At 9 a.m. exactly, high school history teacher Gabriel Elias went live at his dining room table.
“Good morning, good morning, everybody!” Elias said, flinging his arms wide and nodding toward his laptop’s blinking camera light. But especially, he added to a student named Fatima, “who told me to make this more interesting, so: I’m new to this, but I’m going to try.”
It was the second day of the coronavirus-fueled shutdown of all public schools throughout Virginia, and the second day that Elias — who teaches at T.C. Williams High School, part of Alexandria City Public Schools — hosted a morning broadcast for students.
The school system, which serves 16,000 students, will remain closed until mid-April at least, in a bid to contain the spread of the virus. From the moment he learned schools would close last week, Elias became determined to keep in touch with students.
And he knew exactly where to reach them: A decade working at T.C. Williams had taught him that high-schoolers spend most of their time on social media sites such as TikTok, YouTube, Instagram and Facebook. Elias is streaming the morning sessions, which last about half an hour, from his home in Alexandria every weekday on Facebook Live, while his wife keeps the couple’s two children, ages 9 and 4, (mostly) quiet in another room.
The topics vary — on Tuesday, Elias began with a weather forecast (“cloudy and rainy”), switched to detailing how students can pick up free meals from the school system, then plunged into a recent reading assignment for his history students, who had just begun learning about the Byzantine Empire when school shuttered.
“So what’s going to happen, you think the Byzantines are going to last?” he asked. “I don’t know, they got the Persians on one side.”
Elias’s class makes up a substantial portion of the viewers, though the broadcasts are targeted to all high-schoolers, and Elias’s audience and reach are growing. Monday’s session drew about 200 students, whether watching in real time or tuning in afterward, and — based on the number of live viewers — Tuesday will probably see a jump in turnout, Elias said.
He envisions the sessions, which he said are constantly evolving, as a way to answer students’ questions about virtual learning, check in with his class about their progress through optional online offerings, and give useful health advice such as explaining the need for “social distancing.”
During broadcasts, students give feedback and ask questions by posting comments beneath the Facebook video. Teachers can watch, too — in a private Facebook group chat Tuesday, educators typed comments and suggestions, and asked Elias to relay the advice to their students.
Literacy specialist Lisa Haskins wanted students to eat oranges to strengthen their immune system, instructional coach Ben Hammond urged high-schoolers to use time at home to read “anything that interests you” — and English teacher Emily Yarrison suggested that Spanish-speaking students watch television in English with Spanish subtitles, to keep their language skills up.
“Guys, all your teachers are worrying and wondering about you,” Elias said. “This happened so suddenly. … The most important thing is to not stay isolated from school.”
Other important things to remember, he said, include staying at home to avoid other people, washing your hands frequently and taking the coronavirus pandemic very seriously. Just because you cannot see it, Elias told the teenagers, does not mean the virus does not pose a very real threat. But he interspersed more lighthearted moments, too — at one point joking that months of isolation at home might cause his hair to grow back (he is bald), at another describing what he ate for breakfast.
Elias compared this new version of his job to becoming a social media star: “Guys, it’s hard being an influencer,” he said. A silver lining of the coronavirus crisis, Elias said, is that he may actually reach more students more directly than he would have otherwise.
“They’re actually used to this kind of thing,” Elias said. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) “does this all the time to reach young people: She shows herself using the dishwasher, and they love it.”