A week before the official start of Spring 2020, on March 13, Snowline Joint Unified School District made the necessary decision to close all in classroom teaching and to move all its students to distance learning. Since the change was abruptly made, there have been many obstacles overcome that were standing in the way of a smooth transition. As we approach the ninth month since the move, Snowline educators discuss how distance learning is going from their perspective.
“I feel much more connected with families now because I get to see the whole family,” says Maryellen McHenry, a fourth-grade teacher at Phelan Elementary School and a SJUSD teacher for 39 years. She says that how you teach has had to evolve with virtual learning since teachers are no longer physically in the classroom with students. “It’s faster; it’s shorter. As a teacher, I have to be much more structured,” she explains. “I figure I have eight minutes before I lose them. And if I’m going to do a lesson, it better be eight minutes.” The virtual classes she gives to her students are only thirty minutes long. Between her lessons, she has the students get up and move around or be silly and tell jokes for a few minutes to keep them motivated for the next task. For elementary-age students, it can be hard to stay focused on a screen for long periods. To better observe how they absorb the material, she breaks her classes into groups no bigger than six. Besides the thirty-minute session, they are also assigned material for at-home learning, like reading a story or watching a video. “I try to have a balance of activities that they’re doing without the computer as well.”
Distance learning is new for everyone involved. This includes teachers, students, and parents. For parents, especially of students who benefit the most from in-person teaching, the pandemic has forced them to take a more active role in their children’s education.
“The Covid crisis has really bubbled up and made it really apparent the inequities in education,” says Judi Skillman, the Phelan Elementary School Counselor. Some kids have a parent at home that can help with schoolwork and ensure they participate in their class session. But other students have parents that might work during those hours, so participation can be an issue. “Kids need somebody to say ‘hey, we got to sit down and do that math that we talked about today with your teacher.” Besides help with schoolwork, other issues students have with at-home learning are socialization skills, food security, and having a quiet place to participate in class sessions. “Parents are losing their minds doing incredible work at home supporting their kids. Juggling a family, juggling jobs, unemployment, employment. It’s a whole basket full of things.”
Counselor Skillman’s job is to help students with any issue that might impede a student’s education. This can range from issues like a sick family member, a learning disability and more serious issues like neglect or abuse. A difficulty Covid-19 has brought to her job is how to identify issues when you cannot physically see the student. Teachers do see students through virtual classes, but cameras are not always on, “so we might not know what’s going on. We do know that mental health is a huge focus right now.” Counselor Skillman says that weight gain and unhealthy habits are happening with students due to the pandemic.
Thomas Oliver is a sixth grade Special Education Teacher at Pinon Mesa Middle School. He believes that distance learning can provide students with a high-quality education, “but it definitely takes more work and creativity.” More help from parents will be necessary to maximize this new way of educating because “sometimes at home, there’s distractions.” School now begins for his students at 10:15 in the morning for Language Arts. After that comes Math, History, and finally Science. The class order is the same daily, and “the class times are slightly shorter than they are in person.” Each class runs an hour long. Classes begin with book work, followed by comprehensive questions, and ending with exercises on the work. Because Mr. Oliver teaches Special Education, his class sizes are around 16 students, and he has a teacher’s assistant that helps. General Education class sizes are between 34-36 students. The most common complaints Mr. Oliver has gotten from parents are about Internet connection and reliability. “I don’t think our infrastructure for the Internet is set up to handle the load that’s being asked of it right now.”
Mackenzie Fischer is a Special Education Instructional Associate at Serrano High School. She works with one student for nearly four hours each day. One of the biggest difficulties she has had with distance learning is keeping her student on the computer the entire time. To keep the student motivated, she has him take occasional breaks. “Sometimes, when you do give them a break, they get distracted, and it takes longer for them to come back, or they don’t come back.” When the student leaves the screen, the only other option is e-mail, and that is not a guaranteed way to make contact.
“Kids are learning a different language,” says Counselor Skillman about today’s way of teaching students. The students that did not have access to the Internet and technology and now do, “they’ll be absolutely literate in technology, and we can’t go back. That genie is out of the bottle, and I think that’s a really good thing.”