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E-Learning During Coronavirus Has Quick Learning Curve

For many parents in Chicago’s suburbs, it’s been an adjustment as children are home on an extended break due to the coronavirus and schools experiment with e-learning on a scale they’ve never undertaken.

by Mike Nolan, The Daily Southtown / March 26, 2020

(TNS) — At Laura Bruni’s house, learning at home has so far been something of a learning curve.

Three of her children are keeping up on their studies by remote or e-learning, including a son who is a sophomore at Homewood-Flossmoor High School, a 12-year-old son in junior high and a 20-year-old daughter studying at Prairie State College in Illinois. She’s been trying to keep them on a regular school-day routine, although her sons are off this week for spring break.

“I’m giving them a week to prepare,” Bruni said. “Next week, everybody up at 9 a.m.”

Like so many parents throughout the south and southwest Chicago suburbs, it’s been an adjustment as children are home on an extended break due to the coronavirus and schools experiment with e-learning on a scale they’ve never undertaken.

Those south suburban school districts using the technology reported significant numbers of students “attending” class in the virtual sense.

High School District 230, with schools in Orland Park, Palos Hills and Tinley Park, reported 96 percent of students taking part in e-learning, said Superintendent James Gay.

He said that “both students and families have embraced the challenges of unexpected circumstances as well as adjusted to new ways of learning.”

While there have been anticipated challenges as far as technology issues, “overall our students have been engaged, encouraged and inspired to continue with their learning despite extraordinary circumstances,” Gay said.

The district’s schools — Andrew, Carl Sandburg and Stagg — are on spring break this week with e-learning resuming March 30.

Teachers at High School District 218, with schools in Blue Island, Oak Lawn and Palos Heights, have been handing out assignments daily, although students are not being penalized for not completing work, said Josh Barron, assistant superintendent for instructional services.

Maintain ‘sense of normalcy’

Beyond the educational aspect of remote learning, school districts said that teachers were playing an important role in the emotional support of students.

Lincoln-Way Community High School District 210 is on its second week of remote learning. Superintendent R. Scott Tingley said faculty had not only crafted online lessons “that are thoughtful, meaningful and appropriate,” but are also “connecting with students on a social-emotional level as well.”

Debbie Swanson, a math teacher at Richards High School in Oak Lawn, said she had used Google Meet, a video conferencing app, which allowed some of her students to talk with their peers and her about how they’re managing. She said it was more of a mental health break than a math lesson.

“I think it’s important for the students to understand that we are all in this together,” Swanson said. “There are lots of unknowns but it’s important to keep the faith, stay connected and know you aren’t alone.”

Nick Fotopoulos, lead English language teacher at Sandburg High School in Orland Park, said he and students have been navigating the best they can.

Fotopoulos said his students’ primary languages include Arabic, French, Polish and Spanish, although they have varying degrees of fluency in English. He also teaches English language U.S. history and U.S. government.

“The most important part of all of this is keeping the relationships going and maintaining some sense of normalcy,” he said. “We are trying to stay comfortable in an uncomfortable situation.”

Bremen High School District 228, which has schools in Country Club Hills, Midlothian, Oak Forest and Tinley Park, had one mandatory e-learning day March 16, but so far hasn’t required it for most of the shutdown. Teachers, however, have been checking in with students and passing along educational enrichment lessons.

Amelia Price, a junior at Oak Forest High School, said she has been keeping up with those lessons, and also spending a lot of time organizing, including her closet. The 16-year-old soccer team member also said she has been running a lot, though the season has, at least for now, been postponed.

This week the district schools are on spring break, and Price and about 90 other students involved in band and choir were supposed to have gone on a trip to New York City, seeing sites including the Empire State Building, St. Patrick’s Church and taking in the musical “West Side Story” on Broadway.

After the virus made New York no longer an option, organizers tried to switch to Disney World, then they got word it had closed as well, said Nick Rojek, who supervises the jazz, concert and symphonic bands.

‘Digital divide’ a concern

Schools are not being required to offer remote classes during this period as they have been declared “Act of God” days, meaning that, unlike school cancellations due to the weather, they don’t count toward instructional days. But with a shutdown extended until at least April 7, the Illinois State Board of Education is preparing guidelines for districts to “eventually transition to Remote Instructional Days.”

Carmen Ayala, the state’s superintendent of education, wrote Sunday the board has assembled an advisory group to “explore what is possible and what is reasonable under these unprecedented circumstances."

When the shutdown began March 17, the state board said districts doing remote learning were were not required to take attendance and that grading work was not necessary.

It refined that later to suggest that if schools were grading classwork done remotely, it should not “negatively impact a student’s grades,” but that a school could count the work if it improves “a students academic standing.”

Should e-learning become mandatory, there are concerns educational opportunities might not be equitable across all districts, particularly for students with special needs or who lack access to a computer or the internet.

Orland Elementary School District 135 in Orland Park, which had never attempted e-learning prior to last week, said that school-issued computers, such as iPads, went home with students prior to the statewide school shutdown. High School District 228 students also have iPads, officials said.

Any District 230 students who did not have internet access were provided it through a grant from wireless carrier Sprint, Superintendent Gay said.

At the college level, institutions such as Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills and Governors State University in University Park moved to remote learning this week and will continue for the balance of the spring semester.

Noting it has a large population lacking internet access, Governors State officials said they would keep buildings open for students needing Wi-Fi to complete their work.

©2020 The Daily Southtown (Tinley Park, Ill.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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