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HANOVER–River Ridge is one of the many schools in the area that was faced with challenging circumstances as a result of COVID-19.
Administration and teachers are thankful for the preparation they took prior to March to engage in more e-learning techniques that helped smooth the transition for many of the staff and students.
River Ridge staff received the news differently than others as the school was in the midst of parent/teacher conferences when rumblings began and the Friday the closures were announced, the district had no school.
Mike Foltz, middle school and high school principal, said when students returned to class on Monday, teachers began prepping students for e-learning and gave students a chance to get necessary materials ready for what was to come.
“We thought it was only going to be the two weeks,” said Foltz. “There was no locker cleanout that took place that day, which we still have to find a way to do.”
The district did a device check with all students to make sure they had necessary measures in place to have a smooth transition to remote learning.
Foltz said internet access in areas of the district has been the biggest issue for e-learning.
To eliminate the stress of poor internet or a lack of a device, the district has implemented paper packet pickup days for students and parents to pick up the necessary work to complete assignments without the utilization of technology or internet.
River Ridge’s remote learning plan makes the equity of the learning setting for students a reason for the action that they have taken in providing students the opportunity to pick up paper packets from the school at prearranged times.
“It cannot be assumed that every family or every student has access to the necessary devices and appropriate internet connection at their home,” reads River Ridge’s remote learning plan. “River Ridge has determined that using a combination of e-learning and remote learning deliveries will reach 100 percent of the student body.”
“Our district handled the availability of devices and internet services quickly,” said Mary Steele, first-grade teacher at River Ridge Elementary School. “Families were able to check out a device at school.”
“We do offer hard packets for students who want them,” said Foltz. “We even had some parents who said they would prefer the hard packets for their students.”
The district has issued two packet pickup days so far this quarter and will be holding another packet pickup on Monday, May 4.
“It has been an adjustment. Most students miss school very much,” said Steele. “They miss their classmates and their teacher. The students have been doing a good job completing and returning the packets as well as the online exercises. They are doing their best.”
At River Ridge, students are expected to complete 50 percent of the assigned work; if not they will be given an incomplete.
“If they don’t meet the 50 percent threshold then it will be marked down as an incomplete,”said Foltz. “The student will then be in charge of making up the work during the next school year.”
Albrecht provides leadership
Foltz said Superintendent Brad Albrecht has been a major contributor to the ease of the transition for staff.
Foltz said Albrecht met with the staff on the Monday they returned and calmed the staff and gave the team encouraging words and a pep talk.
Albrecht has also been willing to open the gate at the school during evenings for staff who need to get items from their classroom.
“Brad has been going into overdrive,” said Mike Dittmar, history teacher. “He is doing everything. I am biased, of course, but it helps that we have one of the most capable administrators in the area. Things at River Ridge are going as well as possible.”
“I think having someone who has been in the district for almost 50 years gives us all a little more calm,” said Foltz. “We all know that we can manage it because he is in the superintendent’s chair. Brad is the glue that is holding it all together.”
Adjusting to online learning
Foltz said the district has been prepared for e-learning as many of the staff members–Foltz estimated roughly 90 percent–had used online classrooms in some form prior to e-learning period.
Dittmar was one of those teachers who had online learning in place in his classroom prior to the coronavirus pandemic taking hold.
“Some people think online learning is not the same as face-to-face learning,” said Dittmar. “Stats show that it is the same, it is exactly the same. Kids are still getting a good education.”
“It wasn’t that big of a transition for us,” said Foltz. “The biggest hurdle was for those staff members who were traditional teachers. Those 10 percent of teachers really stepped up.”
Foltz said that during the last day on March 16, teachers stayed after and Jen Laity, the district’s business teacher, put on a tutorial for those who didn’t utilize online classrooms prior and gave them enough information to begin implementing it.
“For many, technology was not something they were regularly using,” said Laity. “As the remote learning period has been extended and extended, the staff has stepped up to the challenge.”
Susan Miles, math teacher, said that one of the positives as a result of COVID-19 is how the staff came together to help each other and to get everyone to work at the same level with technology.
“Trying to find the resources and adapting my classroom to using technology, which I didn’t use too much was the biggest struggle,” said Miles. “Once I started seeing what resources were out there and beginning to implement them became a bit easier.”
“I never stop learning,” said Steele. “With each passing week, I have discovered better strategies to connect with the students and provide activities to keep them engaged with learning.”
According to Foltz, every teacher in middle school and high school is now offering full online capabilities.
“Jen Laity has been the technology whiz and is one of those staff members who is very reliable,” said Foltz. “We could not be where we are today without her assistance.”
“Jen has continued to help out and referred us to different tools that we have used and lent her help to all of us,” said Miles.
“Jen has been our internet and technology expert,” said Dittmar.
Laity said teaching her colleagues has been the biggest change she has experienced.
“As we anticipated this happening, we utilized an inservice to start the transition and staff were able to pop-in and get assistance from me with getting a Google Classroom set-up and some other resources like EdPuzzle,” said Laity.
Laity said she has received a similar amount of emails, phone calls and texts from staff and students.
“I love it,” said Laity. “I love seeing how this unfortunate situation has opened many of my colleagues up to trying new things and maybe has gotten them outside of their comfort zones. While they are felling uncomfortable, it is making their students more comfortable during this uneasy time as they are learning on a platform they love to use, technology.”
Laity said she is excited to see how the two months of e-learning will change the teaching strategies used in the building when they return to the school \.
Miles thinks she will be using some of the technology more when they return.
“Some of the resources that are available, I would still continue to implement,” said Miles.
“I honestly feel that many will continue to implement what worked well for them, and I hope they continue to pick my brain for different ways to reach their students when this pandemic is over,” said Laity.
Teaching in a new age
A constant theme for many teachers is how they miss the interaction with their students.
“During the Zoom meetings, the kids love to see each other and it is great for them to connect with their classmates,” said Steele. “Now we communicate through Remind, Zoom and email. It is working, but just not the same.”
A new technology that Laity is utilizing to stay connected to staff is Flipgrid, which allows students to report in with Laity on a daily basis.
“I ask them a question and they create a video response,” said Laity. “It’s been nice for me to see them and hear their voices to know they are okay. I have been teaching 15 years and this is my first time not ‘seeing’ my kids every day.”
Miles said the biggest challenge for her has been not having the personal contact with students.
“I Zoom my classes twice a week, but it is different not seeing them in person,” said Miles. “It has been a challenge and is missed.”
Miles said that some students have adapted greatly and are taking it in stride, but other students have commented that the collaborative learning aspect of Miles’s classroom is an element that students are missing by not being in a classroom.
“I know some of them are really missing collaborating on work with their friends,” said Miles. “The kids are recognizing that this isn’t something that we really, really love. The students are appreciative of anything that we are able to do to help.”
Dittmar found that one positive of the e-learning is that the students who don’t speak in class are more willing to share their opinions while online.
“That is why you do online learning, allow kids who aren’t willing to speak in class and give them an opportunity to speak,” said Dittmar.
Challenges with time
Another adjustment that Foltz said has been challenging for some is having to adjust to the lifestyle and hours of a teenager.
“Students are checking in daily, but when you turn it in online, you might see an assignment being sent back at 2 p.m., 10 p.m. or 2 a.m.,” said Foltz. “Teachers are having to consistently check emails and the hours teachers are keeping aren’t just 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Overall hours for the staff has increased.”
Dittmar found that only about 10 percent of his students join his online chats in the morning and the majority will join the afternoon session.
“You have to adapt,” said Dittmar. “I have my chats twice during the day to make sure there is a time that works for all students.”
The balance of time while working from home has also been a struggle for many teachers.
“Being a full-time teacher and full-time mom to two littles, aged 3 and 5, while my husband is still considered essential and is gone during the normal work day hours, has been another challenge,” said Laity. “Balancing full-time teaching and full-time mom duties for seven or more hours a day can be overwhelming and honestly exhausting at times.”
The work-life balance has been something that many teachers have had to learn while working from home and adjusting to the hours of their students.
“I have found that I do need to step away from the teacher role in the evening though,” said Laity. “You cannot teach 24/7, though we all want to do that. It can be difficult because more families are doing their learning in the evening hours, and you want to help, but for your own well-being and mental health, you have to give yourself a break. Families know that we are balancing other roles during all of this, too, so they are understanding if we do not respond immediately, which is helpful.”
The support of parents and families and their ability to help has made a difference to teachers at River Ridge.
“I have had wonderful support of families,” said Steele. “The parents have been doing a fantastic job helping their children at home. I appreciate all of their efforts. The lines of communication are open and I connect with families two to three times a week. I feel my relationship with families has become closer through this new way of life.”