'There's no perfect answer'
As parents in the Lake Oswego School District brace themselves for what their students' education will look like this fall, they took a moment to reflect on what worked and what didn't when schools closed and went fully remote last spring. Parents experienced myriad hardships, from organization to communication and how to fill the social gaps in their children's education.
So, what does it look like to suddenly become your child's teacher in the midst of a global health crisis?
The equity issue
When the district moved to distance learning after an extended spring break, students across the district plopped in front of a Chromebook and received varying levels of instruction, and varying opportunities to engage with their teachers.
"There was not a consistency in the actual active engagement in teachers to students, grade by grade and school by school," Abigail Haffner said. Haffner, who has two kids in the Spanish Immersion program at River Grove Elementary, was the PTO co-president at the school last year.
She said equity already was an issue at River Grove and going remote was no exception.
"It looks different to make yourself available to 18 to 20 kids than it does to make yourself available to 28," she said, referencing the difference in class sizes across the district.
And parents were not all able to provide the same level of help.
"Because we have so many dual working families … as a byproduct, we have so many more families that it felt like were in a very tight space for being able to assist in their kid's online learning," Haffner said.
Monicah McGee, a Student Services Parent Advisory Committee (SSPAC) member and parent of two then-middle schoolers at Lakeridge Middle School, agreed that the equity of online school was lacking.
"I'm a stay-at-home parent. Lots of parents had to work while their students were at home doing online school. I can't imagine how different those circumstances would be," she said.
It quickly became evident to parents that teachers did not all have the same comfort level with the technology they suddenly had to use to deliver instruction to their kids.
Debi Panning, a mom to two Hallinan elementary schoolers and PTO president last year, said it was noticeable that each teacher's comfort level with the technology made a difference in the kids' education.
"You could tell that (it) was going better for some teachers and if it was going better for them it was going better for the kids as well," she said.
Her second grader had an easier time. Her SeeSaw account had been set up already and she had been using it all year.
"The barrier of entry for using that was lower for her," she said.
Panning said she knew of other students who did not have access to their SeeSaw accounts before school closures and they had a harder time.
The model also lacked the opportunity for differentiated learning.
"The workload varied from teacher to teacher and when assignments came through, sometimes it was an assignment for the entire class rather than an assignment that was differentiated. So you might not have an option for an advanced learner who wanted more," McGee said.
Where's the teacher?
Instead of live online instruction, students mostly received prerecorded videos of the teacher giving a lesson and instructions posted online, something the district plans to change in the remote model this fall.
It left some parents at a loss for how to assist their child and how to get their child the social interaction they craved. It led others to take matters into their own hands.
"There was very little in-person instruction. I don't think (my son) Charlie had more than one session where the teacher was live on the screen actively instructing," said Becky Owens, SSPAC co-chair and mom to two Lake Oswego High School students.
She said her older son, Charlie, was more independent in his learning. Her younger son, Max, is in the Pathways program and needed a lot more assistance.
"Parents that have more than one kid in school, having to split up time to support two, three, sometimes four kids — I think that's a big challenge and a big ask of parents, who admittedly are not school teachers," Owens said.
She said it's also a big request for teenagers to be the ones to reach out if they don't understand something.
McGee agreed that the lack of guided instruction put a lot of responsibility on the student.
"It required of young learners so much internal motivation, and I think truthfully as adults we would've struggled," she said.
Panning agreed that being a stand-in teacher was challenging.
"Generally speaking it was tough," Panning said. She said that, as parents, facilitating education was new for her and her husband.
"It was hard to get into that groove with the kids," she said.
Panning said she was glad her middle schooler and second grader were able to work somewhat independently.
"Our (kindergartener) needed 100% of my attention when she was doing her work," Panning said.
Haffner's sons would finish their work quickly, leaving them bored and lonely for the rest of the day. So she decided to lead Zoom meetups with students in her sons' grades.
She would help with homework questions, give spelling tests or teach an entirely new lesson.
"(They) weren't getting live teaching from teachers," she said, adding that the live meetups over Google classroom, which varied in frequency from classroom to classroom and school to school, were social interactions and not academic.
"Personally, I thought that was a missed opportunity," she said.
So she tried to fill that gap at River Grove as best she could.
"I told them if they do their other school they can do Abbey's school in the afternoon," Haffner said.
This served two purposes: It gave students the opportunity to ask questions and get help in real time, instead of posing the question online and waiting for the teacher to respond, and it gave students social interaction.
"It felt very much like children were really starving for a level of interaction," she said.
She also led Spanish instruction from time to time.
"Our Spanish teachers did a really good job as best they could," Haffner said. She added, however, that the way Spanish is learned wasn't conducive to the online learning that was taking place.
"'Ask and respond' in another language is so important," she said.
Panning said her second grader also missed connection with peers and her teacher.
"There is a social and emotional cup that we were not able to fill with distance learning," Panning said.
Owens said her boys were feeling the social strain as well.
"We've had a lot of really tough days here at home because Max is sad that he can't be with his friends," she said.
'There's no perfect answer'
All parents who spoke with Pamplin Media Group agreed there's no way to make distance learning perfect.
"There's no perfect answer," Owens said. "As far as special education goes, I think (Max) probably had one of the better experiences."
She said he was capable of engaging on computer screens for his assignments and his teachers were good at reaching out to him.
"I think he got a decent amount of instruction," she said. "With kids in the Pathways program it's very much like teaching an elementary-age student — you have to sit there with them.".
Haffner said she thinks all parents need to give the district some slack and know that school is not going to be perfect moving forward.
"With clear communication to parents, it's easier for parents to give grace to the district when things don't go well," Haffner said. That clear communication she mentioned is something she's hoping is improved next year.
"I really felt for our teachers, too," she said, explaining that plenty of teachers in the district have their own kids at home, too.
"It has given me huge appreciation for what their teachers do," she said.
"I do recognize the challenge facing the school district administration but — like any parent — there's no way you can be unconcerned about what the fall will look like," McGee said.
Ideally, parents want their students to have safe in-person school experiences. But, if that can't happen, they want distance learning to go smoother than it did last spring.
"I don't know what to think about next year. I think the risk of COVID outbreak is real. I feel torn because I want my children to have that in-person experience, but I think the risk is legitimate," McGee said. "If kids have to stay home, I wish they could do live, online sessions with teachers."
Haffner agreed and wants to see the same frequency and duration of instruction across the district.
For some families, it's not an option to go back to school for the blended model this fall due to health concerns.
"He, for medical reasons, will not be able to attend school in person," Owens said of her son, Max.
She thinks the district should be allowing students to conference into classes that take place in-person if they cannot physically be there.
"They should be able to access their instruction with a teacher who they know and classroom friends they know," she said.
Some parents feel the district should make sure it's prepared to be completely online again.
"My hope is that when they have to do online teaching again — we all know that schools will close down again at some point — my hope is that the teachers will be more engaged personally with the kids," Owens said. "I think training and real clear expectations for the teachers is going to be the linchpin on this whole thing."
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