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story.lead_photo.caption Alan Barton, longtime Greenland Elementary School principal, applies decals to the floor to help students with social distancing Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020, as he and his staff prepare the school to meet social-distancing and other covid-19 standards ahead of the first day of school. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)

Dylan Patel, a straight-A student since elementary school, didn't worry about his grades when Little Rock's Parkview Magnet High School switched to online learning in mid-March.

That doesn't mean the switch was easy. Patel, now a junior, thrives on the give and take of a classroom setting. So he was particularly sympathetic when he started hearing friends express frustration at adjusting to the new normal of learning online.

"A lot of people were messaging me, or I overheard people saying that they're not attending classes because they're not learning, and they just don't understand," said Patel. "So I told my friends, 'If you guys need help, just message me, and I'll do some explanations for you.'"

Most of those questions had to do with math, and Patel started filming quick, two- to three-minute videos of himself explaining a math problem that he would text to his friends.

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Then the questions started coming from not only classmates, but their friends and siblings. So he started a YouTube channel called "Math With Gloves" -- the title a nod to studying during a global pandemic.

Helping others wasn't new for Patel. As a member of the North Little Rock Mayor's Youth Council, he received that organization's Volunteer of the Year Award in recognition of the hundreds of hours he spent working with Canvas Community Church's homeless program.

"I knew how to do the math, but I don't have a formal education in teaching," he said. "Most of what I've learned is from trial and error. The videos are short because, otherwise, you might lose interest."

Roopa Gaddi, a parent of a student who used Patel's videos, is thankful to Patel for making sure the students don't fall behind and coming up with new ways to help them.

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"This was the first time for my son taking classes online and learning concepts with Math with Gloves YouTube videos," he said. "I wasn't sure what to expect, but I am very pleased with the content. The videos explain math concepts step by step, making it easy to understand. Amidst this deadly virus spread, such online platforms are needed."

Patel welcomes math questions from students all over the country, and his hope is that Math With Gloves will continue to grow.

"It's hard to always stay motivated when your channel isn't necessarily growing, where it's just the same six people who are commenting or asking you questions," he said. "I mean, sure, I'm touching the lives of those six people, but I want to be able to grow and touch even more lives."


Alma Middle School science teacher Ann Price took it to heart when Principal Bob Wolfe adopted the mantra, "We're building this airplane as we fly it, folks," as faculty and staff members work to teach in a global pandemic.

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Price developed a digital way for her science students -- those studying online, as well as those on-site -- to keep their notes and work organized, and all in one place.

"Students have access to their work at all times, whether they are at school, remote or quarantined," Price says of the Digital Interactive Notebooks she developed. "All of their work is in one easy, a good morning-accessible location. This notebook is created in a Google platform called 'Slides.' Pages can easily be added as needed, and there are tools included helping them to organize in a variety of ways."

The concept was born from the frustration she felt this spring when schools abruptly transitioned from on-site to online teaching, leaving educators such as Price in uncharted waters. A regular part of her science classes has always been training students in how to take and organize notes, record their data and document observations -- all activities more difficult to do online, she said.

Her Digital Interactive Notebooks allows students to collect and organize all of this information electronically. Price said she's been surprised at how quickly the students adapted.

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"At the end of the first nine weeks quarter, I asked them, 'If you could choose between a digital notebook and a paper copy, which would you choose?'" she said. "Most of them said the digital. I was kind of shocked and asked why -- surprisingly, for most of them, it was the neatness of it.'"

"I prefer digital because it's just so much easier to do and to keep around," said Katie, a student in one of Price's classes who asked to use only her first name. "I always have access to it, and my assignments are found in the same place every day. When I had to work from home for two weeks, it was nice that I already had my notebook with me, and it wasn't in my classroom."

Price said developing the notebooks made her feel like she was helping her students during a stressful time.

"Covid-19 is something that is 'in their face' every day," she said. "They have been living with it 24/7 since March. They hear about it daily on the news, they can't visit their sick grandparents, they can't go to a friend's house and hang out, and they have to remember to wear a mask everywhere they go," she said.

"Most of these things, I can't control. But if I can take one thing off their plates, by making notebooks easier, then that's what I'll do."


Her class visit to the University of Arkansas' Garvan Woodland Gardens over the summer was supposed to be a one-time event for Lakeside Intermediate School special-education teacher Dana Hotho.

The trip was intended to be a safe alternative to a classroom party marking the end of the virtual summer school session. But an idea for the approaching school year bloomed when she and Bruce Orr, assistant superintendent for Lakeside School District in Hot Springs, experienced the peaceful setting.

"Back in July, the upcoming school year was still a blur," remembers Hotho. "We were still wondering, 'What are we going to do?' So there was a conversation while we were there with Garvan Gardens about the possibility of getting some classrooms out there to help with social distancing. I said, 'Hey, I'm all for that; I'll do whatever the school district wants me to do.'"

Orr, special-education administrator Courtney Eubanks and representatives from Garvan Woodland Gardens came up with a plan. When the new school year began, Hotho's class -- and any other interested special-education classes -- would load onto a bus shortly after attendance was taken every Tuesday and Thursday, and take the five-minute trip to the gardens, where they would conduct class and eat lunch, returning to school after noon.

Hotho said it's been an unqualified success, thanks to the enthusiastic help of the gardens staff.

"The first thing I noticed with this group is that they are happy, excited and overall high-energy," said Rush Fentress, the gardens' director of education and facility rentals. He said Hotho's class is the first to visit the gardens with such frequency.

"With our abundance of outdoor space, the children don't have to focus as much on being quiet, well-behaved or structured -- I'm sure they get enough of that indoors. What I mean is that there is a much broader spectrum of appropriate behaviors outdoors, so the kids fit right in. Everyone at the gardens who works with this group leaves just a little happier and inspired that day."

Watching the squirrels, chipmunks and peacocks -- Garvan Woodland Gardens has three -- offers plenty of opportunities for in-the-moment instruction, said Hotho.

"They just love being in the presence of the wildlife," she said.

The experience has been so beneficial, Hotho said, that she hopes the practice sticks around after the pandemic is over.

"I do have a special-needs class, and, sometimes, some of their special needs are not having great social skills or maybe not knowing how to handle their emotions," she explains. "I feel like it's easier to be happy when you're sitting under a bunch of oak trees, looking across at all these wonderful mums and pumpkins. It's such a beautiful place."


Magnolia High School student Maggie McDonald routinely finished all of her schoolwork for the day by noon when classes went online in March.

The 15-year-old with a 4.0 GPA decided to dedicate her extra daylight hours to the farm animals she has been raising since she was 8.

"I started with two goats and won my class at the State Fair, and I thought I had won it all," McDonald reminisces on the phone from the road to Kentucky, where she and her family and a trailer filled with a pair of goats and sheep are on their way to the North American International Livestock Exposition. "I thought it was the best thing to ever happen to me. It was awesome."

She dominated the field before long, and she and her father started breeding goats. Once covid-19 hit, McDonald said the extra time freed up by her virtual studies allowed her to learn more about the selective breeding field that she was so interested in.

McDonald had a revelation when she and her father learned that the Montana laboratory that they used to determine pregnancy results for her animals was closing.

"I thought about that for a couple days, and then I said to my dad, 'What's stopping me from being able to do this?'" McDonald said. "We looked into it -- and with covid-19, I was able to learn about it and have more time to get certified."

After weeks of study, she earned certification through BioPryn to test for pregnancy in animals and started M2 Genetics and Testing LLC. She said she runs 300 to 400 samples per week and gets new clients weekly.

"She is so excited about learning all she can when it comes to animal science and nutrition," said Magnolia High School Principal Chris Carter, who has known McDonald for about five years. "She loves working with animals and is quite amazing. Her motivation comes from within. It's not really normal for a sophomore in high school to get up early in the morning, work at the barn until time to go to school, then back home after her school activities and go back to the barn and work as long as it takes. She's quite an anomaly, really."

McDonald's goal post-high school is to become an embryologist, a career where, she said, she will be "transferring embryos into all species of animals."

"I believe in going big or going home," she said cheerfully.


Steve Helmick saw firsthand the disappointment on his fifth graders' faces when they learned last spring that they would miss out on the graduation celebrations at Don Roberts Elementary School in Little Rock.

He is school principal and the father of a fifth grader at the school last spring.

"I was wearing two hats -- my dad hat and my principal hat -- seeing that from both perspectives," Helmick said.

"We weren't trying to gloss over things and make it better, but, instead, figuring out, 'OK: This is our reality, but here are some things we can do that wouldn't have happened except for covid-19.' We had to stretch our minds and imagination outside the box," he said.

Each fifth-grade teacher at Roberts Elementary created a video for every one of their graduating students to honor their transition to the next stage of their education, Helmick said.

Helmick wanted a way that he, too, could recognize each student. An avid runner, he decided to dedicate 1 mile for each student in the fifth grade. Kids and their families could follow along on his Instagram account, where he celebrated the students and their achievements.

"I created the hashtag #onekidonemileonegoal, and I averaged anywhere between 5 to 7 miles a day, with no break in between, and I ran for 29 days, for 174 students," he said. "It took a toll. Those last four days were brutal. I ran with my dog, and she kept me company."

Feedback showed his efforts were appreciated.

"I had a couple of parents who would find me and follow me and honk and cheer me on," he said. "There were even some workers on the street one day, and one said, 'Hey, you're that guy I saw on the news.'"

Helmick's daughter, Emma, said her dad's efforts were important to her.

"I remember the day when it was my turn, and he asked me if I wanted to run with him," Emma said. "Well, I am not a runner, but I really wanted to go because I knew that I would enjoy it because it would be my own special mile."

Helmick thought covid-19 would be but a distant memory once school started again in August. Instead, he finds himself trying to stay connected with the approximately 400 Roberts Elementary students who are attending school online this fall.

"One of the hashtags that I say all the time is #kidsdeserveit," he said. "It's on the door of my office, and every decision I make as a principal is kid-focused. Kids deserve to be celebrated," he said.

"Teachers, administrators, support staff -- everyone has risen to the occasion. You don't get training on how to be a pandemic educator. It's so encouraging to see that the majority of people just rolled up their sleeves and are getting it done."


Alan Barton shared words of encouragement and comfort with the young students of Greenland Elementary School for 159 days between March and late August.

Barton, principal and basketball coach at the school, recorded a video of himself reading a book out loud on the first day of online learning in mid-March.

"I needed to let them know that all was going to be OK," he said.

The response was immediate and overwhelming.

"The first read I did, I got so many views, a huge number," he remembers. "The comments attached were, 'You should do this every day.' The comments had students sitting on couches, modeling what I was doing; I had students reading to me. So that was the moment I thought, 'OK, I'm going to do this until summer is over.'"

"Mr. Barton likes challenges, and what started out as daily reads turned into a long duration of reads," said Greenland Superintendent Andrea Martin. Barton is "definitely the most unique and diverse administrator I have worked with in my 27 years of education," she said.

Some days he would get a reminder of how important the ritual had become to students and their families through their Facebook messages. The encouragement helped when it was tempting to let the habit go in the face of a busy summer schedule, he said.

"'I love that you read, and my child would be crushed if you stopped,'" was typical of many messages, Barton said.

"Parents said that it gave their child a sense of being normal, and they said that they were proud that, even on weekends, between ball games, I would find a way to read. Or it would be 9 p.m., and I would go to school and read. They even started to request books at this point."

Barton said he got confirmation that his efforts did exactly what he had hoped -- helped make his students less afraid of the global pandemic occurring around them.

"A young lady in the third grade came up to me on the first day of school, hugged me, and said, 'I'm Ava, and I watched you read every day. I am not afraid to be here, because you love your job,'" said Barton.

"Man, what a moment. A tear came to my eye. It's the simple things that can change your outlook on life. Ava did that for me that day. You're not going to get rich in this profession, but the simple things like a smile or hug that let you know, 'You have taught me something' -- the joys and smiles of my students cannot be measured in money."


Third-grade teacher Allana Henton realized in March that her students needed extra emotional support to deal with the sudden loss of the school environment and the anxiety caused by the global pandemic.

"In fact, from what I could hear, there was no real plan to fill the social and emotional gap of the youth during the pandemic from public schools," said Henton, a teacher at Ivory Primary School in Camden.

"Kids were being spanked, cursed out or disciplined for a parent's lack of knowledge or frustration with having to do home-based learning. I was frustrated because some damage cannot be undone. Some moments are so powerful that it becomes a focal point."

Henton started a career as a social worker in 2010, moved to a school setting in 2018 and transitioned to classroom teaching last year. This summer she and friend Angela Snowden hatched the idea of Solid Impact, a support group for elementary-age children to help manage their anxieties.

"Managing life during the pandemic is hard for adults, so why are we not considering the effects on a child or young adult?" Henton asked.

The idea of Solid Impact went to the back burner when Henton started teaching online classes in the fall -- until she heard that a former student had committed suicide.

"I couldn't breathe," she said. "I screamed, I cried. I couldn't imagine how his classmates were handling the loss with little to no support."

Henton and Snowden moved forward with their plans. They found a place to hold meetings once a month and donations of food for snacks and meals to be served to participants. The meetings are scheduled to last for one hour each, but Henton said she'll stay as long as the kids want to talk. The last meeting lasted for nearly 2½ hours.

"I am extremely grateful to Solid Impact for the support they have shown my daughter," said parent Meshia Flannigan. "Giving her and others an outlet to express their thoughts and feelings makes my job as a parent smoother."


Patricia Hesse, an award-winning teacher for the Harrisburg School District gifted-and-talented program, spent the summer preparing covid-19-proof child activities. She developed a full curriculum of interactive Digital Notebook presentations for the grades she teaches -- second through sixth -- that teachers can access from her website.

She also has her students each writing a book.

"I'm not about getting a quality novel," she said. "I want them to be an author and to have the excitement of writing a book. I hope they pick up things along the way -- like how a novel is structured and how to make an antagonist come to life. I told them I do not care about punctuation and spelling. I will be their editor. I wanted to give them freedom. If they worry about spelling or grammar, that breaks the flow of their ideas."

Hesse has been teaching from home because her age puts her in a high-risk category for covid. She lost a close friend and fellow teacher to covid-19.

And she's seen firsthand the emotional toll the pandemic is taking on her students, like when a former happy-go-lucky elementary student tearfully told her he wanted to quit the gifted program simply because he had lost a book.

Still, she remains optimistic about what life will look like after the pandemic has passed.

"When we get to the other side, we'll all have learned something we needed to learn," she said. "I'm really proud of our system and what it has done for our children."

Dustin Seaton, gifted-and-talented specialist for the Northwest Arkansas Education Service Cooperative, said education in the time of covid-19 includes unique challenges for students and teachers in the program.

Providing curriculum that supports all ability levels in a classroom can be particularly difficult for teachers working remotely, leaving gifted students bored and unmotivated, Seaton said. Gifted students tend to struggle with perfectionism exacerbated by the situation. With online learning, he said, parental oversight is even more intense than usual.

"There's a lot more of these perfectionistic aspects creeping into expectations and goals," Seaton notes.

Seaton, who also serves as president for the organization that supports educators called Arkansans for Gifted and Talented Education, spent the summer collaborating with other specialists and teachers to ensure their students would still receive the best education possible. For example, his group is partnering with the Arkansas Governor's Quiz Bowl Association to present an online quiz bowl.

"For some students, that's what they live for, these interactions and competitions," Seaton said.

“My district, from all levels, has been amazing,” says Alma Middle School science teacher Ann Price. “From the very beginning, they have asked what we as teachers need to be successful and then they have fought to provide it. They have tried to think through every possible scenario for our students and they have made adjustments where necessary. They worked tirelessly through the summer to make school the safe place it needs to be, but still an environment where students can be themselves and be successful. I think the phrase that best describes this year, is ‘monitor and adjust’.” (Courtesy Photo)
“We agreed to the pilot program for the fall semester, and the group has been an absolute pleasure to work with,” says Garvan Woodland Gardens’ Rush Fentress. “By Ms. Hotho’s example, and working with her team, we are developing a plan to open this opportunity to all of the special needs programs in our community.” (Courtesy photo)
Dylan Patel — shown here with his Presidential Volunteer Service Award — has served as a volunteer counselor for Camp Aldersgate, as a volunteer at the information center at St. Vincent’s Infirmary and as a member of the North Little Rock Mayor’s Youth Council. These days, he’s busy helping other students struggling with virtual school tackle difficult math problems. (Courtesy photo)
Weiner Elementary School’s Gifted and Talented teacher Patricia Hesse is determined assign her students projects that allow them to show their work in public, despite the global pandemic — like this art challengeher students did back in April. “Everyone likes attention,” says Hesse. “Who wants to do something thatno one ever sees? It gets to be kind of contagious — once one person does something cool, everyoneelse wants to follow suit.” More photos at (Courtesy Photo)
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