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Not without bumps: Students and teachers transition to online learning during COVID-19 school shutdown
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Not without bumps: Students and teachers transition to online learning during COVID-19 school shutdown

PAUL — Teachers and administrators are pulling long hours to smooth out bumps in digital learning platforms across the Magic Valley during the state’s COVID-19 shutdown of schools, while on the other end, families are figuring out how to help children learn at home even as some parents juggle the demands of essential jobs.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” said Mary Barlow, mother of three boys — eighth-grader Colby, fifth-grader Hank and second-grader Tanner.

Mary Barlow is a labor and delivery registered nurse and her husband, Jason, is an electrician at a sugar beet factory — both essential jobs that come with long shifts.

“It’s been tough. There are many days when we are both at work and those days are extremely challenging.”

They take turns guiding their boys through online school when they are home. They notify their children’s teachers on the days when they are both working outside the home — and some of the responsibility of caring for the younger kids falls to 14-year-old Colby.

The couple’s younger boys both have learning disabilities, which adds to the mix, Barlow said. Homework assignments designed to take two hours sometimes take much, much longer.

She hopes the extra one-on-one parent time spent with them now will seem like a silver lining next year.

“Believe me, I’ve had plenty of meltdowns and days that haven’t gone as planned,” Barlow said.

At age 38, she feels somewhat tech savvy, but when her children brought home iPads to begin classes at home, she couldn’t find Hank’s Google meet room on the first day.

“Thankfully, Hank knew exactly how to do it,” she said.

Making the virtual transition

Paul Elementary School Principal Ellen Austin said her district was already implementing more technology use in classrooms throughout all the schools and most students and staff had some training and experience using the online platforms.

Many classrooms are using a variety of tools, such as the Seesaw Class App for younger students and Google Classroom, Meet and translation tools for English as a second language and special education students. The platforms and how they are used differ from class to class.

Minico High School Principal Kimberly Kidd said students at her school log into all of their classes throughout the week to meet with teachers and get their assignments. Teachers are taking roll to track attendance.

“A lot of high school kids have also taken on jobs. It’s springtime in Idaho,” Kidd said. “I heard about one student who logged into a class meet up while he was sitting in a tractor in a field.”

Kidd said the conversion has been as difficult for teachers as it has been for their students.

“It’s hard for teachers to be separated from their classes. They really want their kids to do well,” she said.

But the teachers have been really good about working with each other and department heads are holding virtual meetings, Kidd said.

“This is not their favorite way to teach and it hasn’t been without bumps,” she said. “But I think it’s been smoother here in this district than in some other places.”

Some English as a second language teachers are making phone calls and some home visits to try to get all families engaged in the online classes.

Austin said teachers are learning more each day about effective online teaching.

“How you handle teaching in a classroom when you are there and can explain things in person and teaching online is very different,” Austin said. “Most of our teachers had used the platforms in their classrooms, but this forced them to go all in.”

Austin said students at Paul elementary walked out of the building on March 17 with their iPads in hands, ready for the online learning.

As it rolled out, they encountered some rough patches along the way, including families who did not have access to Wi-Fi internet.

Austin said administrators and teachers have been busy this week reaching out to about 10% of the school’s 545 students who have not engaged in their classroom yet to find out why and how to help them.

Several companies have been working to install free temporary Wi-Fi to homes with internet service, but there has been a backlog of requests for the companies. Other cellphone companies have been waiving extra data charges for hot spots, she said.

Implementing additional tools to help all students

Another challenge has been putting tools in place to teach students who speak English as a second language, or not at all.

Amanda Hernandez, who teaches fifth grade at Paul elementary, has two students in her class who do not speak English.

She has successfully integrated closed captioning and Google Translate tools to help her ESL students, which can also be used for special education students.

Hernandez has been putting in 10 to 12 hour work days creating and preparing materials, teaching the class and communicating with parents, all while caring for her own five children, ages preschool to fifth grade.

She said planning and structuring the day has been essential to their family’s life.

Her weekday routine for her children includes academic and recess time along with space allotted for music and exercise.

“It’s not perfect every day,” she said.

She has also learned that being consistent with what she asks her online class to do each day produces the most success.

“I’ve found that digitally, more variety just creates confusion,” she said. “That tends to go against our teacher spirit. We tend to want variety, but you have to be OK letting go of that right now.”

Her fifth grade class pops into a Meet room online between 8:30 and 10 a.m. every day. Para educator Krista Robinson works with small groups teaching math in the same meeting room.

After the school days ends, Hernandez sometimes spends hours communicating with her students’ parents, who may be working different shifts. Sometimes their text messages come in near midnight.

“But, I am always so glad to hear from the parents. I know they are just trying to help their children,” she said.

Right now, she said, teachers are on the clock when they are needed.

And yes, sometimes during faculty meetings the frustrations find an outlet “and there are tears,” she said.

Hernandez said the online school shift has been difficult for the students, too.

“A lot of them feel alone and they miss having people to visit with,” she said. “They are isolated from their friends and their parents may be working. Some of them feel frightened.”

Overall, Hernandez said, she has been surprised by how consistently her students are engaging in class from home and how well they are doing considering the circumstances.

She talked with her students and tried to prepare them before they left school about the importance of staying healthy mentally and physically during the coming weeks.

“But, it can be tricky to sound confident,” she said, “when you feel a little unsure yourself.”

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