Gov. JB Pritzker announced March 27 that all schools in the state, which have been closed since March 17, will start using remote learning days.
That change forced school officials, teachers and students to once again adapt during the coronavirus pandemic, though the perspective of teachers did not change.
“I don’t think it’s affected it at all,” Waterloo teacher Carrie Munsell said. “Our job as mandated by (Waterloo Superintendent Brian) Charron and the state was to put the children’s mental welfare ahead of any subject matter.”
Prior to the March 27 order, schools were using Act of God days, which meant students could not be required to do any work and could not receive a grade for any optional work completed.
Schools were still offering learning opportunities to keep students fresh, but with remote learning days that work will now be mandated and graded.
“I think it’s a better decision because we’re actually going to have motivation to complete our assignments well,” Columbia Middle School eighth grader Maia Mercurio said of that change. “I know I’ve got multiple emails telling us how we’re going to get credited, which has helped me figure out how I need to do my work.”
Following up to five days of planning, Monroe County schools are taking the recommended approach of grading almost every class at the eighth grade level and below as pass/incomplete.
High school students are still receiving traditional letter grades, but students cannot fail a class or have their overall grade for the semester lowered below what it was on the last day before schools closed.
Students who do not complete all required coursework will receive an incomplete grade. They will be given the opportunity to finish any work when in-person instruction is allowed again.
Even with these relatively looser guidelines, the change to e-learning has been a difficult one for teachers.
“I am used to seeing students’ reactions to my lessons and having discussions with them as a group,” said Rebecca Alexander, a fifth grade teacher at CMS. “Because we are all now isolated, I can’t engage all of them in a lesson or hear what their concerns are or what they are confused or wondering about. This adjustment has been the biggest challenge so far.”
Students said all the work teachers have put in has made this transition, both to e-learning in general and remote learning days, easier.
“The teachers and students are all learning together, which is kind of nice,” Waterloo High School junior Grace Woodruff said. “The teachers are really good about knowing it is a big change. They’ve been very helpful in showing us what to do and what not to do and giving us as much information as they can. I think it’s actually been easier than everyone thought it would be.”
To prepare work for students, teachers are using a variety of online resources that includes Google Classroom and newly free services offered by companies like SmartMusic.
School administrators have also been passing along ideas for teachers to consider, and teachers from each school district in Monroe County have been sharing suggestions.
In all that work, teachers are aiming to follow the state’s guidelines on how much time students should spend on school during the stay at home order.
That ranges from a minimum of 20 minutes a day at the pre-K level to 4.5 hours a day for high school students.
“We’re using a ton of resources to try to make it easier for students, but we also know we need to be careful what we’re teaching because it’s not always going to be the same,” said Munsell, who teaches chorus at WHS and Waterloo Junior High School.
Mercurio said most students have taken the changes in stride by communicating with teachers and friends to ensure they accomplish their tasks.
“I think people have done really well with it because everyone’s on a new schedule,” she said. “They know what they really need to work on. (But) there’s always going to be some kids who just don’t put forth the effort.”
Alexander and Munsell said the number of children in that latter category varies, though they both hoped it would increase with the remote learning days.
“I think it all depends on the students and parents and what they are able to accomplish during this time,” Alexander said.
“I think everybody’s in the same boat where we’re not getting the 100 percent commitment that we’d like, but we’re in weird land right now,” Munsell added. “We’re just trying to make sure that we’re supporting our students and providing opportunities for them to stay engaged.”
Both Mercurio and Woodruff said most students– even those taking it seriously – do not prefer e-learning to the traditional classroom setting.
“It’s not bad, it’s just different,” Woodruff summarized.
Even with all the work put into trying to keep school as normal as possible, teachers and students are feeling the loss of all the sporting events, extracurricular activities, performances and ceremonies that have been postponed or canceled.
“That’s been hard, especially for seniors,” Munsell assessed. “Those are the things that bring us together as a community. I haven’t had any students complain to me that this isn’t fair because we all recognize that we’re in a weird place and safety is the priority.”
Alexander said she hopes any bad feelings students do have about that subject will dissipate with time.
“I think they know those things would not have been canceled if there were any other option,” she said. “Hopefully they will understand that, in the long run, the districts are just looking out for their best interest and trying to keep everyone safe and healthy.”
The state has also suspended all assessments for the spring semester, which Woodruff said has been stressful for juniors who were scheduled to take the SAT.
The state has said it is working to allow students to take that critical test in the fall, but no official announcement of plans has been made.
“A lot of people are nervous about what’s going to happen with those tests,” Woodruff said.
Similarly, Alexander and Munsell said the impact of this whole situation on teaching is uncertain, though both said they will work to have more computer-based learning in their classes in the future.
“I also think the lessons will change since… I can’t look at my classes and determine where we need more practice or discussion,” Alexander explained. “The lessons will probably be broken down so they are easier for students to understand without the help of the teacher in the classroom.”
Munsell predicted even more sweeping changes to education once this pandemic ends.
“I don’t think we can go back to business as usual,” she said. “I don’t think we should. I know for some teachers who maybe are more textbook and lecture centered, this has opened eyes to the possibilities out there. For me, this has been very encouraging to realize the resources out there and that there are still things that can be done and new things that can be done.
“It’s definitely something that I think has changed the face of education forever.”