LIMA — As Bob Dylan once said, “The times, they are a changin’.” It’s never been truer than what we, as a nation, have experienced over the past few months as COVID-19 has turned our world upside down.
That’s never been more pronounced than in how our children have had to deal with being out of the classroom, learning their lessons through a variety of virtual platforms.
As many schools are wrapping up their year, we’ve come to appreciate how our teachers had to quickly learn the online technologies to bring a semblance of order to educational instruction.
“Teaching remotely has forced me to look closely at what is most necessary in my instruction,” said Noel Cordle, English department chair at Lima Central Catholic High School. “Taking some of the ‘bells and whistles’ out of the classroom experience has enabled me to look critically at what is most important in my curriculum, while also conceiving creative ways to convey these concepts digitally.”
Technology varies in districts
Teachers turned to Zoom, Loom, Screencastify, Facebook, Schoology, Google Classroom, Google Hangouts and Class Dojo to present lessons.
“When we went to distance learning, the kids were told, ‘Hey, everything will be on Google Classroom,’” said Charlotte Meyer, intervention specialist in grades 7-12 at Perry schools. “That’s where you will find your assignments. That’s where you’ll get your Loom videos, and you’ll be posted through Google Classroom as well as emails. We text message them, so many electronics that we have available to us. So yeah, we can stay in contact with them through email and through Google Classroom.”
Even for tech-savvy teachers, such as Meredith Kjelland, who teaches third grade at Freedom Elementary in Lima, it was an eye-opening experience.
“I learned so much from this experience,” Kjelland said. said. “You learn something new every day. Our tech department sends out emails every day, like all the different stuff that you can do or different platforms that you can use. You see other teachers and other school districts use all that stuff. You’re like, ‘Oh, I could do that,’ and I’m like, ‘I never knew that existed, or I never knew I could do that before.’”
Quick pivot to online learning
Stacy Barker, principal at Heritage Elementary school in Lima, was impressed with how teachers adapted and embraced the online learning experience.
“They’re working so hard and trying to get creative lessons and continue to teach these students every day,” Baker said. “There’s new challenges that are presented each and every single day, but we continue to work through those.”
It involved some experimentation at home that paid off, Baker said.
”I see a lot of science experiments going on with teachers videotaping themselves doing lessons at home, teachers converting their spaces in their homes into classrooms and just trying to continue to engage the students as much as possible and give them that classroom setting in a distance-learning environment,” Barker said.
Perry schools’ experience with online learning revealed some major gaps.
“The biggest takeaway that we have right now is we thought we had a good communication system with our families through an automated call system and the website,” said Dr. Kelly Schooler, incoming Perry schools superintendent and the current elementary school principal. “When it comes to the rigor of getting communication about daily assignments and lessons, we did not have a platform for that.
“So our biggest takeaway right now is that next year, regardless of where we’re at with COVID-19, we need to make sure that we have committed to a communication platform that has an extensive service of being able to communicate back and forth with families — the teacher and the parents with specifics about assignments and uploading lessons. So we’re looking at those options right now.”
Connie Ferenbaugh, a fourth-grade teacher at Wapakoneta Elementary, has seen what gaps needed to be filled.
“We have already started a list of things that we will implement at the beginning of every school year from now on,” Ferenbaugh said. “This process was not as difficult as it could have been because we were already using Google Classroom, but it could have been easier if we had some things in place. Our students didn’t have working email accounts until this happened. Those were not released until middle school in the past. From this year on, we will have students working with us through email from day one.”
Conquering the digital divide
One big problem with implementing online learning on a massive scale is acquiring devices and securing internet service.
“It definitely has posed some challenges,” said Keith Baumgartner, principal at Allen East High School. “Mainly, it lets you kind of see the digital divide, so to speak. Even out here within our district — that I’d say the income level is pretty good across the board — you still have some areas where the internet’s not necessarily always reliable. Some are relying on one phone and hotspots to utilize for the internet, which is good for a lot of things that you do in everyday life, but then trying to complete schoolwork can be a bit of a challenge for some kids.”
Finding devices and getting WiFi to the students was important to making online learning work.
“Obviously we’ve had a tremendous amount of stuff going on since this started, with the main goal from the beginning being how are we going to educate these kids, many of which do not have devices or do not have WiFi,” said Jill Ackerman, superintendent of Lima schools. “We’ve kept track on who is doing the work and who is not doing the work. We’re finding there were lots of kids that did not have devices. So we set up the laptop drive-thrus. The first one was huge.”
Around 700 devices were handed out in the past several weeks to Lima schools’ students. Attempts to acquire WiFi hotspots were unsuccessful.
“We thought we were going to be able to secure some prepaid hotspots at a very low cost, but that went from practically being nothing to over $200,000 and the quantity was gone, so we wouldn’t have gotten them shipped to us until mid-June,” Ackerman told Lima school board members recently. “We had to scrap that idea.”
Instead, they informed students and parents where they might find free hotspots, such as the Lima Public Library.
“People could access it in our building parking lots. I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of kids who were engaged,” Ackerman said. “I was very worried — some urban school districts had a tremendous amount of kids not engaged at all.”
Reach the unreachable?
Some children have given up on online learning.
“There are just a handful of kiddos that haven’t done anything,” Perry’s Meyer said. “You email them. You text message them. You call parents, and no response. It’s just hard not knowing. Not knowing, ‘Are you okay?’ Or, ‘Do you not understand the material?’ Or, ‘What can I do to help you?’ And when you’re constantly reaching out and not getting any feedback in return, that’s really hard for teachers.”
Some students just do better than others in the online environment.
“There are students that are having no problems with it whatsoever, that the online learning probably has benefited them because it utilizes their creativity and how they learn best on that online environment on their own pacing,” Barker said. “For some students, they have really exceeded. For other students, not having that structure has been a struggle because they’re not getting up there. They’re not in a routine. They’re not going to school, and they don’t have somebody there telling them you need to do your work; you need to get this completed.”
Calamity days substitute
If there is a silver lining to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic and schools turning to online learning, it is that the technology can be used as a stop-gap measure in case school has to be closed for bad weather.
“I could definitely see it as an as a very viable option to do that on a smaller scale,” Allen East’s Baumgartner said. “It definitely could have things put together as the teachers have now become more adept of recording lessons and doing things like that to where that could be put out there. You could Zoom into the classroom. The teacher could be at their home or wherever and be able to still go through and teach a lesson to the class for that day. Yeah, I definitely think it would be a very viable option for any type of weather.”
It could even be used to help ill children keep up with their schoolwork, said Aaron Rex, superintendent of Wapakoneta schools.
“I can see them being used on snow days, for students who are out due to illness or even for teachers who may have to miss work for a period of time,” Rex said. “Our students have also learned quickly, and these experiences will help them in college, the workforce and their future in general.”
Reach Sam Shriver at 567-242-0409.