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With a toolkit of online platforms, teachers hope to make genuine connections with students this fall

As the Lake Oswego School District prepares to take a second swing at remote learning this fall, teachers across the district reflected on last spring and their thoughts moving forward.

The school year will start remotely, leaving teachers with the situation of forging connections with new students online instead of in a classroom.

The district's hybrid learning program could begin in November, but that depends on Clackamas County meeting a number of health metrics by that time. And no matter what, students will spend a significant portion of the year learning away from school.

"I'm really hoping I can still make connections with students (as) I have in the past," said Janell Cinquini, a social studies teacher at Lakeridge High School.

When the district moved to online learning last spring, the transition was hard, but those connections already had been formed earlier in the school year.

"They were kids I already knew. I already knew who struggled getting homework done," Cinquini said.

She added that these connections are among the best parts of teaching, and she wonders how that will be possible over Zoom with students she's never met before.

"I think a lot of my concern is that personal connection piece. I think a lot of students need that connection … just another person in their lives that checks in with them," Cinquini said.

She anticipates those check-ins being less organic with online learning. Students will have to come to scheduled virtual office hours.

Sarah Vannice, innovation facilitator at River Grove Elementary School, said she's optimistic that making connections can still happen even when school is fully online.COURTESY PHOTO: SARAH VANNICE - River Grove Innovations Facilitator Sarah Vannice is preparing to teach online this fall.

"The most important thing to remember is that good teaching happens no matter what mode it's in," she said. "As soon as they get on Zoom you call them by their name, you make eye contact," she said.

Vannice said her main concern is burnout — "student burnout, Zoom burnout, family stresses," she said.

"The district is doing, in my opinion, truly the very best that they can do," Vannice said.

"That's still going to mean a lot of stress for families and teachers."

If a student or parent comes to her feeling burned out, she said it's her job to ask how she can best support them.

And each family will likely need something different.

"As a parent I'll be working full time … so my own kids are going to need a lot of attention at night," Vannice said.

Cinquini said this year will require flexibility and grace on everyone's part.

"We need to remember not everyone's situation at home is the same," Cinquini said.

When the school year starts, she'll be working remotely and her two children will be attending school remotely, while her husband works outside of the home.

"My hope for this school year is that we can make the learning as meaningful and real as possible with our limited ability to meet with students face-to-face," Cinquini said.

Aletia Cochran, a teacher and Talented and Gifted program coordinator, was unavailable to speak over the phone but shared her thoughts with the Review via email.

She seemed to agree with Cinquini's sentiment of flexibility and understanding.

"This pandemic has highlighted just how critical characteristics such as adaptability and resiliency are," Cochran said.

She said this fall she will split her time between her role as TAG coordinator and as a seventh grade language arts teacher. She'll also teach the speech and debate elective class.

Cochran will be teaching virtually the whole year with the district's LO Online program.

"Facing a whole year of only teaching online, even if our hybrid model kicks in, made me terribly sad at first, but then I realized that I will give it my all and try to create an excellent learning environment for kids, no matter what," Cochran said.

She anticipated that teachers will be working extra hard to adapt to new classes, new schedules and ultimately a new way of teaching. The added layer is that teachers will have to help students adjust to all this newness as well.

After spring grades were turned in, the district held virtual professional development sessions for teachers. Cinquini said the training was focused mainly on technology and remote platforms, which she found helpful.

This fall, teachers across the district will be using online platforms like Google Classroom, Pear Deck and Edpuzzle to engage with students.

But until they're put into practice, Cinquini said no one knows how well those tools will work in engaging with students.

"I worry that I'll become more of a relayer of information," Cinquini said. "How do you get students super interested in learning, in what you're teaching?"

Cinquini said it's great to have so many new tools to engage with students, but the trick is balancing how to introduce it all to the students.

"You have to be careful (about) not throwing all of that at the kid," she said.

The district will hold more professional development for teachers the week before school starts.

Vannice said the training will include a three-hour session on social-emotional health and making connections with students.

Joseph Godfrey, a seventh grade science teacher at Lake Oswego Junior High, said his biggest concern is creating a "lab" experience for students that is safe and equitable while not in the classroom.

"As with the distance learning experience last spring, I hope that we continue to see the 'can do' attitude of students, parents, and staff in order to make the best of this unique experience and find the positives along the way," Godfrey said.

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