Learning from a distance in Douglas County schools
Douglas County teachers provide connection as well as classes.
With schools shut down until at least April 24 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers, students and parents in Douglas County are adjusting to a new instructional model.
“All of us are in unknown territory,” said Solon Springs Principal Dene Muller.
School used to have a set place in every family's schedule, Muller said. It was the place where students came to learn, follow daily schedules, eat, work, socialize and stay active. The pandemic has caused that to shift.
“We were the day,” Muller said. “Now we’re a piece of the puzzle, a piece in every person’s family.”
Solon Springs jumped into distance learning earlier than Maple and Superior because they took spring break the week of March 9-13. Administrators decided not to bring Solon’s 280 students back for two days before Gov. Tony Evers’ order closing schools took effect. Instead, they used March 16-17 to plan how to support student learning at home.
“At first I was kind of torn about that, because I really wanted to see my kids one last time,” said second grade teacher Shannon Dickenson. “But I was really appreciative because we were able to get a plan ready for how to start this whole thing.”
Dickenson put together packets with three weeks' worth of material for her students. Now teaching from home, Dickenson sends daily messages and mini lessons to students through Class Dojo, which can be accessed with a cell phone.
Her morning message includes a joke, quote or riddle of the day, offering the classroom routine from a distance. Not all district homes have internet access or an available laptop.
She encourages her students to do an activity and share a picture of their work. On Tuesday, March 31, they were asked to make a rainbow and post it in the window with a saying.
“It was a big hit,” Dickenson said.
The district has focused on family first. In addition to teachers, support staff are providing an extra layer of communication, reaching out to families to make sure their needs are being met.
“I just think there’s so many opportunities for us to take care of each other,” Muller said. “That’s got to be the priority.”
Parents are struggling with what is reasonable in terms of learning expectations, said Solon Springs School Board President Angela Botner. Some are frustrated.
“But we have a great support system here, and I hope that both kids and parents are reaching out and asking for help if they need it,” she said.
Muller said work is provided, and kids are expected to remain engaged in learning, but families get to choose how they do that.
Kids are resilient, Botner said.
“As I looked through the journal that my 9-year-old has been keeping since starting this new journey, I was struck at how many times I saw the word 'great',” she said. “There is joy there, we just have to be able to recognize it.”
Distance learning began March 24 for the Superior School District’s roughly 4,538 students. The district was on spring break the week Evers’ order took effect, giving staff and administrators extra time to pull together a universal platform.
“We’re trying to make sure all the students are getting consistent lessons and activities,” said Michele Conlan, a third grade teacher at Great Lakes Elementary School. “That’s been really helpful as far as a teacher. No matter what school, all third-graders are doing the same things.”
The district had solid digital resources to draw from, District Administrator Amy Starzecki said, including the one-on-one laptop program at Superior middle and high schools.
There are still a handful of families in the district without internet access, and Starzecki said staff were planning to set up digital hotspots for them beginning April 2. She said her third grader doesn’t need the computer to do a lot of the work — they only need web access to get the assignments. If a family has a smartphone, they could get 95% of that information.
Digital access isn’t the biggest hurdle.
“I think the hardest part isn’t necessarily the teaching and learning, it’s the personal connection that our teachers are missing and our kids are missing,” Starzecki said. “I’m missing it.”
Platforms like Zoom, Google Classroom and Google Meet do more than provide information on assignments. They’re a spot to connect.
“For me this week, I’ve set up different chat times that are optional for the kids. Not everyone is there yet. They try to invite their friends and get the rest of the kids on board,” said Erin Vatne, a fifth grade teacher at Northern Lights Elementary School. “I usually leave a few minutes for them to just talk to each other, because I know we’re missing each other a lot.”
For Kelly Jobin, a kindergarten teacher at Bryant Elementary School, it feels like September all over again. She said she's reaching out to families to make sure they have internet access and devices to complete schoolwork and to make sure they are doing OK.
Her highlights from the past two weeks were seeing videos and pictures sent by students and starting a few Google Meets.
“Just seeing and feeling that energy, even though it’s not the same as seeing them face-to-face, it’s great to see them laughing and smiling and proud of what they’ve been doing at home,” she said.
Conlan met with her students on Google Meet on Monday, March 30 to share their weekly “Roses and Thorns” — the good and not-so-good things that happened over the weekend. A parent of three, she’s juggling both teacher and mom duties.
“I’ve had a few Google Meets where my 4-year-old will just run in and ask me for something. I think families have been great about that too, just recognizing we’re human, too, and we’re all just figuring this out,” Conlan said. “People are giving a lot of grace for those things, being a teacher working from home.”
Maple reaches out
The Maple School District is relying on teamwork to get things done and make sure the needs of its 1,300 students are being met. The district began distance learning on March 25.
Michael Hintzman, band director for Northwestern high and middle schools, has turned his basement into a band room. Outfitted with a laptop, secondary screen, iPad, digital piano and array of instruments, he live-records class and runs it as if he were at school.
“I’m still wearing what I normally wear to school,” he said. “It keeps me in Mr. Hintzman mode.”
His only concession to conducting class from home is slippers in place of dress shoes.
The live video lessons — twice a week for middle schoolers, four times a week for high schoolers — are presented as if the students are in front of him playing their instrument. He plays and sings along, pointing out trouble spots, encouraging them not to rush.
“On average, half of my students are joining me live,” he said. “I — at least in my mind — assume that they’re playing along.”
Those who can’t tune in live have the option to watch the recording later.
Northwestern middle schoolers were already immersed in spring songs, while the high school students are challenged with one new song a week. This week, it’s the “Back to the Future” theme. Hintzman has set up digital classroom rules and tries to keep as much of their routine as possible while they are apart.
“For me ultimately it’s about getting them to continue to play their instruments, making music and for us to stay connected,” Hintzman said.
NMS math teacher Jaimi Teal said she’s been impressed with how teachers, students and parents are working together to make distance learning work.
“When we had a couple planning days, the teachers, it was so cool to see everybody just spring right into action,” Teal said. “We all were diving in, like 'How can we figure this out?'”
She was one of the first NMS teachers to set up a Zoom meeting with students, said Principal Tanya Krieg. For Teal, one of the major benefits of the platform is getting the kids to connect with their classmates.
They can ask math questions, as well as see and talk to each other.
“It’s really cute because they have been showing each other their pets in the Zooms,” Teal said. “They’re just kind of goofy in there.”
While Hintzman and Teal have been building lessons and making connections, district staff have provided additional layers of support — preparing and delivering meals, setting up Chromebooks and internet connections, delivering textbooks, library books and locker items. Counselors are checking in on students, and special education teachers and support staff are reaching out personally to their students.
“From a teacher point of view, it’s been kind of cool to see everybody, all the different pieces working together,” Teal said. “We’re all just trying to do the best we can, and so far, it seems to be going pretty well.”
Administrators at all three districts said they’re prepared to continue providing distance learning as long as necessary.
“I think in the end we’re going to be stronger as a community when this is over,” Starzecki said. “But I’m really proud of our staff and I’m really glad my own daughter goes here because she’s having a great experience through this.”
Everyone is learning, but educators said they're thankful families are working with them during this wild time.
"At the core of it all are some of the best families we could ask for, who partner with us, support us, and truly make us a community-based team,” Krieg said.
Muller said this experience could shape the face of education to come. Ironically, distance learning is bringing the school community closer.
“I couldn’t feel more like a family,” Muller said. “I thought we were a family before, but it feels even more so right now. There’s a lot of really good communication going on.”