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The City Journals

Adaptation is key to students’ success in 2020 and beyond

Jan 11, 2021 01:45PM ● By Bill Hardesty

In 2020, classroom instruction was on and off. (Bill Hardesty/City Journals)

By Bill Hardesty | [email protected]

On March 13, 2020, a decision by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert started a ball rolling that affected learning in 2020 for students, their families, teachers, staff and district staff.

The shutdown he announced was only to last two weeks. The two weeks turned into eight weeks or more. After a summer of preparation by the Granite School District (GSD), a new school year started with students in the classroom for four days a week. Friday is teacher prep day and student online day.

It didn’t take long until schools, mostly high schools and middle/junior high schools, reached the limit of 15 COVID-19 cases and were shutting down for deep cleaning and forcing all students and teachers back into an online environment. The Salt Lake Tribune reported on Nov. 29, 2020 that “at least 72 schools in Utah have had COVID-19 outbreaks and shifted to fully or partially online in response.”

Since March, students, families, teachers and districts have had to adapt, often quickly. How has this changing landscape changed learning in 2020?

Students

“The problem is that with the switch to distance [learning] last spring and the back and forth this year, we have many students failing. And the mental issues are real, lots of depression and loneliness going on. We are focusing on putting services in place to fill these gaps,” said Sharla Bynum, Gear Up coordinator at Cottonwood High School.

Among the services are additional virtual homework help provided by teachers. Promise SSL offers homework help at the Best Buy Promise SSL Teen Tech Center. Also, the Salt Lake County Library System provides homework help with live tutoring from Brainfuse. Among the services of Brainfuse, a national education organization, are real-time tutors. The library also offers at-home science experiments, math help, and ideas for physical education.

American education is interaction focused—interactions between students, interactions between student and teacher, interactions between students, parents and teachers. This year, such interactions are complicated. 

In most cases, students sit further apart than usual. Often, they are behind clear plastic desk dividers. In elementary schools, students are assigned a place to sit for lunch, which is the only time they can take off their masks. Assemblies are held virtually as students are in class, which makes it hard on the cheer squad.

Beyond the academics is a lack of informal interactions. Humans are social animals, especially teenagers. 

“Even at school, I feel isolated,” a Taylorsville high school student said.

Another student waited for weeks to try out for the varsity basketball team. The tryouts kept getting moved because of a school shutdown or the governor’s ban on after-school activities. 

Rite of passage events such as Junior Prom or Homecoming dance were canceled or held unofficially by parents, with its own set of concerns. Yearbook Day was quite different since students couldn’t hang out in the halls writing, “Have a fun summer” or “See you in September.”

Drama students’ dreams of singing and acting on the big stage weren’t realized last spring, and guidelines for this year continue to unfold. 

“The students, by and large, do not like virtual learning,” said a high school teacher from South Salt Lake City. “They miss being with their friends and participating in all the activities that have been canceled or altered due to COVID. Students are not allowed to attend sporting events, choir concerts and assemblies are virtual, and I project them to a single class period in my room. It’s not the same. Most have resigned themselves to the fact that this is the way it is until this thing is over, but they are not happy about it.”

Families

Childcare issues have the most impact on families. School provides a safe, supervised environment for children and youth. However, when schools shut down entirely like last March, parents had to find alternatives. Some worked from home. Some took time off as they could. Others quit their jobs.

Even when schools opened in August, Friday was still an issue. Traditionally, Fridays were a short day, but now parents must find all-day childcare because students are home.

Added to this is the potential problem that parents often have 24 hours or less to find childcare when they receive notice from the school that their child must quarantine for two weeks or that the school must shut down for deep cleaning.

“Since school started, each child has had at least two weeks of online learning,” said Meredith Harker, mother of three school-aged sons. “I am most concerned when my sixth grader had to stay home alone. The rest of us had to go to school and work. I don’t know how parents do it with younger children.”

Another issue is how children adapted to an asynchronous online environment. Asynchronous allows students to go online at their choosing, but it can also lead to procrastination. The ability to adjust is as different as each student. A socially-oriented student might get easily distracted by social media. Other students miss the interaction with teachers. Others don’t feel as challenged online.

Makell Rogers, a mother of four, said her kids improved with the return of a routine—having four school days and one online. 

“The one day at home is still sometimes challenging for one or two of them, but most of them enjoy being able to get their schoolwork done earlier in the morning to have more time to play,” Rogers said.

“Parental involvement is key,” said Harker, who is also a third-grade teacher at Calvin Smith. “I am lucky because my students are involved in the Chinese immersion program with high parental involvement. I see other teachers struggling much more.”

Teachers

Utah Education Association (UEA) recently surveyed teachers and found that 88% feel “overwhelmed” and “stressed.” UEA received more than 300 pages of comments that they are analyzing now.

Summarizing his experience, the SSL teacher said, “It’s stressful, especially since we are usually told what to expect at the last minute, but it’s 2020, and we just have to roll with it.”

In March, teachers had a few days to adjust to a different teaching environment. In a classroom setting, teachers can see students’ expressions to know if they are understanding the concepts. Teachers do their best explaining concepts with asynchronous online, but in a real sense, a teacher puts the training together and throws it over the wall hoping students get it.

“I just don’t know my online students as well as those in my classroom,” Harker said.

The SSL teacher spoke about problems last spring, such as not taking attendance or having due dates on assignments. He said the result was “only a few high-achieving students came to our virtual meetings,” and no due dates “led to a lot of procrastination.” 

He reported, “This year, during our second round of shutdown, the district fixed these issues, and I was allowed to take attendance, so I had much higher participation in my virtual sessions. The students all agreed that they liked it a lot better. I feel like my students ended last year behind but are on track this year with what they need to know.”

At school, students see plastic partitions and directional arrows everywhere. Plastic partitions are in the office, counselors’ office, and maybe around the teacher’s desk or their desk. Students can walk only one way down hallways. Everyone is wearing a mask. Teachers can take them off while teaching word pronunciation.  

“Teachers are working hard to make sure all students have access to quality instruction each day,” Granite Park Junior High School Principal Chris Griffiths said. “To help teachers manage the implementation of both learning modalities, teachers have more planning time on Fridays which are now distance learning days for all students. This gives teachers opportunities to plan and work with students individually that need extra help. Our teachers are working so hard, and I am so proud of their dedication to our students.”

“We love our teachers and how they help our children see their full potential and how they have made it enjoyable through these circumstances,” Rogers said.

District

Earlier this year, GSD reported that nearly 40% of students did not sign on, or they only signed on once between March and the end of the school year.

This year, “Much better…around 4% of distance learners are not engaging,” Ben Horsley, director of Communications and Community Outreach for GSD.

Speaking about schools shutting down this year, Horsley said, “It is challenging, but not unforeseen. We knew when putting our plans together back in July that these dismissals would occur, which is why we are one of the few districts that required our teachers to do both in-person and distance instruction. This makes the transition between these dismissals much easier for students and staff.”

One of the issues the district has worked to resolve is the digital divide. GSD purchased Chromebooks for each student.

“Each Granite Park student, both face-to-face learners and distance learners, have been given a Chromebook to use this year. Our students have done an amazing job of coming to school prepared each day with their Chromebooks. Many families have been given a hotspot as well to help with internet needs,” Griffiths said.

Horsley mentioned that while they have provided many mobile hotspots, there are still more available.

When asked to describe learning in 2020, Horsley replied, “Unique and will shape instruction for the next 20 years. Distance learning will become part of our services as there will invariably be families who need this type of instruction for many years to come.”