Teaching squirmy fourth graders is never easy, but in a pandemic it’s a feat.

In Lauren Feldfogel’s fourth-grade class on a recent morning, she divided her attention between the nine students in her classroom and a dozen online students who kept forgetting to mute their computer microphones. Some of the students sitting in her classroom were paying attention to a numbers game she was playing, but a couple had completely zoned out.

“Six hundred seventy-five,” Feldfogel said loudly through her mask. “Is that the right number?”

That’s when she realized the numbers game on the whiteboard appeared backwards to students learning remotely from home, so she wrapped it up.

In COVID-era schools, everything feels upside-down and backwards. At the Mary L. Fonseca Elementary School in Fall River, the playground is forbidden, sealed off with caution tape. Parents aren’t allowed inside classrooms for fear of contamination. Janitors roam the building hauling disinfectant packs on their back, a scene right out of the movie Ghostbusters.

But the biggest changes are in the classroom, where educators are often leading in-person and remote classes simultaneously. It’s like juggling and riding a bike at the same time. There's no playbook for teachers to follow and a scarcity of research on how hybrid learning works best. Justin Reich, director of MIT's Teaching Systems Lab, said in the absence of pandemic leadership on state and national levels, districts have been asked to take on ludicrous amounts of work, like getting internet access for students at home.

"It's as absurd as saying, in the early 20th century, kids can't study well because they can't read at night. So we really need the principals to start electrifying homes,” he said.

A list of safety and social distancing rules hangs on the chalkboard of fourth grade teacher Tiahna Collins’ classroom.
Meg Woolhouse GBH News

Schools are also being asked to do this while inventing new teaching techniques, making sure children are fed, catching up from last spring and ensuring schools are safe and well-ventilated.

"I mean, the burdens that we've put on schools, it's just unconscionable,” Reich said.

Nearly 700 students attend Fonseca elementary, where classrooms look out over public housing apartments. Many students at the school, opened in 2008, come from low-income homes that have been hit hardest by the virus. About a third of fourth-graders last year didn't meet state expectations in math, more than three times the state average.

The school's hybrid model involves two groups of students who alternate going to school in-person and remotely on weekly basis. Because 40 percent of the student population doesn't speak English as a first language, many students put on headsets to meet with English language instructors on Google Meet in the back of their classrooms. The English teachers are elsewhere in the same building, an arrangement designed to prevent the possible spread of the virus.

The pandemic is the biggest crisis the district has ever encountered, said Fall River Superintendent Matt Malone, who was state secretary of education under former Gov. Deval Patrick. Hybrid learning has involved planning for countless scenarios across the 16-school district during the last nine months.

That included getting wi-fi hot spots to more than 600 families with students who needed internet access.

“It's wicked complicated and very hard, and people are tired, and it's frustrating,” Malone said. “It's working, but it's the best of a very tough situation.”

Tiahna Collins (l) works with her fourth grade students at Mary L. Fonseca Elementary School in Fall River, Mass.
Meg Woolhouse GBH News

Feldfogel and fellow fourth-grade teacher Tiahna Collins said the emotional needs of students have been bubbling up.

Collins gave the example of one of her math lessons, which involved spending half of class time going through math slides and the other half working with students in class and letting the remote students work independently at home. That was fine for the students who were getting help from parents, but there were some students who didn’t have that luxury.

“That's the part that's like, like, well, I just don't know what else, like, I can do on my end,” Collins said. “I want to be there. I want to help them. I'd rather teach them. I don't want it to be up to their families. But in a way, it kind of has to be.”

Back in Feldfogel’s class, students plugged away on laptops at their desks or at home. Fuzzy images of the remote kids were projected hazily onto a screen at the front of the room.

Feldfogel said there are good days and there are frustrating ones, where she questions whether she is succeeding at her job.

"It's a struggle every single day," she said.