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At-home education: What has it really been like?

By Sarah Hall
Beacon Correspondent

Students missing their friends, classmates and teachers, spending long stretches in front of a computer screen and craving more live, online instruction not only to help them with assignments, but also just to make some human connection.

Teachers scrambling to pull together new learning materials, reinvent lessons to deliver them remotely, find ways to connect with every student and manage a more unwieldy school day that’s no longer confined to a schedule or classroom.

Parents juggling the competing and nerve-wracking demands of work, family and at-home education, as they oversee busier, noisier households and take on the role of teachers, too.

Administrators continually trying to align expectations with reality, communicate, reassure and churn out new policies and plans, for everything from grades to postponed graduations. For many, this the most challenging time ever in their careers.

These are just a few snapshots of virtual education in Sheboygan County – from the perspective of key players hunkered down at home or alone in their offices – as they enter the home stretch of the 2019-20 school year, with more than a month to go and yet still not very long after reaching running speed. What has it really been like, and what does each party want the others to know?

It hasn’t been easy, said almost everyone interviewed for this story. The six weeks since schools first closed statewide in March have been in some ways more daunting and frustrating than anyone could have predicted, but there have also been bright spots and successes along the way.

As Elkhart Lake-Glenbeulah School District Administrator Ann Buechel Haack likes to say, the sudden switch to at-home learning has required everyone to “make like a duck,” remaining calm and placid on the surface while paddling frantically under water.

A determination to make the best of a difficult situation and express gratitude for all the other ducks somehow managing to stay afloat were themes expressed by many.

“We’re just so appreciative of everyone,” said Plymouth Schools Superintendent Dr. Carrie Dassow. “Our staff is wonderful and doing an excellent job of keeping students learning. Our thanks to everyone for their support of our school district, especially parents and significant others who continue to work with students.”

Christopher Peterson, superintendent of the Howards Grove School District, said he is “impressed with our teachers and how quickly they were able to convert to a new form of teaching, and our parents have responded incredibly well also. Now it’s a matter of keeping up stamina.”

Logging in to virtual learning

Some sort of online check-in is required of students in every school district surveyed, and daily student attendance appears to be about the same as usual.

“Our attendance is always very high, and has stayed that way,” noted Buechel Haack of EL-G, and that was typical as well of other school systems responding to our inquiries. While some districts do not specify when teachers should post assignments, hers asks them to do so by 9 a.m. every school day, so students and parents know what to expect.

Those districts who commented on the percentage of their students with internet access also reported that it approaches 100 percent, connectivity is spotty for some and paper-and-pencil alternatives are offered to those needing it.

“If our kids are engaging with learning every day, that alone is a huge win,” said Peterson. But more schoolwork is not necessarily better, according to him.

“One of our biggest challenges is managing expectations,” he said. “We can’t have the same level of expectation virtually that we did when school was in session. Our parents and teachers have high expectations, but we’ve had to pull back a little and ask, ‘What is essential learning?’ Otherwise, it can all be overwhelming. And if we overwhelm the students, they’re going to disengage.”

“I am beyond impressed with the support, both personalized and general, from my son’s teacher,” said Elizabeth Madgwick of Sheboygan Falls, parent of a first grader. “The flexibility in assignment completion and learning activities has made this chaotic and unprecedented time manageable for myself as a teacher as well, and familiar and achievable for my son.”

“As a teacher, I am finding that while some students, especially those who had anxiety or low self-esteem regarding their peers, are thriving in this distance learning environment, most are struggling,” said science teacher Shelley Benedict of Riverview Middle School in Plymouth. “Some students who were very conscientious have turned in sub-par assignments or are missing assignments that they never would have been missing IN school.”

Many teachers and administrators echoed her assessment that it’s often unpredictable who will thrive and who will founder, with some students benefitting from being able to work independently, at their own pace and with fewer distractions. Others stray off course without a teacher there in person to guide them along.

One Plymouth secondary-school teacher who wished to remain anonymous expressed concern that some students are falling so far behind, they are tuning out. “Many of our students have weeks of missing work and are now failing,” she said. “It can be very difficult for some students to learn new concepts through a screen, especially if a formal lesson has not been given first.”

She expressed the hope that the district would offer more flexibility in grading, and it was later decided that students and their families will be able to choose between grades of A, B, C, D or Incomplete and Satisfactory/Incomplete after the semester ends.

All over the gamut

Even though there has been an enormous amount of innovation and creativity in virtual education, there is also more disparity than usual between what different teachers, schools and districts have to offer, according to national news reports.

There is evidence of this in Sheboygan County as well. Many parents, especially those with children of different ages, spoke of inconsistencies in workload, the frequency of home-school communication and the amount and type of instruction offered – which cannot help but be noticed when siblings are all learning together within the same household.

Of course, it also makes sense that online classes cobbled together on short notice would vary more significantly than their in-person counterparts, which took years to develop and refine.

“Today was the first day that my son had a video from his teacher. He was super excited!,” said Heidi Mabie of Plymouth about her third grader. “Videos like this one have much more impact than those from an online source. More effort is required – I get that – but seeing familiar faces works wonders, especially at the elementary level.”

Both of Tami Barrow’s kids go to school in Sheboygan Falls, and “their first screen contact with their classes was this week,” she said. “Tasks were overwhelming at first. Now the teacher has scaled back for my fifth grader.” 

“They’re worried about yearbooks, their gym shoes, etc. I’m worried they will even have in-person school in the fall,” she added.

Live, face-to-face instruction offering teachers and students a chance to interact in real time was cited by many as a gold standard.

And while some districts have left it up to teachers what their lessons should look like, Elkhart Lake-Glenbeulah Schools set guidelines at the outset, asking that every class consist of at least a “mini-lesson” and an age-appropriate amount of independent work to coordinate with it.

“As school closures have gone on, it’s been a point of emphasis for teachers to offer as much interactive learning as possible,” said EL-G High School Principal Ryan Faris. “We are scheduling more and more class meets. It’s therapeutic.”

Plymouth High School junior Katelynn Knuth said that keeping up with online schooling during a year which may be crucial in determining college admission can sometimes be “absolutely draining.”

“I haven’t been getting a lot of face-to-face time with my teachers, but I know they are trying their hardest to get us lessons and provide us with all the information they can,” she explained, confiding that “the homework is frustrating since we are getting hammered.” She expressed gratitude to her friends and parents for encouraging her and suggested that a weekly check-in call from teachers might also help students stay on track.

Not as easy as it sounds

Teachers noted that making sure they meet their students’ basic educational needs may be more important than doing so in the optimal way. Multiply by 25, 50 or 100 or more students the time it takes to offer each one instructional materials and assignments, answer questions, provide help and grade work, and there may be nothing left to the school day.

“Students are no longer keeping their school schedule, so I am responding to students nearly 24/7 because they are “doing school” at all hours of the day and night,” said Benedict. In addition, “you can’t have a face-to-face conversation about missing work with a student who doesn’t respond to emails or requests for virtual conferences, so some of the personal connection is missing.”

Increased demand on internet service is a problem for many families, she noted, and others have chosen to “go old school.” Over the past week, she delivered ten textbooks to students living in Plymouth, Cascade and Elkhart Lake.

Some educators pointed out that elementary teachers and smaller schools with more manageable class loads may be better able to carve out time for more live instruction. But even then, it can be a challenge to schedule it at times when all students can participate, especially since the younger ones often need parental help.

“I don’t think people understand how much time it really takes to read and grade student responses,” a language arts teacher who requested anonymity said. ‘There’s a lot going on behind the scenes.”

Teaching her subject is not the same when she is “not able to track in real time what kids are comprehending.” She worries about the “kids in the middle,” who may not be as self-directed as the most advanced students and “really benefit from a teacher following up with them face to face.”

Public speaking, whole-class discussion and other forms of collaborative learning also cannot be conducted as effectively online, and she anticipates that there will inevitably be some learning gaps moving forward into next year.

Nonetheless, “I’m blown away by how much these kids are able to do even though I’m not there to constantly check in with them. I hope they’re becoming more resilient and able to figure things out,” she said.

“Parents have also been really understanding and involved, which is awesome. A lot of kids are feeling overwhelmed and inadequate right now … and what they need most is emotional support, to know that somebody is in their corner.”

More parents weigh in

“All of this has made me appreciate our kids’ teachers more. You realize how special it was for them to fill the school day with learning and special activities,” said Amanda Gottschalk.  She has a son who is a freshman at Lutheran High School in Sheboygan and a daughter with intellectual disabilities, who functions at the early elementary level and is a junior at Sheboygan North High School.

Gottschalk now spends about hours a day assisting them with schoolwork. “I feel as if I am more tired staying at home and getting everything done here than I was when I was going to work,” she commented.

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