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South Salt Lake Journal

Schools flip-flop learning methods to keep providing instruction to students

Jan 05, 2021 10:54AM ● By Julie Slama

Middle school student Jack Whitaker gets on Zoom to follow along with his Indian Hills teacher in what seemed to him as “non-stop Zoom meetings” during his online school day. (Photo courtesy of Karla-Ann Whitaker)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

“I didn’t know what to expect,” recalled a Canyons School District parent after his first child’s school changed to virtual learning after positive COVID-19 cases reached a 1% limit for the school.

“But it hasn’t been too bad,” continued Marc Hone, even as his three oldest children who attend three different schools all were learning online in late November, following health guidelines to temporarily close their schools. “We rely on Canvas (online learning platform), teacher emails and frequently look at the schools’ websites to ensure they’re getting their assignments done.”

This has been a different experience from last spring when all schools were suddenly put on soft closure for the rest of the school year following Gov. Gary Herbert’s mandate in response to the pandemic.

With four of his five kids then in school, it was a scramble to meet with teachers who held Zoom meetings at the same time and having limited devices, he said.

“It was a disaster last March, just terrible. We were strapped to devices and it was too much screen time. Some classes, it was hard to get on the livestream,” he said. “Now teachers are better prepared, each student is given a Chromebook from school and we’re OK as long as the internet holds up.”

A Granite School District parent, who only agreed to speak anonymously, said when her two high school students at the same school have flipped to virtual learning, each child has had different experiences. 

For her freshman, there has been tears and stress keeping up with a 4.0 grade-point average, but her child has been able to do it.

“She’ll work in front of the computer for six hours, take a break and then, do some more. I asked, ‘Aren’t you done?’ And she said, ‘Well, that was my schoolwork and now, I’m doing my homework.’ And she’ll be there for more hours. This is too much. I think that the quantity needs to be lessened, but the quality needs to remain,” she said.

Her other high schooler, a 4.0 GPA junior, has seen a total disruption in academics, his mother said.

“There’s been a lack of consistency with live instruction and support from some teachers,” she said. “He’s kind of crushed academically because of the stress and everything that goes with it. He’s not sure now that he wants to go to college; kids are starting to lose sight and lose hope. It’s proving to be really, really difficult.”

Throughout Canyons, Granite, Jordan and Murray school districts, several schools, most commonly secondary schools, had transitioned to remote learning up to three times since school opened in August. Each time, in-person teachers flip-flopped their teaching platforms to online. 

Most districts are following Salt Lake County’s health guideline of closing schools for two weeks following an outbreak of 15 positive cases at the schools. Canyons Board of Education set a 1% positive case threshold to trigger a closure.

Many students and family fear the disruptions in education with inconsistent learning when students or teachers are in quarantine or isolation or when entire schools flip-flop.

Alta High senior Coleman Hone, who is also taking classes at Canyons Technical Education Center, said the uncertainty of his schedule has been hard.

“I come home from my morning at CTEC to learn that Alta is online,” he said. “This isn’t what I’ve grown up with all my life. It’s just inconsistent learning and it throws me off.”

His principal, Brian McGill, said it’s been challenging for his school community.

“It’s really, really difficult on teachers and our kids,” he said. “Students need stability. Some kids quarantined one, two and three times in six weeks just by sitting next to kids who tested positive. It’s hard on kids to stay up on studies and hard on our teachers preparing for all eight classes online.”

In the 12 weeks since school opened, Alta has flipped to virtual learning three times.

“School became unmanageable with so many teachers and staff out. It became a challenge to find substitutes and run school,” McGill said, adding 80% of administrators’ time was contact tracing. 

Granger High also has flip-flopped three times.

“While we are becoming more efficient in our use of technology in attempting to engage students, it is still difficult,” Principal David Dunn said. “Establishing a set schedule for teaching and having students log on has been much more effective in getting students to engage. We set deadlines, but we work with students individually according to their needs.”

However, he added, “First term, we did see an increase in students getting ‘F’ grades. A support system has been put into place to try and help those students get caught up.”

Cottonwood High flip-flopped twice, sent teams to students’ homes to support students, and has seen improvement in student learning—after implementing ideas from other schools, including a set schedule.

“We found that with our students, and it was toward the end of the first quarter, our participation was terrible,” Principal Terri Roylance said. “Kids just did not follow up at home. I ended up mailing all first quarter report cards home to the families with on the back side a little infographic and letter from me saying why did we fail so many kids and it’s because kids did not engage whatsoever. Not all, but many.”

Brighton, like many schools when they flip, learned online teaching is more effective with a schedule.

“The first time, we didn’t require synchronous learning, but instead, let student set their own pace,” Principal Tom Sherwood said. “We learned that they’d procrastinate through the roof, had other concerns at home which made it hard to focus, had troubles with bandwidth, and other issues. It sounded great, but it didn’t work out that way.”

At Murray High, Principal Scott Wihongi said that transition to online learning needs to find a balance.

“Teachers continue to explore how much is too much when it comes to fully online learning,” he said, adding that the school flipped to virtual twice before December. “They are finding that they have to scale back work a little more since it takes students longer to do it in the home setting.” 

Hillcrest High School math teacher Matt Snyder said that when his school flipped around Thanksgiving, they had a schedule for a sense of accountability. 

“Students need a structure to be successful; it improves productivity,” he said, adding that the last Wednesday online, only two of his 95 students during the day were absent—about the same as a winter day in a non-COVID-19 year. “Students learn better with interaction. I usually greet students when they come into my classroom, so I make sure I do that when I see them log on. It adds some personality and helps them from feeling so isolated, but if someone were to come by my classroom and see me just talking without anyone here, they’d think I was crazy. It’s strange to be here all alone teaching.”

The transition to virtual learning was not what Hillcrest sophomore Campbell Hone expected. 

“I thought I could sleep in, but there’s a schedule and a procedure to take attendance; I can’t wear PJs and we have to have our (Chromebook) camera on,” he said. “Even so, I don’t feel as connected to other students and my teachers; the class discussions online don’t give off the same intense learning vibe. I don’t want to miss out on my education, but it’s hard to sit in front of a screen.” 

While some students are self-motivated and disciplined to learn online, Murray’s Wihongi points out: “In-person learning is much preferable in many areas because of that direct support, connection and structure. Some students are clearly struggling without that.”

Administrators and parents say students are missing education in a social environment. 

“Students want to learn in school, have access to teachers and discussions face-to-face with their classmates. Learning alone is not the same,” Brighton Principal Sherwood said.

That’s what parent Karla-Ann Whitaker said about her son, Jack, who was learning online while Indian Hills Middle flipped in late November.

“He misses his friends, flirting with girls and seeing his teachers,” she said. “It’s been a pain in the butt. We’ve had tech issues and called the school, we’ve needed different links to have him connect with his classes, his grades have declined. He needs to be self-motivated and stay off his phone, but it’s hard. I know teachers are trying and we need to do what is safe, but it’s a tough adjustment.”

She said that as a single mother who is working and going to school full-time herself, she relies on him to watch his younger siblings, and that isn’t always taken into account with how much longer it takes to do homework online. 

Jack supports his mother’s assessment.

“It’s terrible; it’s non-stop Zoom meetings and teachers can only help so much when they’re there and I’m at home on my own,” he said, adding that he has asked for more explanation with math in an email or the next Zoom call, but then he’s also waiting for those to happen. “It’s definitely slowing down the progression of learning.”

Indian Hills seventh-grader Addison Hone agrees: “I can’t stop by after school to ask a question to a teacher. I have to email or ask in a Zoom call and hope there’s not a glitch.”

While she appreciates the efforts her teachers have made, Addison said, “It’s a lot harder to be interactive. They can’t see if your hand is up. It seems like there’s a lot more work with less instruction.”

Engagement and a sense of belonging is what is missing this year, administrators said.

“It’s hard when we’re not in-person to engage,” Mountain Creek Middle School Assistant Principal Tim Brooks said. “We are not sure where students are, what they’re doing, what’s going on, and we can’t see their expressions as teachers walk the aisles. We try to overcome that with having cameras on, but it’s still hard. We don’t have the same assemblies and talent shows; teachers can’t give them high-fives. It’s like giving kids a Snickers and saying eat it, but you can’t take off the wrapper. We’ve all been learning to be more appreciative, become more patient, get creative and have humor during this time.” 

Brighton’s Sherwood agrees: “What’s missing is all that makes high school fun and draws kids in—after-school socials and clubs, wearing school colors to football games, belonging to a school community and buying in to that culture.”

At Alta, McGill said keeping students and staff motivated has been challenging.

“The magic and beauty of what a comprehensive high school can bring is taking a hit,” he said. “It is also heartbreaking when students practice and rehearse for upcoming performances, only to find out that they are postponed or canceled.”

Murray’s Wihongi agrees the school year looks different.

“Missing this year is the overall energy and spirit normally associated with our high schools. Our classrooms and hallways are less busy; our activities and assemblies can’t move forward as normal, so it definitely takes the wind out of the sails, so to speak,” he said. 

Teachers and administrators are finding positive outcomes to the changes of education this year.

In the classroom, Hillcrest’s Snyder said students are communicating better.

“There’s been phenomenal eye contact with me as masks are forcing eye contact—and better communication. They say what they need to say. Students following the health guidelines and mask mandates has exceeded my expectations. They’re treating me and others around them who may be terrified to be here with care and respect,” he said.

Murray High’s Wihongi looks to the future of education.

“Our method of curriculum delivery and access will be a huge silver lining to this. We’ll have more options for students to access their education and all of our teachers will be able to blend online and in-person instruction much more proficiently,” he said, adding that, “Snow days will become online learning days. But what remains clear, though, is that in-person learning is the most effective method of learning, hands down.”

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