Durham schools shift to remote learning in wake of COVID-19

In this pre-COVID-19 photo from February, Hillside High English teacher Jenne Scherer hosts an oral history session with the Durham VOICE staff and volunteer historian LeRoy Walker, center. (Staff photo by Jock Lauterer)

Hillside High School math teacher Raychelle Baptist had planned to teach her students about exponential curves after spring break. But then one such curve forced Durham Public Schools to close its doors.

North Carolina reported its first case of COVID-19 on March 3, and just a few weeks later, the state now has over 1,800 confirmed cases. Durham County has 147 cases as of April 2.

“As a math teacher, I was like, ‘This is a perfect real-life example of an exponential curve and how it starts out slow and it skyrockets up to 20, 30, 40, 50 and so forth,’” Baptist said.

To “flatten the curve,” the DPS Board of Education decided on March 12 to close schools for three weeks, two days before Gov. Roy Cooper closed public schools statewide.

DPS originally planned to distribute instructional packets from March 23 to April 3 to students between grades three to 12 at 81 sites across the district. But on March 23, Cooper extended school closures to May 15, which prompted DPS to expand its remote learning plan.

“Nobody knew it was going to be this long,” DPS board member Minnie Forte-Brown said. “Everybody was thinking, ‘Oh, maybe spring break, then another week, then we’ll have this under control.’ Nobody knew it was going to escalate as fast as it has.”

Nakia Hardy, deputy superintendent of academic services, said the district will continue distributing printed work packets through May 15.

At first, these packets only provided work for courses that require students to take end-of-grade (EOG) and end-of-course (EOC) exams. But now she said the district will soon begin offering more subjects, including elementary and middle school sciences, AP English courses and arts, among others. The district also launched a parent resource website, which offers these work packets and provides free supplemental digital resources.

She said they are also encouraging teachers to reach out to their students and teach remotely however they can. Ultimately, she said individual schools and teachers will decide how to best continue teaching their students.

But Hardy said the district strives to maintain equity: If schools offer students digital lessons or materials, they must also offer something comparable in print for students who may not have internet access.

“We don’t want any of the work that we are providing to hurt our students,” Hardy said. “We recognize that we have students that have different layers of access, and we are a district with over 60% of our students who are eligible for free and reduced-price meals.”

In addition to the district’s work packets, Hillside High School is providing supplemental learning resources on its website. But some teachers, like Raychelle Baptist, have gone beyond that.

Baptist teaches ninth-grade math to about 60 students. Normally, she has three classes a day, each with 22 students or less.

Because she and her students were close, she said she decided to begin offering daily tutorial sessions last week through Zoom, an online conferencing tool.

“I don’t want everything to just be via email or text message,” she said. “I want something where we can see each other’s faces and I could read their responses.”

Once students log in, she turns her screen into a whiteboard, and they begin working out problems. Each day she reviews a different topic, none of which includes new material. She said Hillside’s principal, William Logan, asked teachers to refrain from teaching anything new online to ensure fairness for all students.

“It started off with maybe two or three kids whose parents were like, ‘Did you see what Ms. Baptist is doing? Get out! Join that class right now!’” she said.

But by the end of last week, she said 10 to 12 students had joined her sessions.

Hillside High School English teacher Jenne Scherer, working remotely from home. (Photo courtesy of Jenne Scherer(

Hillside High School teacher Jenne Scherer teaches English to 73 ninth-grade students. She said she’s been reaching out to them through an app called Remind, Google Classroom and an online English curriculum tool called StudySync.

She said she can reach about 70% of her students on Remind, which she uses to send them announcements about schoolwork and other opportunities. Last week she gave her students three assignments through Google Classroom and StudySync, but she said she didn’t receive many responses.

“I’m still hoping for more numbers, but at the same time I do not blame them at all if they just completely disregard it,” Scherer said. “It took me a week just to get my head around what was happening.”

She said she really misses seeing her students’ faces every day. Without standing in her classroom, she joked that she doesn’t understand what day it is.

“I wonder: What is the point of my existence? Like what am I doing?” she joked. “I’ve just been thrown into this stay-at-home mother mode.”

She has two children, a 5-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son, a second-grader at Southwest Elementary. She said she’s been staring at the wall, trying to come up with things to do with them. It’s hard for them, she said, since they can’t go on playdates, go to class or play basketball.

“My daughter yesterday just asked me in a very demanding way, ‘I want some homework!’” Scherer said, laughing. “So I printed her out the homework.”

It’s kind of like her job, she said, but only with her own children.

Baptist, too, said she misses interacting with her students. She said she’s used to a routine – walking into the classroom, hearing her students complaining about her healthy eating habits and chattering about other things.

“They say, ‘This is going on in class, and Ms. Baptist, you got a new hairstyle? Or have you gained weight?’” she said slyly. “‘Just a little.’”

When school was open, she held lunch tutorials on Tuesdays and Thursdays, where students could come to her classroom and ask questions, get extra makeup work or simply vent.

“They had that option to be able to come and just sit in my classroom and talk,” Baptist said. “So now that that’s gone, I’m like, ‘Wow, we took for granted being able to always interact with each other.’”

Scherer said distance learning and interacting virtually with her students just doesn’t compare with seeing them face-to-face.

“I love my work,” she said. “And I can’t really think about not going back until May 15.”