Teaching School in a COVID World: Ava R-1 Staff Discuss Challenges of Teaching Seated and Online Students (Part 2/2)

Editor’s note: this is the second of a two-part series exploring the challenges Ava teachers and administrators are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Doug Berger

Agriculture instructor Branstetter stated that the students are burned out on mask wearing, and it has been an additional stress constantly monitoring mask and social distancing protocols.

The implementation of the Covid protocols have resulted in several positive benefits.

“Even though they don’t like it, I see students making the best of this pandemic by being positive and conforming to protocols,” Branstetter added.

Both Lafferty and Hamby indicated they have seen their students express an appreciation for being able to attend school.

“I believe intermittent times of virtual learning has really helped students appreciate being physically present in the school setting. Believe it or not, some students don’t like coming to school. But this time of Covid has really made them appreciate the positive aspects of being in a physical learning environment. My students who come back from quarantine almost always say, ‘I’m so glad to be back!’ and that’s great to hear,” Hamby stated.

Lafferty agrees he feels his students are thankful of being in school. 

“My group of students are doing great, and understand that they need to make the best of it, because they have seen things change quickly,” Lafferty said.

“I do see evidence that the Covid protocols of seating charts in the lunchroom and classroom separations on the playground have caused students to branch outside their normal circle of friends and spend time with peers they would not normally interact with on a regular basis,” Evans-Frazier said.

Online instruction has led to the need to develop new ways to address student academic concerns.

“The academic concerns are a lot of the same ones we have with seated students, they are just addressed differently. Student motivation and accountability continue to be primary factors for struggling learners. Student-teacher relationships are key to success for any student, and that just looks different in a virtual setting. Effective and informative feedback for students is also critical in the traditional setting, and that is much more challenging to do in real-time for virtual students that might not be connecting at the same time as classmates,” Dalton said.

“Traditional measures such as student grades and quarter tests continue to be used to measure progress. Benchmark assignments can also be used to measure the progress of both seated and virtual students. The greater challenge comes from remedies and interventions needed after reviewing student progress,” he explained.

“We have made a number of adjustments to what is being offered for virtual students throughout the quarter. We offer online tutoring, before and after school tutoring. We also have the ability to utilize online programs for students needing remediation,” Dalton said.

Dalton pointed out that state assessments (MAP and EOC Assessments) are the primary measures by which academic progress is measured. The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has indicated those assessments will be offered this spring. But Dalton also indicated that guidance from the state on potential issues such as quarantined students, school closure and other areas have not been issued yet. 

“It is difficult to evaluate academic progress during this time. When students are gone from the classroom for long stretches of time, you can’t expect them to learn as much as students who have been here. So evaluating students this year has to be done with some leeway. Our state is still planning on giving the End-of-Course exam as normal, and I’m not sure if that will give us an accurate picture of how much our students have truly learned,” Hamby said.

Branstetter pointed out that it is somewhat difficult to evaluate academic progress in this situation because earlier in the semester there were numerous students going into and out of quarantine that hampered their education.

“It can be, if students are not responding as well as they should if they are virtual. Also, giving feedback has proven a challenge with those who are virtual,” Lafferty said in relation to evaluating student progress.

“It is difficult to know if we can get a true picture of academic progress. We certainly try and we have data, but I have mixed feelings about how accurate this reflects the ‘normal’ progress made by students each year. It is my opinion that it is absolutely impossible to get a completely accurate picture of a virtual student’s progress. The environments of seated and virtual are not the same. Virtual students have unlimited time, but not the resources of the classroom. They do not have the responsibility of answering to a clock, but many times they are taking on responsibilities for younger siblings and obviously the responsibility of self-motivation,” Evans-Frazier explained.

Motivation of on-line students has created some challenges.

“For the most part my in-person motivation strategies have not changed, but with virtual students I have faced new challenges. For these students their parent or caregiver is taking the role that I normally have at school: the motivator. When these at-home motivators are unable to provide the right support at home, the students are unmotivated to complete the work. That is the biggest struggle with distance learning,” Hamby stated.

The challenges in confronting the need for different formats of instruction have had its positive elements.

“I think we identified several procedures that we will continue to use. We now know there are effective ways to offer instruction for students when they are unable to attend school (weather, extended illness, etc.) We can now do more than just send work home and go over it when students return,” Dalton stated.

“I actually like using the Zoom technology for recording speeches and other leadership activities,” agriculture instructor Branstetter stated.

“I have really ‘upped’ my digital teaching game by creating web-based lessons and electronic resources, and I am definitely planning on using these resources next year. We are substituting pencil-paper assignments for digital ones, but we are not changing how the class operates,” Hamby added.

“We are certainly being stretched this year, and it has been a year of learning new strategies to reach students in a tough time. I do feel that I have become stronger with technology and will be better versed with technological tools when this is all over,” Lafferty said.

“Intramural time is better because of the Covid restrictions. Due to the need for social distancing we separated the seventh and eighth graders by BEAR time during intramural time. Before Covid we offered intramurals once a week and each grade level had a day and all students in that grade level participated in intramurals at the same time. Per social distancing, we now have one eighth grade and one seventh grade BEAR time class at intramurals on their assigned day. The students have more space and can enjoy the gym and activities at a higher level. Also with several grade level teachers maintaining a regular BEAR time class there are several places for students to go if they need extra time to finish a lesson. It is a simple but effective change,” Evans-Frazier indicated.

Communication between the school district, teachers, students and parents has also been increased during the pandemic.

“Communication has increased significantly. Initially, there was increased communication as we were trying to gather input as we planned for the upcoming school year, and now we are communicating frequently whether with updated health guidance or information about quarantines. We always had a mass calling system, but we have probably gotten better at combining the calls and utilizing social media (Facebook, Twitter) to get messages out,” Dalton stated.

The teachers also have had to work on communication with parents during this period.

“This is probably one of the tougher challenges we face. Most parents wanted their kids virtual for genuine concerns, such as health. This does not negate from the fact that communication has been tough, but is vitally important to students’ success. But, with the school day taking up so much of our time, and the needs of students being high due to missing much of last year, we stay very busy with seated students. In seventh grade, most virtual students and their parents have been understanding and willing to work with us,” Lafferty indicated.

“I have communicated more by Google Classroom and email this semester. I usually prefer to call or talk to the parents face-to-face,” Branstetter stated.

“For the most part my interactions with parents teaching virtually has been helping them understand the best ways to monitor their student’s work. Most parents aren’t used to taking on the teacher role, so I’ve tried to give them strategies for checking to see if work is completed in Google classroom and meeting the assignment requirements. It’s not easy for parents to take on that “teacher” role, so we try to help as much as we can,” Hamby said.

The teachers feel that the students seem to be doing pretty well with the situation created by the Covid-19 requirements.

“One of the great things about kids is that they are adaptable. My students have been rolling with the punches and handling the Covid situation in stride. I’m very proud of their reaction in fact,” Hamby stated.

“Most are doing fine except for the protocols and wanting to go back to normal,” Branstetter said.

“There are good days and bad days. There are days you are looking for a star to wish it away because you are just tired of the constant struggle, but overall their spirits are high, and they enjoy the interaction with their friends and teachers,” Lafferty indicated.

“Overall students are dealing well with the Covid situation, but just like us they are tired of the daily isolation from elderly family members and the daily burdens and concerns of living in a Covid era,” Evans-Frazie stated.

The district anticipates operating in its current form at least through the end of the 2020-2021 school year.

“Through the reallocation of some district funds, along with the utilization of CARES Act funds made available to schools and Douglas County, we have been able to keep up with a lot of the technology needed for remote learning. Needs moving forward could include items such as webcams, headsets, microphones, etc. that make delivering remote instruction easier. We have also looked into additional on-line programs that can be used to supplement student instructional resources,” Dalton said.

“It is not our intention for Ava R-1 teachers to continue to offer virtual instruction indefinitely. Students have the option of applying to take virtual courses through MOCAP currently. Those courses are offered by an off-site provider,” Dalton explained.

The sustainability of the current on-line form of instruction also has concerns.

“There is no digital replacement for a teacher, and virtual learning has demonstrated this. I don’t believe that virtual learning is sustainable for that reason, but it’s a temporary solution to a problem that will hopefully be resolved by next school year. We are trying to stay positive, do the best we can, and pray that things will get better soon,” Hamby stated.

“I believe in a few settings it is fine, but as I stated earlier it takes mature and disciplined students with parental support to make it successful,” Branstetter said.

“No. There are a few, very few at this level who can flourish no matter the means of instruction. But, not many can, especially those in middle school. The accountability built into face-to-face instruction cannot be replaced and is a vital part of success of educating students,” Lafferty indicated.

“The format is certainly maintainable, but the better question would be, is this format advisable. The answer would be a resounding no. It is a wonderful thing to have technology at our fingertips. It is an unending highway of knowledge. However, the more focused the technology, the more isolated the use becomes. Learning virtually is like learning by looking through a mirror. The image might be good, but it can never be as clear as the real thing,” Evans-Frazier related.