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A teacher’s perspective on making distance learning work under COVID-19

By Roni Java

QHS Spanish Teacher Karen Hicks describes the experience of mastering distance-learning challenges under the COVID-19 health and safety response. Photo by Roni Java

Special to Feather Publishing

On many levels, people here and across the nation are experiencing a new world right now — especially students, teachers and all the families who are overseeing their children’s education from the dining room table.

It happened so quickly. In mid-March, Plumas County school sites closed for public safety to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus. Everyone involved with schools had to adapt to the statewide stay-home directive. Yet remaining connected to classes and lessons meant joining in distance-learning programs, an effort that has been far from simple or easy.

Local private and charter schools also transitioned to this technology-driven way of keeping students engaged and active in their own learning, as have schools nationwide.

A teacher’s perspective

“How do I describe distance teaching?” Karen Hicks mused with her customary humor. “It takes me back 20 years to my first days in the classroom. What to do? How do I do it? Am I doing it right? Help!”

Hicks is the Quincy Junior-Senior High Spanish teacher with Plumas Unified School District (PUSD). She and her fellow educators throughout the school district have risen to the distance-learning challenge because they are dedicated to their students.

And like teachers nationwide, they have described having to learn new technology at an accelerated pace, adapt lessons plans, work with bandwidth issues and stay connected with their students either online or with paper packets of assignments in hard copy.

“The good news,” Hicks said, “is that this community has provided a supportive and forgiving environment for us to try new techniques (sometimes every day!). And yes, (maybe) make a few mistakes,” but to keep trying and making it work.

Satisfying stakeholders

Ramping up to provide distance-learning options quickly has not been without its hitches. For instance, sometimes a student can’t tune in for a lesson because they have to watch their siblings while a parent works. Or Wi-Fi signals and service are sporadic or unavailable in parts of this rural county.

There are also a large number of “customers” to serve, if you will.

“When it comes to education, there are so many stakeholders to satisfy,” Hicks said understandingly. “Our school board has had to make some pretty tough decisions. Our administration has taken the board’s decisions and outlined a plan for us and, of course, families have expectations that range from ‘don’t give our students so much work’ to ‘give our students more work!’

Adapting and meeting needs

Distance learning isn’t a new concept; online classes have been around for a while. However, using technology in this way to simultaneously serve so many students from kindergarten and elementary grades through junior and senior high school — is unprecedented.

At this point, the program’s success is the result of PUSD teachers and administrators taking a strong approach to supporting students and engaging with families to help everyone make the best of current conditions.

Flexibility has been key. As the distance-learning program came together countywide, PUSD staff and teachers have had to be adaptable and open to change — everything from making sure students took home their assigned devices (Chromebooks) to issuing printed coursework and setting up Wi-Fi hotspots to increase online access.

One teacher reported dropping off a charging cable to a student at home, others have spent hours revamping lessons to work online and they all reach out to their students daily for needs that arise in this new environment.

QHS Spanish teacher Hicks said distance-learning methods require teachers to be creative and more.

“The most important tool I have used during the past six weeks is communication because it brings a bit more clarity to this confusing situation,” she explained.

Governor’s support and praise

During his daily COVID-19 press conferences broadcast from the Office of Emergency Services at the state operations center in Sacramento, California Governor Gavin Newsom offers detailed updates on the state’s progress and preparations as the pandemic alert continues.

Frequently, he talks about the heroic efforts teachers are making to preserve educational continuity for California’s six million K-12 students. As a father of four, he states he understands the challenges families are having with their children out of school and studying at home.

“Everyone is doing their best with distance learning,” he said in late April, adding it is important that we stay on top of the potential for learning gaps during the stay-home order and California will build up this architecture before next fall.

“I thank every Californian for doing their part to keep themselves and others safe,” Gov. Newsom said. “This virus knows no geography and it’s impacting every part of our state.”

Looking ahead

Hicks summed up the experience she and other local educators are having as they navigate the opportunities that distance learning provides during this period of school site closures.

“What does the future hold?” she asked. “Who knows! I only hope it means seeing my students again soon because I miss them so much. Oops! Gotta go cry for the third time today! Adios!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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