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School leaders reflect on how distance learning went during two months of the pandemic

 - Distance learning was a popular option among some students, prompting the school district to offer more of it going forward.

Distance learning became the new normal for the lives of parents, students, and teachers throughout the state of Oregon from April to the end of the school year.

Crook County was ahead of the curve in implementing an effective distance learning program when schools were closed just prior to spring break due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Thanks to a $50,000 grant from Facebook, CCSD was able to make sure every student had a technology device before Learning @ Home launched after the school closure. The grant included Chromebooks or iPads for all the students in the district.

A schedule was set up on March 30 and March 31 for parents to pick up their Chromebooks in a safe manner. The first week of April, as part of the CCSD Learning @ Home, teachers and staff launched the program and provided educational materials, instruction, and support using a combination of online, telephone, and hard copy deliverables.

Shortly after the grant for Chromebooks, Facebook also made a $30,000 donation to CCSD to help set up Wi-Fi throughout the county. With this grant, CCSD set up Wi-Fi hotspots throughout Crook County to ensure every student had free access to the internet. Students could obtain Wi-Fi when parked next to any Crook County school. The devices automatically connected to the school Wi-Fi. There were also buses with Wi-Fi access in remote areas like Juniper Canyon and Ochoco West.

Early in May, a $450,000 COVID-19 Relief Grant by Facebook was announced for the Crook County School District to help with technology that extends beyond the school buildings in Prineville.

The first part of June, Superintendent Dr. Sara Johnson was excited to announce that $50,000 of that grant went directly to Powell Butte Community Charter School (PBCCS) to buy 162 Chromebooks, 48 iPads, and cases for the equipment. This ensured that every student attending a public school in Crook County had access to technology both at home and in the classroom.

Distance learning in action

Marilee Smith, a first-grade instructor at Barnes Butte Elementary, began her teaching career in 1992. When she began her first year of teaching, distance learning consisted of large Satellite dishes at each school, which pulled down programming from satellite signals. Learning from home was not yet possible, although some distance learning programs were available at the schools, such as foreign language, law enforcement and live chats with NASA astronauts.

"I will say distance learning today is amazing, something I never imagined," pointed out Smith of the evolution of distance learning. "It seems like "Zoom" became a household name overnight."

Smith also emphasized that distance Learning looked different for different grade levels. At the elementary schools, teachers are using a platform called Imagine Learning.

"Thanks to Facebook, we were able to provide every student with a Chrome book," she added. "Students were able to access Imagine Math, Imagine Math Facts, Imagine Language, and Imagine Reading. The program meets students at their current level — and then grows with them. This has been the primary push for elementary students."

Smith also said that the elementary teachers made paper packets available for students that had internet/technology complications, so they used both the online and paper packet practice. 

 "I also created a Google Classroom for my students," explained Smith. "This is a place where I can put a link to resources and daily activities. I believe Google Classroom is the platform middle school and high school used. I am still in shock that I figured out how to do this with first-graders."

"We are using the Google Classroom platform," said Crook County High School Principal Michelle Jonas of CCHS teachers in April. "Teachers have all their assignments posted up on Google Classroom, and have been communicating with students and families through email and Google Classroom."

Jonas said that multiple teachers began doing virtual lessons beginning April 1, and some were pre-recording lessons and posting them, and others were conducting live lessons that could also be recorded and accessed later.

"The teacher is able to go in, post assignments, and students are able to write their assignments in there and submit their work to their teachers electronically," said Jonas.

Teachers for all grade levels made videos or used a tool called screencastify to demonstrate and teach. Many of the middle school and high school teachers used Google Meet/Google Chat to connect with their students as well.

Crook County Middle School Principal Kurt Sloper commented early on in the implementation of Learning @Home that teachers were primarily using online resources such as Google Classroom, online curriculum, and web resources.

"However, we also had hard copy packets of that work available for families without connectivity or who prefer (hard copies)," he added.

Sloper indicated that each Focus Teacher (Homeroom) called weekly to connect with each student in their class.

"The purpose was to make sure that students and families were receiving information, answering questions, and connecting students to other content teachers for support and assistance. So even if you were remote, we had hard copies available," said Sloper. He added that his staff also checked in weekly.

Smith indicated that she used Zoom with her first-grade students, as well as many other teachers.

"My lay out, wow ... it takes a lot of time," she added.

Smith Zoomed with her students for an hour Monday through Friday.

"I created a lesson plan that provided rituals and routines in reading, writing, math, art, virtual field trips and movement."

She gave an example of her previous math schedule; Monday: Estimation Monday, Tuesday: Subitizing (Number Sense) Wednesday: Splat (Number Sense Game) Thursday: Mystery Number (using clues to guess, and refine guesses using clues to locate a number on a 100 chart). Friday: Games.

She has also made sure to write with her students on Zoom.

"I am afraid writing suffers in a world of online learning," she noted.

Each week her class studied an author, listening to stories by the author and then writing like the author. She also incorporated a website, "Art Hub," that demonstrated interactive drawing for kids.

"I have used this art piece to go into our writing; help giving them purpose to write while we are Zooming."

Later, towards the end of the school year, she connected her writing and art to go along with a theme, and then the theme was virtual field trip on Friday. She said the kids were getting good at guessing the field trip.

For instance, she and her class read zoo stories, drew zoo animals, and virtually visited the San Diego Zoo. They read dinosaur stories, drew dinosaurs and they have visited a dinosaur museum.

Smith also called families every week to check in and offer support, answer questions, or provide materials. 

"Last, I made it a routine to mail the kids a postcard every Monday," concluded Smith. 

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