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For Iowa Schools, More Virtual Learning Brings Challenges

The Iowa Department of Education has approved a second virtual waiver for the Cedar Rapids Community School District, allowing virtual learning to continue in the district beyond Thanksgiving break through Dec. 11.

by Grace King, The Gazette / November 25, 2020

(TNS) — First-grade teacher  Robin Nelson  at Garfield Elementary School spends part of her day reminding students to mute and unmute their microphones, raise their hands and take turns speaking as she navigates how best to teach and engage students in virtual school.

The Iowa Department of Education on Tuesday approved a second virtual waiver for the Cedar Rapids Community School District, allowing virtual learning to continue in the district beyond Thanksgiving break through Dec. 11. If conditions improve, students could possibly return to in-person class Dec. 7. Families will be alerted by Dec. 3.

Cedar Rapids schools transitioned to virtual learning earlier this month because of a high rate of community spread of the coronavirus, the impact on the health care system and staff absentee rates impacting every school system department.

For many of the elementary students enrolled in in-person learning in the Cedar Rapids district, this has been their first experience with virtual instruction.

Nelson, who has 19 students in class, said she was so happy to have students in the classroom at the beginning of the school year she "didn't care if they had to wear haz-mat suits" to stay safe. Learning how to teach virtually is one of the more challenging things Nelson has had to do in her 30 years of teaching, she said.

Mostly, Nelson is enjoying seeing the students' smiling faces — which are hidden by masks during in-person learning.

Nelson said her students are mostly engaged in online learning but "start to wilt in the afternoon." The day is scattered with dance breaks to keep them moving and screen breaks to keep their eyes from getting tired.

She isn't worried about a long-term impact of interrupted learning on student's education.

"I'm not worried we can't make up for lost time," she said. "Can we do it in six months? No. Can we do it in a year? If we keep having these disruptions in their learning, it's going to take longer. But do I believe we can? I do."

Nelson has a great appreciation for her students parents, who put in extra hours helping their children learn after long days at work.

"I know personally some of my students' family members are those health care workers who are working 12-hour and 16-hour shifts because of what's happening in our community," she said. "When they should be able to go home and rest, they are taking on helping their child learn and be the best they can be."

Of Garfield's 230 students, 175 are enrolled in in-person learning. The others have chosen to be in virtual learning since the beginning of the school year, Garfield Principal  Joy Long  said.

Long said she believes students are still engaged with quality learning in the virtual setting.

"We can't afford to just make it through," she said. "Our kids need and deserve to continue with instruction. I think learning is continuing at high levels."

Garfield Elementary kindergarten teacher  Sarah Small  said her students are "resilient," and virtual learning is made easier by seeing their faces every morning on the computer screen.

"We're each other's little support team," Small said.

One of the main goals in kindergarten is learning how to read, Small said, and she spends a lot of time reminding her students of that goal to keep them engaged.

"That's something they all want to be able to do is sit down and read a book on their own," Small said.

However,  Candice Bolin , kindergarten teacher at Cedar River Academy at Taylor Elementary, said it's "unrealistic" to expect kindergartners who can't zip their coat or tie their shoes to navigate virtual learning.

Bolin said she is almost ready to walk away from an 18-year career because she doesn't believe in remote teaching.

"We're asking 5-year-olds to log on to the computer around 8:50 a.m., and stay on the computer until 3:50 in the afternoon. That to me is not developmentally appropriate," she said.

Bolin is concerned her students are going to have "significant burnout" and will not want to go to school if they continue virtual learning.

Her goal for now is for her students to maintain progress they've already made and not lose the love of learning, she said.

Bolin, whose 15-year-old son tested positive for COVID-19 last week, said Iowa's positivity rate for the coronavirus is "high and very scary."

"When your own child tests positive, it becomes a whole lot more real and frightening," she said.

(c)2020 The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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