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Schools look back at spring of remote learning as school year ends
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Schools look back at spring of remote learning as school year ends

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Picking up lunch, curbside

Chromebooks are checked out for students Monday, March 30, 2020, at Lincoln Elementary School in Twin Falls.

TWIN FALLS — Teachers and administrators have emphasized the importance of flexibility during their effort to educate from a distance.

All Idaho public schools were ordered closed through the end of the academic year by the State Board of Education in April due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, as an unprecedented school year comes to an end, schools are evaluating their remote learning plans. Twin Falls School District Director of Educational Technology and Operations Ryan Bowman said administrators were proactive in their plan to get resources to families.

“Our goal is to give a quality education to all students,” Bowman said. “Equal access is a huge deal for us to be able to realize that, and even more evident during a pandemic.”

Most students in Twin Falls accessed their coursework with devices sent home from their school. About 4,000 Chromebook laptops were checked out — the district has about 9,700 students. Bowman said many of those who did not receive a Chromebook already had a computer at home.

But devices are only practical for online learning if students and their families have access to the internet. The district worked to extend internet signals into school parking lots and install hotspots in low-income neighborhoods. It also worked with community partners to find free and low-cost internet services.

Bowman said part of providing access was also ensuring students and their parents could operate the devices they received. Schools sent home instructions with the Chromebooks and staff was on hand to help with problems that came up.

“We were very intentional with how we did that to help parents and make sure they had the tools they needed to help their students,” he said.

Bowman acknowledged that the district could not reach everyone, and the plan was not perfect but overall, they were able to provide materials to most students. Administrators also received feedback to refine their system next year if necessary.

Rural schools struggle with connectivity

Access to technology and the methods for providing remote instruction varied between districts.

Superintendent Tim Perrigot said connectivity was difficult in Wendell School District.

The main issue, he said, is the district simply did not have enough devices for students to use. Only about 40% of middle school students could check out a device, and elementary students worked entirely through paper packets put together by teachers.

Even in the high school, where enough devices were available, only about 80% could use them. The high school was able to extend its internet signal into the parking lot, but portable hotspots and free internet services for families would go a long way toward improving access, Perrigot said.

Some positives did come from the experience, he said. Communication with families was stronger than ever before, and teachers were able to maintain contact with students about their mental health. The district also learned of new resources and creative teaching methods.

Perrigot said he told staff from the beginning that there was a lot out of their control, but they could still control their attitude in response. He asked them to be flexible, to be creative, to document and to communicate.

“The overall experience and things that we learned will benefit our school district in the long run,” he said. “We learned what we already knew, that there’s nothing more powerful than a great teacher.”

Teaching from a distance

Teachers found a variety of new ways to offer instruction remotely and stay in contact with students and families.

Shannon Youngman, a fifth-grade teacher at Oregon Trail Elementary School in Twin Falls, sent out weekly newsletters and emails to parents with the plan for the week. Students were offered flexibility in choosing their lessons since they all learned in different home environments and had different experiences with technology, she said.

Many of her students used Chromebooks, though some relied on paper packets. Some students also switched between the two, depending on the lesson and what they were comfortable with.

Youngman said she tried to keep her class as consistent with a traditional setting as possible, and she found many familiar uses for technology. For instance, the system her class used for reading lessons allowed students to reread and annotate — strategies they would normally use with a print version. It also helped in the transition that her class had used the devices since the beginning of the year, she said.

Still, moving remotely presented challenges, she said. By the end of the year, teachers know their students well and can tell if they’re struggling with comprehension. Remote learning requires a bit more involvement from students in asking for help, she said.

But the closures also prompted new lessons and communication methods that Youngman said she may still continue when in-person instruction resumes. Some of the ideas even came from students themselves, she said.

“These things we maybe wouldn’t have thought of doing if we were in the classroom,” Youngman said. ”Students and staff kind of rose to the challenge.”

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