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A new kind of classroom: Twin Falls schools begin first day of distance learning
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A new kind of classroom: Twin Falls schools begin first day of distance learning

Picking up lunch, curbside

Emily Hudson, kitchen manager at Sawtooth Elementary School, hands over lunch sacks for students Monday, March 30, 2020, outside of Bickel Elementary School in Twin Falls.

TWIN FALLS — Teachers and families felt a bit of uncertainty as Twin Falls closed its doors for the first day of school.

Nearly 10,000 students in Twin Falls School District received classroom instruction from home on Monday as they began the transition to distance learning. The school closures are part of a statewide effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.

South Hills Middle School teacher Joe Bartley said the situation is disappointing for many students. School is a safe place for them to go during the day and provides structure that might not otherwise be present in their life.

“These kids are just losing a rock in their life, at least temporarily,” Bartley said. “There are some kids who are really down in the dumps because the thing in their life that was steady and normal is gone.”

Picking up lunch, curbside

Chromebooks are checked out for students March 30 at Lincoln Elementary School in Twin Falls.

Lincoln Elementary School principal Cheri McKenzie said teachers will continue to support students and families, but added they miss their students, too.

“I just had a little girl get in her car and start crying because she didn’t want to take a computer home and work from home,” she said. “They want to be here, and we want them here.”

Last week, the State Board of Education directed all Idaho public school districts and charter schools to immediately implement a “soft closure” through April 20. The decision means students cannot return to classrooms for the next few weeks and will instead learn from home.

In Twin Falls, teachers are providing students with about four hours of classroom material a day (2.5 hours for kindergarten) using a variety of online platforms. Teachers will keep track of progress through weekly communication with students and families.

Much of the remote instruction is similar to standard schoolwork — essay prompts, math problems, reading logs, etc. Some teachers are getting creative with lessons and adjusting to their students’ new “classroom.” In one assignment, elementary students are asked to build a fort at home and then tell a story about their experience.

Bartley said he’s making videos of his normal history lectures at relevant locations around town. For instance, he recorded a lesson about the role of steel in the Industrial Revolution from the Perrine Bridge.

Teachers are working to deliver digestible and engaging content in a way that doesn’t require direct contact with students, Bartley said. The unprecedented method of instruction will require flexibility from everyone.

Checking out Chromebooks

Cheri McKenzie, principal, shows what the checkout form look like for students to receive Chromebooks Monday, March 30, 2020, at Lincoln Elementary School in Twin Falls.

“I’m trying to make it so the kids have some options,” he said. “I’m trying to get the kids to create things and involve their families.

“I really do hope (they) can at least get something out of what we’re doing.”

The situation has some parents feeling apprehensive about their new role in education.

Rachel Delesandro said she’s a bit nervous to begin homeschooling her two elementary-age children while juggling a busy work schedule.

“This is a learning opportunity for a lot of us,” Delesandro said. “It’s nerve-racking but we take it one day at a time.”

Jill Martin, who has four kids in the district, says she’s excited about the new challenge, but added the situation is complicated since she and her husband both work full time.

“We’re trying to figure out when to do all this,” Martin said.

The most important thing for parents right now is to provide a sense of structure and to have some fun, McKenzie said.

“They don’t need to be the same teacher as they have at school,” she said. “Academics is important but connecting with your family and staying healthy is first.”

District offers free meals, electronic devices

The district opened a free food service on Monday for everyone between the ages of 1 and 18. Nearly 1,500 children received breakfast and lunch on the first day.

Delesandro said the service is convenient, especially while grocery stores are depleted.

“Since the kids have been off, they’ve been eating me out of house and home, and sometimes it’s hard to restock with shelves being empty,” she said.

Meals will be offered daily at six locations: Bickel, Harrison, Lincoln, Oregon Trail and Perrine. The district announced it is waiving the requirement that children be present to pick up meals.

About 2,050 Chromebooks were checked out by district parents on Monday. The devices are available for families to access the digital course materials offered throughout the district. Those who did not receive them Monday should contact their school principal to arrange a pick-up. Paper packets were available for those who could not or chose not to use the digital curriculum, though some schools are still working out the details on how to distribute the packets.

Portable “hotspots” were available for those without internet access. The district is looking at other options for increasing access, including extending school internet signals into parking lots.

Parents who did not hear from their child’s teacher on Monday are encouraged to contact the school to make sure the correct contact information is on file.

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