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Amid Challenge, Washington Schools Made Remote Learning Work

For students and teachers, the sudden switch to distance learning was a massive experiment, and now several local students said they thought it worked well, while parents of younger students had more trouble.

by Marissa Heffernan, The Daily News / June 25, 2020
Shutterstock/fizkes

(TNS) — For K-12 students and teachers, the sudden switch to distance learning was for many a massive experiment. Several local older students said they thought it worked well, while parents of younger students had more trouble with the format.

Allie Gaston, who graduated from Kelso High School in Washington a few weeks ago, said distance learning went more smoothly than she thought it would.

“It went a lot better than I expected because my teachers were great about communicating with us and if I ever needed help they would get back to me within a few hours,” she said.

And the quality of her classes was similar to in-person instruction, Allie said. She spent about six hours a week on video calls for classes and five hours working on assignments, she said.

“I know that some of our work got cut back, but we were still keeping busy and doing at least a couple assignments for each class each week,” she said.

Recent Kelso grad Haley Herbert also said she felt the workload was the same, but one difference was that teachers were more flexible.

“It didn’t necessarily ease up but you could definitely reach out to your teachers and come up with a solution if something was going on,” Haley said.

Longview mom Rachel Pierce has a different view on online learning. Pierce said she felt her second, eighth and 10th graders missed out on crucial learning, adding that she’s been having them do extra online assignments to fill the gaps.

“Distance learning has been a lot more stressful than it needs to be,” she said.

Across the nation, school district have struggled to keep students engaged while at home, and local numbers reflect that.

In Kelso, elementary engagement averaged 82% from April 20 through June 12. Elementary students were all sent paper packets, while middle and high schoolers used a combination of packets and online learning. About 53% of middle schoolers engaged with their classes from April 20 through June 19, and 61% of high schoolers engaged with their work over the same period.

Wallace elementary principal Ray Cattin said his school averaged higher engagement due to the hard work of staff. Wallace created a student engagement team that knocked on doors, made phone calls and tracked down every student.

Some days, he said, the school had 100% engagement.

“The most important thing was checking in on them and making sure they were okay and the second thing was academics,” Cattin said.

That helped teachers connect with parents who were also frustrated by the situation, he said, and opened the door for teachers to provide academic and physical resources.

“For what it was and what we had to shift to instantaneously, I think it went pretty well,” Cattin said. “It’s obviously not optimal, and the teachers hated the fact that kids were not in their classroom. They love these kids ... but they were able to connect with parents and say ‘we get it, we’re frustrated, too.’ “

In Longview, district spokesperson Rick Parrish said the engagement numbers started around 90% and dropped some over the rest of the year, although he did not have exact numbers.

“Quite honestly, that’s what we expected to happen as students get closer to the end of the year,” he said “Especially with the year extended by an additional week ... but overall we were really happy with it.”

He said the high numbers were likely due in part to the mass Chromebook distribution. By the time distance learning started, over 3,000 Chromebooks had been handed out to students, Parrish said.

“You’ve got to give credit to our teachers, our educators, our principals and our paraprofessionals,” Parrish said. “The education model was turned on its head and they were asked to quickly figure out how to serve kids remotely. It’s a testament to the creative hard work and determination of our teachers.”

Longview’s Cascade Middle School teacher Amy Johnson said by the middle of the remote learning period, she was averaging 85% to 90% engagement in her classes.

“Based on the fact that it was mandatory, overall I thought it was a success with my students,” Johnson said, but added that her students were already comfortable using Google Classroom.

And even though she kept her standards high, Johnson said she did cut down some of her lessons and was more flexible with late assignments.

“I pared down some of the rigor a little bit, and had to pick and choose the topics,” she said. “I had to spread it out because it was becoming overwhelming for them.”

The best part, Johnson said, were weekly video meetings where she got to see her students’ faces, check in, and make sure they stayed engaged in school using funny hats or discussion topics.

“I had to have a variety of ways to get them engaged. It took some creativity, but it was also fun,” she said.

However, Pierce said very few of her children’s classes had live instruction over video, something she wanted to see more of. As a parent, she said she had trouble keeping track of everything her kids were supposed to do.

While her second grade daughter only had one class to keep track of and Cascade Middle School sent out a list of student assignments every week, her son is on an individualized learning plan and does different assignments than most of his classmates, Pierce said.

“I wish the high school (sent a list) because I don’t know what she’s supposed to be doing until I see she had 20 late assignments and is failing three classes. Then I can sit down with her and make sure it happens,” Pierce said of her sophomore daughter.

Recent graduate Allie said that the biggest thing the distance taught her was accountability, which she said would serve her well at Grand Canyon University in the fall.

“It helped me practice discipline, which is what it will be like in college since I won’t have anyone there to remind me to do my work,” she said.

Crystal Tift, a paraeducator at St. Helens Elementary, said she also struggled with discipline, but in her case it was trying to keep the attention of kindergartners over Zoom. She runs remedial reading groups that are typically very hands-on.

“They didn’t have those (hands-on) things, so you’re just doing it out of what you have and hopefully they’re catching on,” she said.

Tift said she had sporadic participation in her remedial classes, and thought her young students struggled to stay in the “school mentality.”

Some students couldn’t connect to the Zoom calls, she added, though she thought the district did everything it could to get students connected. However, Tift herself had to upgrade her internet service to be able to video chat.

“It was difficult just to try to figure things out and get set up,” she said.

Even so, “it was so good to see their little faces and get to interact with them,” Tift said.

“I’m glad I’m a para and not a teacher,” she said. “I’m stressed enough worrying about the kids I normally have in my small groups.”

While academics went smoothly, Johnson said she noticed the lack of social support wearing on her students.

“The novelty was wearing off, you could see it in their faces,” she said. “They did so well with remote learning I had to try to incorporate the social piece and that was a bit more of a challenge.”

She assigned her students to have a video chat lunch with a classmate and “pretend you’re at Cascade.”

“They appreciated it. It was a give and take. We were all in this together,” Johnson said.

The lack of social interaction was also something Pierce said she worried about, more so than academics although she said her eldest daughter was losing note-taking skills.

“It would worry me if my kids were normal,” she said, explaining that her youngest is in accelerated classes, her eldest has autism and retains information well and her middle child has his individualized plan, “so he will get help at whatever level he’s at when he goes back.”

In the end, Pierce said it was a new kind of education experience for everyone, albeit a frustrating one.

“It’s a learning experience for all of us and hopefully if we have to do this again it will be better,” she said.

Haley voiced similar feelings but said she appreciated the open dialogue with her teachers.

“Our teachers were almost learning alongside us. They know what they’re doing when you’ve been teaching 20 years in front of classroom, but nobody knew how to adapt so it was a lot of asking us for feedback,” she said.

And while she said there are certainly benefits to using more digital learning in the classroom, she doesn’t think what she experienced these past few months should be the future of high school education.

“I think that now that I’ve learned to adapt to it and what skills suit me, I could definitely see myself doing it. But it wouldn’t be my top choice,” she said.

©2020 The Daily News, Longview, Wash. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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