CONWAY — It’s not the spring that any Kennett High students were looking for, especially the seniors who were in their last go-round of doing spring sports, planning college visits, getting psyched for prom and enjoying their final days as high-schoolers.
All of that was put on hold on March 15, when Gov. Chris Sununu announced public schools would close and move to distance learning for the next three weeks due to the coronavirus threat.
State health officials had announced March 2 that New Hampshire had its first case of coronavirus, which had emerged in Wuhan, China, then traveled to Europe and made its way to the U.S.
Washington state had the first U.S. case on Jan. 21, and the first death from the virus on Feb. 29.
Dr. Benjamin Chan, New Hampshire state epidemiologist, said at a March 2 press conference that the Granite Stater who tested positive was from Grafton County and had recently traveled to Italy.
At his news conference at the Incident Planning and Operations Center in Concord, where he issued Emergency Order No. 1, “Temporary remote instruction and support for public K-12 school districts,” Sununu admitted: “There’s a lot of uncertainty with what’s going on. Our job is to ensure that the people of New Hampshire are safe, comfortable and informed.
“We need to be there for our kids, to come together as a community in this moment of crisis,” Sununu continued. “Our kids will remember how their homes felt a lot more than they’ll remember the actual impacts of the virus.”
Locally, Superintendent Kevin Richard and his SAU 9 administrative team met all day March 15, quickly putting together plans for handling a range of things, from remote education to getting meals to food-insecure children.
While kids remained at home, teachers spent that week at school working on plans to implement distance-based learning. That meant lots of long hours preparing lesson plans and setting up 1,700 Chromebooks to go out to students and teachers for the start of remote learning on March 23.
At that point, it looked like the emergency might pass and that April 3 would be the light at the end of the tunnel for the Eagles, all of whom were hoping they could soon return to their classrooms.
But that didn’t happen. On March 23, New Hampshire confirmed its first coronavirus death, a man in his 60s from Hillsborough County who had multiple underlying medical conditions, officials said.
Sununu called another press conference on March 26, announcing he was extending public school closures until May 4 to stem the spread of COVID-19.
Kelley Murphy, who teaches Teacher Education at Kennett High, immediately reached out to her students on Facebook.
“Dear Students, you are my WHY,” she told them.
“I will do everything in my power over the next five weeks to continue to make our remote learning an adventure. You deserve nothing but 100 percent. I promise you laughs, smiles, patience, learning and at least a few technology mishaps along the way.”
Laughs, smiles and patience are a way of life for Kelley Murphy.
Living in Kearsage with husband, Pat, and their five children — Mackenzie, a freshman at Syracuse University; Reilly, a senior at Kennett High; Grace, a sophomore at KHS; Robbie, an eighth-grader at Kennett Middle School; and Charlie, a third-grader at John H. Fuller Elementary School — she is in a unique position as both a teacher as well as a mom of children in various grades.
In addition, the Murphys have two dogs and a cat, and due to remote learning, also are fostering a rabbit. Kelley brought home the classroom bunny for the weekend, and it’s now theirs for the duration.
“For those wondering, the bunny is safe and sound,” she said.
Every type of remote learning touches the Murphys.
“I check all the boxes,” Kelley said. “I have a child in college, two in high school, a middle-schooler and an elementary school kiddo, plus I’m a teacher and a parent.”
In the current new normal, the family has affectionally dubbed their home “Kearsarge Brook Academy” and “Murphy Prep.”
“I came home the other day, and Kenzie said, ‘Welcome to Murphy Prep.’ It stuck.”
“We’ve had people ask how they can enroll,” Kelley joked.
“With seven of us now in the house, there’s no shortage of conversation,” she added.
“But of course we’re all absent of our normal routine. Things we all took for granted, like going to school, it’s gone for now.
“It all happened so quickly. We left school on Friday the 13th, and it was business as usual, and then Monday morning, no school, just like that.
“That last week in school,” Kelley recalled, “was filled with many highs and lows.
“The (boys) basketball team was doing its thing winning in the playoffs. I had kids preparing for the state Educators Rising conference, and the hockey team won its semifinal and preparing for the championship.”
Then on March 12, they heard that Educators Rising was canceled.
“That same day, our machine tool students were on their way to the state competition when they called and were told it had been canceled,” Kelley said.
“Then on Friday, we all learned the playoffs (for hockey and basketball) were being postponed.” The playoffs were eventually canceled with the finalists declared co-champions.
Back then, on a typical day, Kelley and Pat would start their day at around 4:30 a.m., getting breakfast ready and lunches made for different schools, and planning for all the after-school sporting events.
Every Murphy child plays multiple sports for their schools and community teams. It takes a lot of coordination and planning but it works — Kelley jokingly calls it “murphychaos.”
Now, the family is home.
Mackenzie, 19, saw his first year of college come to an abrupt end.
He was able to finish his first season of ice hockey at Syracuse on March 6, but little did he know that spring break would signal the end of his time in New York State for the school year.
On March 10, he and his fellow Orangemen learned that as of the following week, they would be studying remotely for the foreseeable future.
Kelley remembered: “We were just out the door (on March 11), heading to Plymouth for the hockey semifinal, when Kenzie called and asked if Pat could come to get him. After the game (which ended at roughly 9 p.m.), Pat headed to Syracuse, and they were home late on Thursday.”
On March 17, Mackenzie learned that Syracuse was going remote the rest of the school year.
“So back he and Pat went, another 7½ hours each way, where Kenzie had a one-hour window to pack up, and then drove home,” Kelley said. “That was 36 hours before New York announced it was shutting down.”
Mackenzie, who attended Bridgton Academy last year for a postgraduate year, said students at Syracuse were aware of the virus long before most in the country. Many had been wearing protective masks on campus for a month.
Kelley said it’s taken a few days for her children and students “to find their groove” in this new normal.
“It’s crazy,” she said. “The best part for me is when I’m able to connect again with all my students on Mondays (remotely by Zoom).”
With all the faces filling the screen, “we look like the introduction to ‘The Brady Bunch,’ “ she noted, adding, “It reminds me of why we do this, the emails, Zoom, we need that interaction.”
During school hours, the family is scattered throughout the house, with everyone finding their own quiet space.
“Charlie keeps hijacking spaces,” Kelley said, laughing. “He’s stolen two so far.
“I think this is probably hardest on him, not having the independence, as the high school and middle school kids do.”
Robbie, 13, has set up his spot in the family playroom, where he has a view of Kearsarge Brook. He has seven classes, four on one day and three the next. Classes are 45 minutes long.
“They’re not doing screen time for the full 45 minutes,” Kelley explained. “For example, Charlie will do 25 minutes of math or a typing app.”
Grace, 15, has her space set up in the dining room, while Reilly, 18, and Mackenzie each have their spaces in their rooms — one at a desk and the other at a table.
“Reilly has handled this much better than I could have ever imagined,” Kelley said. “It’s his senior year, he broke his leg in January and couldn’t play the game he loves (hockey), and now is forced to go through the college process by doing remote visits.”
Kelley uses the kitchen island as her workspace, or a little nook in the upstairs hallway from which to teach. “I’ve made a checklist of all of the subjects and when everyone is supposed to be doing them,” she said.
High school and middle-school students can check in with their teachers Monday through Friday from 8-9 a.m., which are online office hours.
Elementary school parents have different times to check in throughout the day.
“I’ve told all of my kiddos (family and students), I want you to do at least four things every day,” Kelley said. Those things are: “write, read, connect with people and get out of your jammies every day.”
In terms of their courses, students are picking up where they left off through Google Classroom, a free web service developed by Google for schools.
“It works, but it depends, hour-to-hour,” Kelley said. “It’s not a platform I was previously using. I’m learning as I go, just like the students.
“We had our share of kinks,” she continued, remembering that day Charlie’s Chromebook wouldn’t work.
But in general, she said, “I’m amazed with seven of us (Pat is working home remotely in his credit-card business) all on the computers that our network hasn’t crashed. ... If anyone is an ad for Spectrum, it’s us.”
Kelley said the first week-plus has gone well. She’s proud of how quickly her family has adapted to their new routine.
“We have maybe one meltdown a day,” she said. “The first week, it was one every hour. It’s usually frustration with something not working on the computer.”
But “we get over it pretty quickly. We do photobomb each other. I just crashed a Spanish class when I looked over Grace’s shoulder and heard, ‘Hello, Mrs. Murphy.’”
The Murphys, of course, are not alone. All across the valley, families coming up with their own routines for this strange new “abnormal.”
For example, Bethanne Graustein of North Conway said it’s taken a bit of adjustment for her kids — Bobby, a junior at Kennett, and Liza, a middle schooler at KMS — to get into the swing of remote learning.
“Liza says she’d rather be at school, she prefers being in the classroom, though she has had no problems accessing what she needs and or keeping up,” she made sure to add.
“And on my end, the teachers have been fabulous, communicative and understanding as the kids navigate a new learning experience.
“There have been gains and struggles as each child learns differently. Steve (her husband and coach of the Kennett High boys’ lacrosse team) and I are still mostly working outside the house, and having the kids at home distant learning on their own can also be a struggle,” she said.
“But with Week 1 under our belts, we are working toward finding the best ways for success.”
Back at “Murphy Prep,” asked what has been the most difficult part of remote learning, 9-year-old Charlie quickly answered, “Everything.”
Mackenzie said: “Not being able to ask questions on the spot,” and Grace agreed.
“There’s not that face-to-face time where you can say, ‘I’m having a problem’ and get instant help,” Kelley said.
“That impulsivity is not there, you’re not able to get that understanding right away. I think all the kiddos are used to instant feedback.”
The Murphys cap each day, weather-permitting, with a 2½-mile walk through the neighborhood, with a stop halfway to social distance visit with grandparents Sherrie “Yaya” Ward and Dan “Aukie” Powers on Kearsarge Road.
“My parents like us being able to check in this way,” Kelley said.
The Murphys hope people will respect social distancing and have been frustrated to turn on TV and people not taking the virus outbreak seriously.
“One teacher said it best,” Kelley said: “‘I feel like a kindergartner losing recess time because others can’t play by the rules.’”
Kelley is proud to be in the teaching profession.
“There are so many dedicated professionals all across the board,” she said. “K-12, I’m seeing all the teachers put the students first.”
She added: “We talk about competency learning with learning anytime and anyplace — that’s what we’re doing remotely. The longer we are away from the classroom, the more creative we’ll get.”
Any words of encouragement from the teacher?
“I want everyone to know, we’ll get through this together."