Families share struggles, triumphs of 2020 distance learning
Distance learning might now be the norm for Jefferson County students, but families say it's far from normal.
The stories about online schooling from local households are as varied as the families now juggling a new set of education standards for their children. Some are doing fine with their children home all day and are glad for their help around the house. Others have had to hire tutors or solicit the help of family members so the parents can continue to go to work.
Some parents juggle working from home while also helping their kids connect to Wi-Fi on their devices and finish their lessons. Still others get their older students connected to school before heading to their job, get phone calls throughout the day about this or that, check in on them at lunch, and hurry home after work to make sure they complete their homework for the night.
And worst-case scenario, a parent has to quit a job to become their children's full-time educator.
A few local families shared their stories of 2020 distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.
'It's heart wrenching, feeling like your kids are falling behind'
Jennie Port says homeschooling was never on their radar.
"Having it forced on us like this, it was really, really stressful," said Port, who lives in Madras with her husband and three children. "It's been very stressful trying to make sure that the kids are staying caught up while John and I are both working 40-plus hours a week."
Their oldest, a Madras High School freshman, not only must keep up with his classes, but he babysits his two younger siblings and makes sure they get logged into their classes each morning.
All three children are doing Comprehensive Distance Learning through Jefferson County School District. In this instructional model, the district provides instruction for students to attend remotely online. The younger two are in second and third grade at Madras Elementary.
"We're both at work all day long, so we really have to count on the kids to log on and be at school and do their work," Port said.
The family struggled getting the kids hooked up to their devices at first, Port said. Then came a slew of internet problems.
"Our Wi-Fi runs kind of slow, and to have all three of the kids on our internet at the same time was really causing a lot of lagging," Port said. "We would have to turn their videos off just so we could hear what the teachers were saying."
Last week, the district delivered a Wi-Fi hot spot to their home, which seems to help.
All three students are in class from 9 to 11:30 a.m. each school day.
Port said her oldest is falling behind in his classes because he's having to take care of his brother and sister, so he has to attend extra sessions for two hours each afternoon just to keep caught up with his classwork.
"It's heart wrenching, feeling like your kids are falling behind," Port said.
She says she cannot wait until her "social butterfly" kids are back in school.
"I am not equipped as a parent to do the homeschooling. That's why it was never on our radar," Port said. "We pay taxes for public schooling — let the kids go to school."
MHS senior helps on the ranch
Madras High School senior Ryane Dobkins misses the socialization aspect of high school, but at the same time, it's been convenient for her to be home to be able to help out on the family ranch.
"She actually likes it a little better because she can take extra classes," her mother, Jennifer Dobkins said. "But she says they pile the homework on them."
Ryane Dobkins is done with her live online lessons around noon and then tackles homework or helps out with ranch chores. She has had a few problems communicating with her teachers and sometimes their internet connection is sketchy, but she does not miss the long bus ride to and from school.
Ryane misses the hands-on aspect of some of her classes, such as FFA, and she's missing her friends and club activities.
"A positive attitude really helps," Jennifer said of distance learning. "I can't imagine having little kids and having to deal with that — especially multiple."
Grandmother takes on the teacher role
Helen Bicart, who lives north of Madras, is educating her four grandchildren from home. Two are doing distance learning through Metolius Elementary School and two are enrolled in the CASA Online Learning.
"My job is to get them through school," Bicart said. "Nothing gets done in the home until after 2 o'clock in the afternoon."
Bicart's second-grade and fifth-grade grandchildren spend about three hours online each morning, tuning into their lessons. After lunch, they do homework.
The schedule for the seventh and eighth grade students varies because their program is self-guided. Bicart said she has to make sure they keep caught up on their lessons.
"The first issue was trying to find four separate rooms where they weren't over the top of each other when the speakers were on," she said. The two younger children have to be close enough that she can go back and forth between them and can hear when one needs help.
Bicart said it's been very helpful for each child to have a district-provided Chromebook. The four use her household internet service, which sometimes causes problems. One grandchild lost an entire day of schooling because they could not connect online, and another had to make up a reading session because they couldn't connect to the live presentation.
She feels the kids are missing music, physical education and other activities that give them a more rounded education.
Not only does Bicart educate her grandchildren, she works part time in the evenings from home.
"I really don't know how you would do this if you worked outside the home," she said.
Despite the challenges, Bicart says she does not want her grandchildren to go back to in-person schooling as long as COVID-19 is still a worry.
"I have a husband who's medically fragile, and my concern is them bringing it back to our home," she said.
Family builds a schoolhouse
The Madras Boynton family decided to go all out and embrace the distance learning for their three children.
They'd found it difficult to have three students in three different schools all on their home internet service.
They hooked up internet service for the schoolhouse, a building that sits in their backyard.
"I've actually wanted a guest house for many years and wanted to turn one of those tiny shed houses into one, and so this gave me an excuse to buy one to use that for in the future," Shawna Boynton said.
She sends the kids to the schoolhouse at 8:45 each morning to get logged into class by 9.
Her Metolius Elementary fifth grader is finished with class around noon. The Jefferson County Middle School seventh grader is done around 2 p.m., and the Madras High School sophomore is also done around lunchtime. The kids do homework and farm chores in the afternoon.
The Boyntons chose Comprehensive Distance Learning through the school district.
"I actually really enjoy the staff we have at the schools, and I know they're all working very hard during this time and it's very stressful for them, so whatever I can do to continue to support them, I'm going to do," Boynton said.
Boynton says she's fortunate that she's able to be home and work on their small pig farm while her husband goes to work.
Some friends have had internet problems, so she's invited them over to use their schoolhouse.
"My kids seem to be having quite a bit better luck than I've noticed with other kids," Boynton said of technology problems.
Her children like their schoolhouse and are able to keep up with their lessons and stay involved in extra-curricular activities.
"I think they're doing just as well as they would do when they were in regular school," Boynton said.
Kids miss social part of school
Kimberlee Jones' daughter is a sophomore at Redmond Proficiency Academy, and although she no longer has the commute from Madras, she misses the social part of school.
"She's isolated, and that is the one thing that I worry about for all of our youth. She misses hanging out with her friends," Jones said. "Hanging out with Mom isn't the same as hanging out with somebody who speaks teenager."
Jones has worked mostly from home during the pandemic but occasionally needs go into her office, participate in meetings online, provide trainings and participate in trainings — all over a Wi-Fi network shared by the family.
"When I'm on a teleconference, or, like last week I was training, and she was eating up all of my Wi-Fi, so that has its challenges," she said.
Jones said her daughter's grades are great, she's a hard worker, and she is getting all of her classwork done. But when she gets stuck, they both miss in-person teaching.
"When she's frustrated, she has the ability to tag a teacher and ask for help, but it's different when your internet speed is slow, and it's not the same as getting that in-person help," Jones said.
Now, when Jones notices her daughter getting stressed, she tells her to take a break from her four hours of computer work and go outside for a bit.
"She'll come back in and she's in a much better mood, much better frame of mind, and then she can focus again," Jones said.
She believes it's important for family and friends to figure out how to remain connected even with physical distancing.
"As a parent, I think that connectedness is what is way more valuable right now than the actual academics," Jones said.
By Holly Scholz
This article is part of a collaborative reporting project focusing on rural schools that includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, Charlottesville Tomorrow, El Paso Matters, Iowa Watch, The Nevada Independent, New Mexico in Depth, Underscore.news/Pamplin Media Group and Wisconsin Watch/The Badger Project. The collaboration was made possible by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation.
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