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Teaching School in a COVID World

by Doug Berger

The Covid-19 virus has changed many things during 2020, including the operation of the schools. 

Almost 300 Ava School District students started the school year with on-line or virtual learning. Of the 1,345 school district students 94 from the elementary school, 77 from the middle school and 96 from the high school started the year outside of the conventional classroom. The high school had as many as 137 virtual students at one time. 

The main reason students have opted out of the classroom instruction is Covid concerns. The district indicated that for some families, the communicated concern is potential exposure, while for other families the communicated concern is having to wear masks.

The Covid-19 virus concerns forced the school district and staff to take unusual steps to protect the health of students and staff and to prepare for instruction in both the conventional and on-line setting.

 “We started discussing and planning for different scenarios at the end of the 2019-2020 school year. We identified a team of teachers from each building to help develop a plan for delivering remote instruction that met throughout June. We then offered training sessions for all staff throughout July,” assistant superintendent Aaron Dalton stated.

Even with the preliminary planning, the district and staff have had to adjust their approach throughout the first semester to take on a historical school year.

“Obviously this year has been a year like no other. I would like to first commend the teachers, principals, para-educators, Mr. Dalton and Mrs. Swatosh for the enormous amount of work they did during the summer as well as throughout the first semester. 

“Teachers spent hours upon hours during the summer and have continued to work during the fall ensuring their curriculum and instruction was available equally to all students both virtual and seated. Instruction has been relatively fluid between virtual and seated as students have had to move in and out of instructional methods due to quarantine or family situations. 

“It is apparent to me that teachers have made this adjustment very smoothly, not that there haven’t been some bumps in the road, but the work they have done to insure their students are learning has been incredible. As a district we could have chosen to purchase an on-line curriculum for virtual students, but as we know that would not have been what’s best for our students. 

“The teachers in the Ava R-1 School District are what’s best for our students. The connection between teacher and student cannot be replaced, our teachers and staff understand this and that is my opinion of why they have worked so hard to make this incredible lift for our community. We continue to adjust and get better at what we are doing, but it is my opinion that instruction has gone as smoothly as we could have hoped during this unprecedented time,” Superintendent Dr. Jason Dial said about the first semester of the school year.

One of the adjustments the district made during the semester was on returning students to seated instruction.

“Students were initially asked to commit to online learning through the first semester. As we gathered feedback, the decision was made to allow students the opportunity to return to seated after the first quarter,” Dalton explained.

Late in the semester many students were able to have returned to the classroom for instruction. In the elementary school 48 students were still receiving on-line instruction; middle school, 41; and high school, 100.

Staffing issues were also a concern going into the school year.

“At this point, we have not had any full-time staff members opt-out, but we have had some substitutes elect not to substitute this year. We have had to adjust some staffing positions to meet the additional demands of serving students virtually,” Dalton said.

As of November 16, the district had 17 staff members diagnosed with Covid. Three in the middle school, nine in the elementary school and five in the high school. As of the same date, the school district had 22 positive student Covid cases, seven in the elementary; eight, middle school; and seven, high school. They had quarantined 285 students or staff members due to exposure.

One of the primary concerns in providing instruction on-line was the lack of infrastructure within the area covered by the district.

“The district has enough devices (Chromebooks) for all students that would need them. The issue is with the infrastructure within our district boundaries. We have students who live in locations, that even if we sent them home with a wifi hotspot, the fact that they do not have cell service where they live would make the hotspot ineffective. We have contingency plans in place if we were to have to go entirely virtual during the school year (ex: Wifi access in each parking lot, downloading lessons to flash drives). Financing additional devices and hotspots have been provided by district dollars as well as Douglas County Covid funds. Each school district in the state of Missouri received an allocation of federal funds based on their poverty rate last spring. Ava R-1 chose to use that money to build a reserve balance in the general operating fund so that it could use those funds this fiscal year to purchase items needed for Covid response as well as cover any funding shortfalls,” Dalton stated.

“There is a great disparity from student to student in regard to technology and internet access. This greatly affects their success with virtual learning. The school district has taken some great measures to provide internet access to students who are in need, but there are still some students who struggle to connect. I know our state is taking measures to increase internet access in rural areas, and this is such a great initiative. We truly need it,” high school English teacher Zach Hamby stated.

“I think we have sufficient technology. Virtual classes take more discipline and maturity which some students don’t have,” high school agriculture instructor John Branstetter said.

“Living in a rural area there is no way to provide all students with the access to technology that many take for granted in the big cities. I, myself, do not have cell service at my home. It is not from a lack of effort. The service is simply not available in my area. I know that several of our students are in the same situation. And many that do have service have only inconsistent access. Some students have to wait for parents to get home from work to begin their school work, because the parent’s phone is the hot spot. I also know that having internet access is an additional expense for families,” Margaret Evans-Frazier, middle school English teacher stated.

“I believe technology is a factor, but not as big of an issue for student success as the ability for the teacher to interact in real-time with the student throughout the day,” Dalton indicated in relation to technology as a factor in student success. 

“The biggest challenge has been the additional time it is taking staff to plan for, deliver and respond to instruction. In many cases, teachers have had to reformat or completely change lesson plans to adjust for challenges presented by presenting virtually. Then there is additional work required with various submission forms for homework and assignments,” Dalton related.

“Virtual learning requires a completely different teaching plan than teaching in the classroom. When you teach virtually and in-person at the same time, you are essentially prepping two different classes, which doubles the time you spend planning. I am fortunate to have an hour each day where I do not have in-person students, and I can use that time to prepare for my virtual classes. Teachers who don’t have this luxury have to find a way to do that extra planning sometime in the school day, and that would be very difficult,” Hamby stated.

“There were a number of difficulties to overcome. The most challenging aspect is that keeping instruction and feedback meaningful and constructive for all parties and not getting bogged down in the extra duties. As a professional in education you find ways to adapt. In the beginning there might have been some moments like that. But with the extra time afforded to us by our administration and also having had some past experience in distance learning, the transition was not too difficult,” Middle School math instructor James Lafferty stated in regards to if there was concerns in preparing for both in class and virtual instruction.

“The most difficult part of teaching virtual and seated instruction at the same time is budgeting your time. The combination of on-line and seated instruction has not caused prep time for seated instruction to be sacrificed. If anything it causes you to think through the lesson in more detail. For example, as you are going through the zoom instruction you are trying to think of all the questions the students might have or the holes in your lessons that might be confusing. Again it is time consuming, but the lesson is set up before class begins. Many hours are put in before and after school, but the instruction time for the seated students is not sacrificed,” Evans-Frazier said.

Teachers have pointed out some of the difficulties faced in teaching their courses on line.

“It is difficult to replicate my teaching style virtually. I use a lot of assignments where students participate by reading a script out loud. This is not possible virtually unfortunately, so a lot of the interactive nature of the class is lost,” Hamby indicated.

“I have a lot of hands-on activities that make it difficult for proper instruction,” Branstetter stated relative to on-line instruction.

“There are challenges to teaching any subject or grade level on-line. My hat comes off and my heart goes out to the elementary teachers. I do not know how they do it. It is hard enough to do distance teaching with eighth graders and I cannot imagine the issues that must come up in the lower grades. For me the loss of voice inflection combined with facial expression during class discussion or passages we read aloud together is difficult to capture through the virtual format,” Evans-Frazier indicated.

“Teaching math has its own hardships with students being seated. Teaching virtually does pose even more struggles. But, I have adapted and feel that I have a good feel for my students and their needs. I can produce extra videos that are aids for individual needs and even for instruction. The administration has gone above and beyond to get resources to each of us as teachers to help us do our jobs to the best of our ability,” Lafferty said.

On-line learning does provide difficulties for teachers in assisting students.

“It is difficult to address students’ difficulties virtually especially since I am an English teacher. My students will struggle with reading comprehension, and since I am not physically reading the material with them, I’m limited on how I can help them understand,” Hamby said.

“It is difficult for teachers that sponsor active extra-curricular clubs and contests because of the time constraints. If you don’t have a planned virtual hour it’s even more difficult,” Branstetter stated.

“It can be difficult, but through the use of multiple technological tools-Google Meet (a face to face tool to offer instruction), Screencastify (a video recording web-based program) and Google Classroom (an educational tool utilized to bring needs of virtual educators to one place) we have been able to overcome most of these obstacles rather quickly,” Lafferty indicated.

“Although our district has done a wonderful job of striving to meet the needs of the virtual learner, the best place for all students is the classroom. For struggling students there are just some concepts that are better understood seated in the classroom,” Evans-Frazier stated.

Some of the new protocols required during this period of instruction during the Covid period has been of concern. Concerns included student initial acceptance and later burn out issues with the rules.

“Early on the new protocols were difficult, but over time students became acclimated to the new expectations. The most difficult part about teaching during Covid is missing the smiles of the students, you know they are smiling under that mask, but you don’t get the full effect,” Lafferty stated. 

“This is a wonderful group of students. And as in all areas of life Covid has changed the way we do things, but the students have taken things in stride and showed a tremendous maturity level in dealing with a difficult situation,” Evans stated in reference to students dealing with Covid protocols.

“The masking protocol has actually gone very smoothly. I was worried that students would be resistant to it, or it would change the classroom dynamic, but it really hasn’t. This year we are using our Chromebooks more than ever—using digital copies of the resources that would have normally been paper copies. But this hasn’t changed much about our day-to-day learning process (other than needing to keep power strips handy),” Hamby said.

Part two of this article will appear in next week’s Herald.