Back to ‘School’

Illustration: Michele McCammon

The 2020-21 school year is off to an unusual start, with complicated virtual class schedules, COVID-19 outbreaks, and parents and teachers scrambling to keep up as plans and policies change—sometimes from one week to the next. What’s it like to be in the (real or virtual) classroom right now? We asked alums working in education around the country to give us a Zoom’s-eye view of what back-to-school looks like for them as the school year unfolds.

Jump to: Episode I: Molly Pont-BrownEpisode 2: Salina Gray

Episode 3: Monique Payton

At the time of our interview, Monique Payton, MA ’10, former principal of a Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) elementary school in Houston, was overseeing 22 elementary schools as the managing director of primary schools for KIPP Texas. KIPP is a network of college-preparatory public charter schools serving more than 100,000 elementary, middle and high school students nationwide. She is now a senior consultant with Bellwether Education Partners. 

Portrait of Monique PaytonPhoto: Courtesy Monique Payton


STANFORD: How has your job has been shaped by the pandemic?

Payton: All I do is the pandemic. All we do is plan for this. And we’re building a plane as we’re flying it because we’re building a completely different school system. While we utilized blended learning and technology [before the pandemic], the system was not set up in this way. And when we switched to virtual learning in the spring, that was very reactive. We took some time over the summer to really plan more in depth what virtual instruction could look like; how to blend asynchronous and synchronous instruction to give students opportunities to have touch points with teachers and get short cycles of feedback on their learning. We took time to really think about that and think about the teacher development needed to support those changes. At the same time, we can have the best plans in place, but when we think about where people are mentally and physically, much of the execution comes down to their capacity, and this is really hard for everyone.

I think everyone is having to step back and really think about what is most important, which is, are people healthy and safe? Do kids feel like they have connected relationships with the people around them? Do they feel safe? We start with basic needs, and then we focus on the learning. Even then, the learning is really focused on what skills and content are most important. We will catch up. But we’ve got to take care of our kids. We’ve got to make sure that our families feel supported in the world.

What’s happening in KIPP Texas schools right now?

We started virtual-only on August 24, and we planned to continue virtual-only through October. However, to comply with Texas Education Agency guidelines, as well as parent and student needs, we need to offer some level of in-person instruction. So we’ll be offering in-person learning for a cohort of students while we phase in the rest of our students and schools with an option of in-person learning.

‘I think our teachers feel it the hardest, having to completely adapt their practice and also manage their own lives successfully for the sake of our kids.’

We took the first two weeks to do a needs assessment with all of our families. What additional service or support do they need? And then, based on that, we’ll be providing additional support and resources. KIPP’s student demographic includes a high percentage who would be categorized as economically disadvantaged, so we prioritized providing access to technology and other resources. Every region is also going to have a family emergency fund, so we’re making sure that our families have access to funds or resources that will support them in this time. Just this week, evictions were allowed to occur, until the CDC said people should not be evicted in the current state of this pandemic. But there are plenty of families that were already evicted in Houston before that. So there’s a lot of work to do to make sure that our kids and our families are safe.

What are some of the struggles you’re seeing right now?

I think for teachers, they’re struggling with a new method of learning, right? They’re used to being in person with their children, walking around the classroom and looking at their student’s work, giving feedback, and just being engaged in that way. We’ve kind of stepped away from the “sage on the stage” thing, the type of teaching that is all focused on the teacher. We work to have instruction that is student-centered, where kids are engaged and do the heavy lifting of learning. So I think what’s been challenging for teachers is how to create really engaging lessons and have those touch points with the kids in a virtual space.

I think another one is that our teachers have families of their own. They are very much frontline workers who are keeping the country going in this way. And when we do get to the point where they come back on campus, they have to decide if they want to take that risk for their families or if they are going to exit out of the profession—those are things that people are really grappling with. I think our teachers feel it the hardest, having to completely adapt their practice and also manage their own lives successfully for the sake of our kids.

‘I don’t want to risk someone getting very sick or something even more tragic like someone passing away because we couldn’t get it together.’

Of course we talk to our parents about being partners in our schooling, but now they really have to be our partners. This is not just homework help. They have to keep kids on track and working independently while [the parents are] also working from home or going to work. There have been times when we see our kids and they’re sitting in their parents’ places of work because that’s where they have internet access. We’ve done a lot of work to get our kiddos MiFi and things like that, but if the parents don’t have any other childcare, kids are coming with them and doing their work there. So it’s been a highly adaptive time for people, but I’ve also seen families come together and really support each other, stating, “Well, we’ll have the kids over here today.” They basically have been doing learning pods before learning pods even existed.

What questions are you thinking about in terms of safely reopening? 

I think the biggest thing that I’m struggling with is that we’ve got tons of policies and procedures, but human beings don’t like to follow policies, to be quite honest! We’ve got a lot of things in place, obviously, like taking temperatures when kids get out of the car, and we have smaller class sizes and distance protocols. But I’m most concerned about people truly being able to follow the policies, and any outbreaks that happen. Because what we’ve seen is anyone who’s gone back so far has closed down, whether the next day, or within a week or two weeks, and had to go back to the drawing board. And I don't want to risk someone getting very sick or something even more tragic, like someone passing away, because we couldn’t get it together. I would love for us to be as slow as possible when it comes to that phase-in, just to make sure that we account for every single little thing. We have these great social distancing policies and protections. But it looks different when you’re actually in the buildings.

With a bunch of wiggly elementary schoolers who want to hug their teachers and take their masks off because they’re itchy.


So, about the masks. Are the kids going to wear them? 

As of right now, we have shared with parents that we expect kids to wear them throughout the day. We will see if the state makes policy to mandate that students wear masks in schools, but we have made the decision to prioritize health and safety by expecting everyone to wear a mask.

Is there something you wish people understood about what it’s like to be involved in these decisions? 

I think that we see these very polarizing arguments. You see parents who say, “We need to go back to work; schools need to fully open; our kids have to go back to school.” And then on the other side, we have educators saying that people do need to go to work and we do need a functioning economy, however, we also need to make sure that everyone is safe because teachers are also going to work and putting their own lives on the line, and putting their own kids on the line too. And I think if we had more dialogue and a little bit more empathy and understanding for one another, I think we’d get a lot further and be able to find reasonable solutions.

We are in a highly political time, and it’s very easy to demonize a lot of different folks. I honestly would rather just kind of take a step back, think about humanity, and have a little empathy for anyone who has a different opinion than I do.

Episode 2: Salina Gray

Salina Gray, PhD ’14, teaches seventh-grade science at a middle school of 1,300 students in Southern California. It is her first year at the school.

Headshot of Salina GrayPhoto: Courtesy Salina Gray


STANFORD: Can you give us a snapshot of what’s happening at your school right now?

Gray: The students came back on August 12. We are completely online. Every day, the students are receiving a combination of synchronous instruction on Zoom and asynchronous instruction, where they might be interacting with work on Google Classrooms. On October 30, I believe there’ll be some conversation to determine if we’re going to continue with distance learning or move to a different model. So there’s some comfort in knowing that at least for the first two months and a couple of weeks, this is what we will be doing. I think it has helped me be a little more settled.

What’s it like building relationships with a new group of kids in a remote-learning environment?

That’s actually been the part that has been pretty smooth and enjoyable. I started out on Day One with some social-emotional learning strategies, really working to create a safe, comfortable online learning space with the students. I do daily check-ins with them, and the check-ins are check-ins with themselves, and so I ask them in a bunch of different ways how they’re feeling. The first day, I taught them this idea of a personal weather report, and they really loved it. Just the fact that I was asking them questions and they were sharing. It was the first day, so a lot of their responses were in the chat because they weren’t fully comfortable sharing yet. But the feedback I got from the students was really, really positive.

What are some of this age group’s particular challenges or needs, and how are those needs affected by distance learning?

This is the age when they really begin to wrestle and struggle with identities. In science in particular, there is something called a science identity. For some students, that science identity feels more natural or accessible, whereas for other students, specifically those who’ve been traditionally and historically marginalized and disenfranchised, the science identity doesn’t feel as natural or germane. I think for far too many students who actually really like science and math and find them interesting, there is not enough in the world that makes them feel that pursuing a STEM career is even an option for them. And so I think it’s really important that science and STEM teachers be mindful of that and think about ways that they can cultivate the development of a science identity in their students. It doesn’t mean that they have to go into science, but at least we want all students to feel that if they wanted to, they could.

‘Once we return, whatever return looks like, we can’t go back to where we were.’

This is just as important in a remote setting as it is in person. I put a lot of thought into the content and into the visuals. When I do a Google slide deck, I make sure that I include images of young people who are Black and brown, because 99 percent of my students are collectively Black and brown. I make sure I put images of Black scientists and Latino scientists and I make sure that I have a nice selection of female scientists. Part of it is just making sure the visuals promote inclusiveness and diversity. More inclusive than diverse—diversity is certainly that first level, but I don’t want it to be superficial. And when I talk to them, I am constantly affirming that they are scholars and scientists. So in this first month, it’s been a lot of that. Really watching the imagery and being very mindful of the language that I use.

Are there a lot of hands-on activities in seventh-grade science? How are you handling that?

That’s one of the conversations, I think, nationally, that science teachers are having, especially now that we’ve adopted the Next Generation Science Standards, which are about exploring, explaining and investigating phenomena. Much of it is moving away from just direct instruction and really getting students to explore and to manipulate and to ask questions. And so the challenge is how do we give students some type of experience with investigative phenomena and inquiry across a distance-learning platform.

At my school, I’m part of a really strong science team that is collaborating to talk about demonstrations that we can do through distance learning. We’re also thinking about lab activities or experiences that students can have using things that they can find around home, while also paying attention to equity, because not all students have access to the same materials. Next week they will do their first at-home investigation, where they will test the effect of movement on their heart rate.

From your perspective, are there lessons to be learned from school closures and distance learning that will change education for the better?

Before the pandemic, and I can just speak for myself, I was really low-tech. I was a fairly effective teacher in many ways. Where I was not effective, however, was in terms of the use of technology, or in terms of getting kids excited about technology, of conveying the benefits and the wonders of technology. And I had to learn a whole new way of providing instruction.

I think there are some things about distance learning, some tools, that people are going to fall in love with. The features on Google Classroom, Zoom polling, Google Slides and Docs as interactive notebooks, and Flipgrids and Jamboards as ways students can communicate their understanding are just some of them. Once we return, whatever return looks like, we can’t go back to where we were. I think that this is potentially going to help educators really come into the future in a way that maybe many of us, people like me, were able to get away with not doing before. All of that is going to change, and it should. We’re a tech world, and we should upgrade. And it’s a really big upgrade.

What do you think are the most important questions we, collectively, should be considering when we talk about reopening schools?

I think that there’s been a lot of psychological-emotional, economic and all kinds of harm that people have experienced during this time. And so I think that it would be a question around how do we tend to or at least acknowledge the myriad of harm that has been caused? I don’t mean intentional harm. But for the essential worker who has two or three children and no childcare, or someone who’s home and has two or three children who are all at different grade levels and they have to distance learn, or people with parents and family and friends who’ve been sick—I think there’s something in between where we are now and being back in the classroom, hybrid or otherwise. That’s the space where I think my questions lie. What does going back look like in light of where we’ve been and what we’ve experienced?

Episode 1: Molly Pont-Brown

Molly Pont-Brown, ’94, teaches fourth grade at a public school in Scottsdale, Ariz. She spoke with Stanford on August 29, three weeks after school started online. At the time, new COVID cases were trending downward in Arizona. This week, she found out her school will be returning to in-person learning at near-full capacity at the end of September.

Headshot of Molly Pont-BrownPhoto: Courtesy Molly Pont-Brown


STANFORD: Tell us a little bit about your school and what a “normal” day (air quotes intended) looks like right now.

Pont-Brown: I have a class of 24 fourth graders at my neighborhood school. It’s the school my children attended. It’s a pretty affluent neighborhood, and it is a desirable school that a lot of people try to open-enroll into. About 11 percent of our students get free or reduced lunch. Our district got meals out to families [after we went virtual in the spring] and continued to do that throughout the summer. They got devices to families immediately last spring.

We were supposed to start school this year on August 10. The governor, Doug Ducey, delayed that to August 17 for all schools, and then things were very up in the air with not a lot of information. Most districts, I think, went ahead and started virtually like we did on August 10. So that's where we are right now—we’re virtual all day together on Zoom.

The kids start their day at 8:45 a.m., and they end at 2:15 p.m. They have a 45-minute lunch, and they have 45 minutes where they go to the PE, art or music teachers. And then we’ve built in a couple of breaks. We try to do some instruction and then some independent work time so they’re not constantly looking at the screen. And we were able to send home some materials, so there are things they can do on paper instead of on the screen. From 2:15 to 3:15, we have office hours, when they can check in with me for extra help or questions.

What’s being talked about in terms of next steps?

Our governor has been very reticent to make any mandates. His health and education departments released some metrics that can be used as guidelines for school boards to determine when it is safe to reopen. Basically, you’re in the green, yellow or red zone. When you’re in the green zone, you can fully reopen. When you’re in the red zone, you’re fully virtual. In the yellow zone, you may consider a hybrid situation. In my district, we have been in the yellow zone for two weeks. 

It’s just constantly evolving and being figured out. This affects different age groups so differently. I think the kindergarten teachers recognize that their students are experiencing such developmentally inappropriate instruction right now over Zoom that they are eager to try something else. Whereas those of us who have the older kids see that this is actually working OK—it’s not ideal, but the kids are learning. They are in a groove now. And I think a lot of us would have liked to wait until at least fall break to change anything. 

I worked so hard last year on my classroom community . . . Starting out the school year not knowing the kids and trying to develop that virtually is a whole different ball game.

We can’t really use our outdoor spaces right now, at least not in my part of the state. It’s just absolutely too hot. If we were to wait until mid-October to return, then we could really avail ourselves of the outdoor spaces we have. We could have students eat lunch outside. My school has more than 700 kids, and we’ve got a fairly small cafeteria. Getting an entire grade level in that cafeteria at once is just not remotely safe. We’re going to be lucky to get three feet [between students] in our classrooms.

What have some of the biggest challenges been so far?

For the kids, I think that engagement with the material and focus is definitely a challenge virtually. And so we’re trying to do a lot of movement, a lot of mindfulness, breathing, things like that for them. And their social-emotional development is a huge issue right now. I worked so hard last year on my classroom community, and I really feel like that’s what got my class and me through last spring together. Starting out the school year not knowing the kids and trying to develop that virtually is a whole different ball game. I have four students who are brand-new to the school, so trying to help them foster relationships with other kids is definitely challenging.

What about for you?

Tech has been a huge challenge for me personally, and for a lot of teachers. I can’t tell you how many YouTube videos I’ve watched to learn different things. I think in the first week [after closing schools] in March I learned 10 new apps. I can Loom you, I can Zoom you, I can Flipgrid and Screencastify and NoRedInk you—you name it, I’m trying it. I think everyone is.

I did punctuation bingo a couple of days ago where I teach them about a bunch of different fun punctuation marks—what’s an ampersand, an asterisk, an ellipsis—and then we play a bingo game. Well, at school I have all the bingo cards ready to go and we can just play it, but it took me an hour last weekend to find a website where I could make a virtual bingo game. The kids absolutely loved it, but that was a single 20-minute activity! Every activity that you’ve ever done has to be reimagined and reinvented for the virtual format.

Last week, we had a monsoon, and then one morning, half of us didn’t have power or internet—including me. And then a couple of days later, there was a Zoom outage, and then a couple of days after that, our math textbook sort of disappeared off of the platform that the kids use. So it’s, like, every day there’s something new, and the kids are all looking at you like “What should I do?” And I don't know.

How do you hope we come out of this? Is there anything we could learn as a result of this pandemic that could end up improving education?

I hope we emerge from this with an increased understanding of how important social-emotional development is for kids. I hope that we have a reduced emphasis on testing, and that we’ve learned it’s not as critical as it’s been made to seem.

The other thing is, I think there are a lot of opportunities to use technology in the future in really creative ways that we haven’t availed ourselves of in the past. For example, we’ve been able to take our students virtually to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, and they go all around the museum on a scavenger hunt using virtual reality. They absolutely loved that. I love doing writing with my kids using Google Docs or Google Slides because I can give in-depth feedback without having to constantly collect a paper, write on it and pass it back. And the kids can act on my feedback much more easily than if we’re doing paper-and-pencil drafting.

I also just hope that overall we’ll return with an increased appreciation for our public schools and what they do for kids. And nationwide and especially here in Arizona, I hope that appreciation translates into actual financial support for what we’re trying to do.

From your perspective, what are the most important questions we should be thinking about in terms of bringing kids back to school in person?

I think right up there is definitely thinking about our most vulnerable populations and how we can meet their needs. English-language learners, students who receive special services, our youngest students—those are the students we need to be really looking out for as we make changes and figure out our plans.

By vulnerable, you mean vulnerable to the effects of missing in-person school, right? Not vulnerable to COVID-19?

Yes, exactly. The children who hardly logged on in the spring, for example, because of barriers they might be facing at home or other issues.

I would also say we really need to consider how we can craft a plan that is slow and deliberate and careful enough that we are not needing to majorly modify it every couple of weeks. Because every time we upend everything and go to a new program, it results in weeks of adjustment for the families, the educators and the students, and that reduces the amount of learning that’s taking place. I think we’ve all gotten used to being flexible, but this has been a test for everyone.

Charity Ferreira is a contributing editor at Stanford. Email her at