierson High School senior who is enrolled in the BOCES food preparation program, said the distance version of career education is a 180-degree experience from her other classes at Pierson. It’s more interactive and more enjoyable, she said. “There are different things going on for sure. At Pierson it’s all online classes. You go on Google Classroom. You press ‘turn in’ for homework, at the top. It’s harder, because I’m normally not on my computer very often.”


But she misses Ms. Hamill and her classmates, and plans to finish the BOCES program next year, after she graduates from high school. Most programs allow that for students who start two- year career and tech programs as seniors.


In special education, BOCES has “the most impacted students in the region, because those are the kids who come to us and are not educated in their home districts because we have specialized services,” said Peggie Staib, Eastern Suffolk BOCES associate superintendent for educational services. “We spent two days sending out augmentative speech equipment, physical therapy equipment like trikes and standing tables, lots of manipulatives, Chromebooks, and iPads. That’s what we concentrated on — contacting every student and finding out what they needed.”


Schools are required to provide “free and appropriate education” for students with disabilities, and to the best of her knowledge, Ms. Staib said BOCES continues to do that now. Counseling services and other elements are still in place.


“Sometimes it’s a Facetime call with a student. Sometimes it is a telephone call,” she said. “We get stories every day from parents and teachers who are witnessing this happening. Maybe the entire family got in on the session to help the student do the physical therapy they needed. Parents deserve so much credit for helping their children, stepping in and managing all of this while working from home and raising other children.”


Julian Barrowcliffe of Sag Harbor, who has two neurotypical sons and one son with autism, knows that everyone is doing the best they can with special education, but said there is a degree of uncertainty.


“If you take whatever the challenges are for a regular teacher, teaching regular kids — and there are definitely challenges that come with that — just extrapolate that and square it. That’s one of the major issues,” he said.


Parents of special education students also worry about regression, Mr. Barrowcliffe added. “A lot of what parents of neurotypical children are trying to do right now is maintain their academic progress . . . for parents of special-needs kids, they’re trying not to go backwards. If you take away the quite intensive daily therapies they receive directly, for long periods of time — this is looking like months — they can regress quite rapidly. They can lose speech, cognitive ability, and focus.”


Cindy Allentuck, East Hampton’s director of special education, said it is  “hard to expect that a parent can sit next to a child who can’t manipulate a computer by themselves because they’re 4. Some can navigate an iPad, but not every 4-year-old can sit and attend for longer than five minutes. Some can do 15 minutes or half an hour, but to be teaching them in person when they’re that age is very beneficial. You can see when they’re fatiguing and losing interest, and you can do things that are harder to do on the computer screen.”


“This is going to have an end. I don’t know when that end is, but I’m looking forward to being in the school environment again,” she said.


Teaching languages other than English is also tough these days, and student participation in East Hampton is inconsistent, according to Elizabeth Reveiz, the district’s director of English as a new language, and bilingual education. The district has handed out hundreds of Chromebooks and provided subscriptions to apps and software for the children to use, including Babble, Duolingo, Rosetta Stone, Flipgrid, and Google Classroom.


“There’s probably more participation at the elementary level than there is at the secondary level,” Ms. Reveiz said. “We’re still trying to reach everybody and give everyone support.”


Reading assignments are generally available in English and Spanish, she said. An administrative intern has created bilingual guides to meditation and relaxation for students. Spanish-speaking guidance counselors have continued providing assistance. State tests for English language learners have been canceled, which may interfere with students’ placement in classes for next year. Teresita Winter, East Hampton’s bilingual community liaison, has been on the phone constantly with families who have needs, Ms. Reveiz said.


“We’re kind of building the airplane as we fly,” she said. “We’re trying to do as much as we can with what we have.”