Distance learning has been in place for nearly two weeks at Jordan Public Schools, and for teachers and students alike, it’s the distance part that’s really being felt.
“I miss the kids,” middle school Spanish teacher Kendra Olson said. “For the first week it felt like ‘oh, this is fine,’ then the second week you realize this is reality and it’s weird.”
“We really need to get back to those kids, I miss them so much,” high school science teacher Margy Schipper said.
Both teachers have had to adopt new routines as they work from home and prepare virtual lessons for their students.
“A typical day is waking up and answering all my emails that came in the night before, then me and another co-worker have a session with our advisory class,” Olson said. “I hold office hours every day for two hours so kids can pop in ask a couple questions and leave. Then it’s a lot of planning for the following weeks and checking in with kids who haven’t logged into anything and making sure they’re good.”
“I find that it’s too much time at the computer,” Schipper said. “I need to actually set a limit and make myself get away from the computer.”
Schipper, like Olson, hosts virtual office hours, where kids can log in and talk with their teachers via teleconferencing software. Both teachers said it’s a highlight of their day.
“I look forward to that. I can make it until then because then I see kids and I’m back at it again,” Schipper said. “That’s really helped me.”
Live chats help the students maintain a level of classroom socialization in their education, too. Many teachers at JPS started using a program called Flipgrid, which allows teachers to ask a question in video form and have students respond via video.
“They can watch each others’ videos if they want as well,” Olson said. “We’re trying to get more of that personal thing because there are some kids that just want some human interaction with all this. Even if it’s through a screen it’s still nice to see people.”
“If I get 14 students putting their videos up, there will be 155 views of just those 14 kids,’ Schipper said. “You can tell they’re looking at each other and responding like that.”
Before school closed two weeks ago, students in grades 3-12 were issued devices that would allow them to have one-on-one contact with teachers and the ability to work online. Through distance learning software, teachers provided students with daily assignments and tasks, which students are expected to complete and turn in.
Jordan was relatively well-positioned to adopt distance learning since many students had already made regular use of the online learning management system. The district relied on this same software during weather closures and, even in the traditional classroom, a lot of work was turned in online.
”On weather closure days we had a type of this model,” Superintendent Matt Helgerson said. “It certainly has morphed, but the work that’s been done in the last three weeks to prepare for this distance learning model has a solid framework.”
But like many teachers, students may be struggling to establish a home routine, too. A voluntary weekly schedule is provided online to help guide students to stay on track with studies.
“We know, especially at a lower level, some students are still at daycare and parents are working during the day, so they can’t follow a specific schedule,” JPS Director of Teaching and Learning Erin Hjelmeland said. “So we tried to build a plan for people who are at home and want more of a traditional schedule to follow.”
Students grades K-2, however, weren’t issued take-home devices and those teachers have to rely on different methods to reach their students. Second-grade teacher Adam Larson uses an app called Seesaw that allows him to share standards-based activities with parents and students. When students complete their work, they upload a photo of it via cellphone, computer screenshot or digital scan and send it back to Larson.”We just keep a spreadsheet and give them feedback on their work and do the best we can,” Larson said. “It’s just a totally different type of teaching, a totally different type of education. You still have to meet the kids’ needs and find out where each family is at and what works with them. You get creative and do the best you can, everybody is in the same boat.”
But distance learning isn’t just about academics. The district continues to operate several other essential functions, such as student meal service and childcare for children of emergency responders and essential workers.
During the first week, Helgerson said the district was serving more than 900 meals a day, distributing them at seven city limit sites and the high school while vans delivered meals on rural routes. ”Our paraprofessionals have all been reassigned via rotation to help with emergency childcare or help with meal prep or delivery,” Helgerson said. The district provides daycare services for 20-30 students, of all ages, whose parents are required to report to work. ”We don’t charge for those services, it’s all free — that’s part of the state’s mandate,” Helgerson said. “The meals are also provided to anybody for free and we get a federal and state reimbursement.”
Teachers who have students with individualized education programs are reaching out to those kids daily for direct one-on-one interaction via teleconference, Hjelmeland said. And in order to measure whether the level of daily work is too much or too little for other students, some teachers like Olson are sending surveys for students to provide feedback, while others with younger students, like Larson, are reaching out to parents for feedback. The lessons teachers are learning may extend beyond this distance learning era, too. Schipper said the online process has already forced her to re-evaluate her classroom curriculum and pare down instruction to the essentials with the hope of making her educating more effective.
“It’s really made me take a hard look at my lessons and clean out the junk, the stuff that maybe was time-fillers,” Schipper said. “I have to have an honest look at what I put in front of the kids every day.”
Helgerson, too, believes the challenges the district faces in the coming weeks will temper the district’s ability to more effectively educate students — in good times and bad.
”My personal feeling is that when we come out of this and eventually have some level of normalcy, we’ll be better as a school district because of it. We’ll have a better understanding of what are important assignments — instead of 50 problems we’ll know what five are most important to understanding a concept,” Helgerson said. “I think it will give our teachers a better understanding of essential components to get across in a lesson.”