Learning to change
Bruce Schmit, principal of Barlow High School was used to fewer than a dozen parents turning up at his "chat with the principal" sessions. But once the pandemic forced the meetings online, five times that many often attended.
Keeping the online option for the chats, even after the pandemic subsides, may be just one small change wrought by the school closures due to COVID-19 that will stick around in schools.
Educators facing this dire emergency had to think outside the classroom box and rejigger the way they do things to comply with mandated remote learning. Teachers got their creative juices flowing and some of the forced changes may linger, and improve education in the long run.
Jack Klobas, who teaches a fourth/fifth grade blended class at Troutdale Elementary School, said remote teaching has made him more creative in his approach.
"CDL (comprehensive distance learning) makes it harder to make sure things are engaging. You have to find ways to get the kids to buy in," he said.
To be sure, the pandemic and year-long school closures caused heartbreaking damage to the academic and emotional lives of students and hardships for many families. Teachers, too, were stressed and frustrated.
But the upheaval could change education forever in many ways.
Teachers report they re-examined what they teach and how. Many learned more about and exploited technology and software in new ways. Those changes could stick around.
"The tech barrier in the past is not the factor that it used to be. We now have all this experience to tap," said Liz Maki, career and technical education coordinator for the Gresham-Barlow School District.
Maki said teachers will be "able to stay close to a student when they are out sick long-term."
And, snow days might be a thing of the past, as teachers can flip to remote learning if bad weather is in the forecast.
Districts were forced to make sure every student had a computer and internet service for remote schooling during the pandemic.
One fourth grade teacher in Gresham reported "In the past, when we've been in the building, we shared a Chromebook cart with another class or, a couple of years ago, with a whole other grade level. This significantly limited kids' access to technology, and this led to them being pretty behind in acquisition of digital citizenship skills. CDL (comprehensive distance learning) has forced everything online and because the district was able to get 1-to-1 devices, we have students using technology more than they ever have before, better preparing them to be 21st century learners."
Klobas said "there are a lot of neat resources out there."
He described online materials created by NASA about the mission to Mars that he used for a language arts unit. The assignments around these materials would not have been possible if each student did not have their own computer.
Klobas said he's found a lot of online tools that are helpful for English language learners.
"The digital tools for ELL are particularly powerful," and described interactive texts that allow students to click on words to hear them pronouced or view a definition.
Student's "technology skills have improved so much. We are preparing them for jobs that don't even exist today," said Lisa Madzelan, a teacher at Reynolds High School.
Madzelan said that with all the different software programs and platforms used during the pandemic, students can use technology to match their learning style better going forward. For example, a student who has a lot of anxiety, could make a video to satisfy a speech assignment, instead of standing in front of the class.
Madzelan's students write a lot of essays and prior to the pandemic, she had them turn them in on paper. But after being forced to switch to online, she was converted by the ease of marking up the papers and even going over them with students virtually.
"I'll never do that (paper essays) again," she said.
Some educators got a new view into children's home lives and forged a new appreciation for the struggles some students face.
"Kids are really adept at hiding situations" at home, Maki said.
Madzelan said her "empathy muscle has grown."
Klobas said the insights have made him a believer in visiting students' homes, which some teachers have done even before remote learning.
Sometimes, when kids are in virtual school, "you can hear screaming and yelling in the background," Madzelan said.
She has realized some students lost their homes in the pandemic and some students sit outside the Rockwood Library or an elementary school to capture internet to do their work.
And the empathy goes both ways, students could be surprised to see their teacher rocking a crying baby while trying to teach.
And as with Barlow's principal chats, some teacher conferences and meetings with educators might be done remotely in the future.
There is no substitute for going to the school and seeing a child's art hanging on the wall or meeting the parent of a new best friend. But for some parents, having an online choice means the diffierence between attending a conference or skipping it.
Some parents won't have to get a babysitter or skip work to talk about their child's progress in school if an online alternative is available.
Madzelan said she would advocate or families to continue to have the option of online conferences, since her virtual teacher conferences during COVID-19 were better attended than ever.
Although few educators or families think virtual school is a good substitute for kids learning in community in the schoolhouse, some innovations forced by the pandemic may improve education.
Concludes Madzelan: "No one's classroom will ever look the same again."
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