Alumni In Action: Educator Emily Petersen ’17 helps her community

The first grade teacher discusses the shift to remote learning and its impact on herself, her students and her community.

Like many educators across the nation, Emily Petersen ’17, a first-grade teacher in Howard County, Maryland, is facing a shift in educational practices due to COVID-19. Petersen, who grew up in Howard County, had always been passionate about student involvement, community service and volunteering.

During her time at Elon, Petersen participated in service projects and volunteer opportunities, strengthening her passion to help others. When she graduated in 2017, Petersen knew she wanted to take the skills and perspective she had gained back to her home community in Maryland. She found a teaching position at a school with an under-resourced population, making it her mission to build relationships with families, educator and local leaders to advocate for more resources for her school.

As COVID-19 spread, many schools across the United States began to make the switch to remote learning from home. While this shift is feasible to some, many families are facing hardships that make an at-home learning environment difficult. Petersen discusses this shift to remote learning and its impact on herself, her students and her community.

Q: How has COVID-19 impacted your day-to-day life?

A: As someone who is never home, it has changed everything about where and how I spend my time! I usually spend my days at work, my afternoons coaching and tutoring, and evenings volunteering or doing work for grad school. I’m used to my job as a teacher occurring in a classroom full of energetic, talkative kids so the switch to teleworking and using my laptop way more than usual is an adjustment. That said, I am privileged to still be working, to have everything I need, and to be healthy and near family.

Q: How has the shift to remote learning been for your class(es)? 

A: To be honest, the shift is revealing many of the inequities in public schools and how home technology access is regarded as a privilege and not a need. I respect my district’s slow approach to transitioning to online learning as they prioritize the needs of families and students seeing as 25% of our students need individualized learning supports or live in poverty. We’re focusing on feeding and caring for families, distributing devices to all students and launching self-paced learning in the next two weeks. There’s a big learning curve for young students, but they’re excited for the connection of starting video chats and learning activities.

Q: How has COVID-19 affected your students and their families?  

A: The entire experience of rapid school closure, businesses shutting down and hourly employees being out of work created and continues to create trauma for students and families. The uncertainty, lack of income and concern for staying healthy and at home creates fear and frustration for families who now need to stay home and adjust to a reality with even fewer resources. Students miss the routine and support of school and their families carry the burden of managing family, work and stress. Many families, disproportionately families of color, are finding themselves without enough food and household supplies each week.

Q: What are you are doing to help your community?

A: As many schools did around the country, our district is distributing meals for students and families to pick up and take home for breakfast, lunch and weekends. However, a complete loss of income, childcare and access to community resources leaves them without money for groceries, supplies and bills. I jumped in to support a local high school teacher who started to coordinate an effort to provide donations of grocery items and household supplies for distribution at the meal sites. Starting the Tuesday after schools closed, I began supporting the meal site that serves the high school, middle schools and elementary schools in my greater school community.

Each day we provide diapers, wipes, hygiene products, paper goods, canned goods and shelf-stable food, and donated produce to meet a family’s needs. We also provide books, educational activities and puzzles for students to choose so that they have something to do while at home for the weeks between school closing and the start of online learning. While it is hard to quantify the impact because our network of donors and collection sites has expanded to more than 1,000 community members over the last month, I can say that it is humbling to see the hundreds and thousands of families who come through each week waiting in line 30 minutes before we open for their chance of getting the diapers and supplies before we run out for the day and the hundreds and thousands of dollars and donated items being dropped off day after day. What we do know is that this is only the start of meeting our community’s needs and the more we can cultivate generosity amongst those of us with privilege, the more we can live out the meaning of community and justice.

Q: What advice would you give your students during these uncertain times? 

A: I want my students to know that they are loved, in these times it is okay to be confused about their feelings, and that we are all doing what it takes to stay healthy which means we will probably miss our friends and family, our favorite things to do, and the normal routine of school and play. The most important work they can do during this time is to do the activities that make them feel confident, creative and kind. When it is safe to go back to school, whether it be next month or next year, a hug and a high-five are waiting for them. We talked about being brave and courageous almost every day, and them making it through these weeks and months makes them the bravest kids I know.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: We’re all experiencing some level of loss and the message of social distancing and self-isolation can seem to highlight the individualistic society we live in, yet protecting public health and staying home does not mean withdrawing from the community. Each of us with the privilege of housing, food and income have the responsibility to find ways to share that with members of our communities that do not receive the same resources from our society. I find hope in these difficult circumstances knowing that this is an opportunity for all of us to live out the value of community day after day.

About this series: The Elon Alumni in Action series explores the stories of university graduates who are doing important and uplifting work as the world faces the COVID-19 pandemic.