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Remote Learning Evolves for Central New York Schools

Tens of thousands of students in Central New York — and millions across the state and nation — had to pivot quickly in the spring from in-school instruction to distance learning when COVID-19 forced schools to close.

Empty classroom
(TNS) — Katie Becker, a Jamesville-DeWitt high school student in Central New York, sometimes slept in until noon last spring.

She’d wake up and do school work when she felt like it, sometimes waiting until late at night to finish an assignment due by midnight.

She was not alone. It was the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Schools had just closed the classrooms and switched on the fly to remote learning.

Fast forward to this fall and Katie, now a senior, is up and signed onto her computer at 7:45 a.m. When she learns virtually two days a week, she follows a regular bell schedule. Her teachers take attendance in each class. Some classes are live, some are recorded but she’s “at school” until 2:15 pm daily.

"It’s actually nice to be back on a real schedule, even when I’m at home,'' she said. “It feels good to work on a pace and get class work that’s due at the end of that period. It’s so much more structured.”

Tens of thousands of parents and students across Central New York – and millions across the state and nation – had to pivot quickly in the spring from in-school instruction to distance learning when the coronavirus pandemic forced schools to close.

Many parents and kids struggled with basics such as getting computers and wi-fi access. Students had to learn a whole new way no one had ever done before in K-12 schools. Teachers and schools were left trying to reinvent how to teach kids.

“We were thrust into it” without time to plan for who how it would work, said Fayetteville-Manlius Superintendent Craig Tice.

Many kids disconnected and lost motivation because there was little accountability, not much engagement and lower expectations, said Justin Reich an educational researcher and director of the Teaching Systems Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. Grades of pass/fail left students unenthused for academics, he said.

This fall, distance learning looks markedly different than it did in the spring.

"It looks a lot more like school did before,’' Reich said.

Unlike the spring, most schools are taking attendance. So are classroom teachers. There is often new learning material. Technology staff has been hired by some districts.

Kids who are learning at home have to get up and log in at a certain time. They follow a class schedule, and are expected to be at each class. Often, they finish the assignment and have to turn it in at the end of class.

This fall, standard grading is returning to most schools – some had switched to pass and fail grading.

There is often more engagement and interaction between the teacher and student – teachers are reaching out to kids, and kids can ask questions via Zoom or a chat window during class. They can often get special help during virtual office hours. They also can, in many classes, talk with other students virtually at designated times.

Lisa Moore, whose son Jack Moore is a J-D senior, said there’s a lot more communication from the district this fall about what virtual learning looks like. And her son is much more comfortable with the learning platforms, she said.

At West Genesee, it’s all about structure and higher expectations this fall, said Robert Leo, the district’s director of technology.

“In the spring, it was crisis teaching," he said. "We scrambled to put out lessons, and it was almost all asynchronous. We emphasized completion and feedback, instead of grades. Now we are back to grades.”

Schools have incorporated much more synchronous lessons - which means the classes or lessons are live rather recorded.

The virtual learning day runs parallel to the in-school day now, Leo said.

Online-only teachers

School districts are teaching kids two main ways: Teachers who teach in-person and distance-learning students simultaneously, or teachers who teach kids who are not in the class remotely while other teachers handle kids in classes.

At some schools, like West Genesee, Baldwinsville and the Syracuse City School District, a separate group of teachers are now designated as remote instructors. That’s about 80 teachers in the Syracuse district, Central New York’s largest school district with about 20,000 students.

At West Genesee, it’s face-to-face teaching for the younger kids for at least 30 minutes if they are distance learning. Older students have a blend of live instruction and independent tasks.

Having dedicated remote teachers makes learning equitable for in-school and virtual learners, Leo said

"It’s more organized, and there’s a lot more rigor to it,'' he said. “We know some kids checked out in the spring. Now we connect with everyone.”

For example, when three students didn’t attend online classes one day recently Leo called each one to determine why. He said he also helps with students who can’t connect or access a lesson.

Teachers doing both

In the Liverpool school district, teachers instruct everyone at once – for example an English teacher might be teaching eight students in the classroom, eight students who are virtual that day, and four all-remote students.

The lesson might be 20 minutes of live instruction and then paper or computer assignments for the rest of the class. Kids can ask question either in person or by chat.

"We are trying not to go crazy with too much screen time,'' said Liverpool Superintendent Mark Potter.

Later this month, many Liverpool teachers will record lessons so kids or parents can review the lesson.

Potter said his district’s philosophy is having one teacher instructing everyone nurtures the critical relationship between the teacher and students, so that if school reopens in full that dynamic between instructor and kid will already be there. And that teacher will continue to instruct the same kids, he said.

For teachers, it’s a lot of work, Potter said. Not only do they need to come up with lessons, they often have to troubleshoot for kids who have technology issues. They need to answer questions from the students in class, along with those who ask questions live or in a chat box.

That relationship between teacher and student is critical to success, Potter said.

Frederick Hess, director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where he works on K-12 and higher education issues, agrees with Potter.

"That connection in the beginning is highly important,'' he said. "Teachers had six months last year (before schools closed) to get to know their students, and that was so important.

“If the teachers only know the kids from pixels and emails, it’s highly difficult to establish a relationship,'' he said.

Teacher challenges

Donna Oppedisano, who teaches U.S. History and Participation in Government at J-D High School, said what she’s doing this fall looks nothing like what she did in the spring.

"I try really hard to create an environment where we are one class, even though we’re not in the same space. And everyone is encouraged to participate,'' she said, “whether you’re there physically or not.”

She takes attendance on Zoom or has a question students have to answer and turn in so she knows they are present. Oppedisano uploads all the documents she’ll use in class to Google classroom, and the kids can’t access them until class starts.

What can be hard is having your attention divided when there are questions, she said. You are bouncing back and forth between the kids in class and those on screen. Oppedisano devotes the last five minutes of each class to questions.

Teaching this way is physically exhausting, she said, but does allow for “some sense of normalcy.”

Kids and parents are adjusting

Katie Becker, the J-D senior, says the structured system this fall is much better.

"It was so confusing in the spring, and you’d just get a random assignment,'' she said. “It felt like just going through the motions.”

Heather Snowman, whose son Lucien is fully remote and would have attended Durgee Jr. High as an 8th grader, said her son’s first class is at 7:40 a.m. and attendance is taken.

In the spring, it was much different. He’d get up around 11 a.m. and find other things to do all day. He’d finish his work on the last day before it was due.

"It was rough,'' Heather Snowman said.

“Before it felt like I was the teacher,'' she said. “Now there’s no intervention on my part. Most classes are live three days a week. It’s very structured, and now he is learning new material.”

It’s not all rosy.

In the Syracuse schools, the start has been bumpy at times as the district started with all students learning remotely. Some students struggled to get laptops or tablets. Others reported issues with signing on or other tech problems.

Jodi Mattoon, who has two children learning remotely in the Baldwinsville district, said she likes the rigor of this fall, but wishes the virtual classes weren’t so large. There are 38 students in her daughter Riley’s fourth-grade class. She’s been told there may be breakout groups, which would help.

She also likes the flexibility of remotely learning - when it comes to physical education, her two girls can practice dance, which they take after school as well.

West Genesee parent Kathleen White has three children who attend school on a hybrid schedule. Her sixth-grader, Jack, thrives with a schedule and the teachers explain the lessons which helps immensely, she said.

White said the way the schools are now is difficult, but parents, kids, teachers and district officials have little choice..

"The teachers have to manage all the different kinds of instruction, and we as parents have to provide emotional and academic support while giving our kids a sense of normalcy,'' she said. “So we as parents need patience.”

©2020 Syracuse Media Group, N.Y. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.