As the Waterloo and Columbia school districts return to having some students physically present, the Republic-Times spoke with four teachers about how remote learning has been going so far this school year in those districts.
“Remote learning has gone as well as can be expected,” Zahnow Elementary School kindergarten teacher Erin Hoffmann said. “While nothing can replace in-person learning, I truly believe we have done a great job of reaching our students from afar. Teachers have been creative with their lessons and ways of communication, and parents have shown a tremendous amount of support on their end as well. Our students are fortunate to have such a strong teacher/parent team working on their behalf.”
The story was similar in Columbia.
“The first few weeks were difficult because the students, parents and teachers had to transition to the Google Classroom platform,” said Eagleview Elementary School Principal Robert Dugan, who received feedback from staff and aggregated their responses. “Now that we have had a few weeks using it, everything is running smoothly.”
A major reason for the overall success of remote learning has been the work teachers have put in since the spring semester to become better remote teachers.
Teachers have used professional organizations and publications to find evidence-based tips for remote instruction, enrolled in webinars, attended professional development opportunities provided by their districts, practiced with their new tools and sought advice from their colleagues.
“I think all educators have been working very hard to adapt to our new remote learning environment by educating ourselves.,” Waterloo Junior High School science and robotics teacher Debbie Clinebell said.
“There is currently no shortage of information to support teachers facing remote or blended learning,” Columbia High School math teacher Wendy Stevens said. “Our staff and administration has been phenomenal about sharing information and supporting one another. We share resources, methods and technology tips.”
Some students and their parents have also become more familiar with remote learning, teachers said, which has helped with educating them.
There have still been challenges, however, foremost being the difficulty of building relationships with students virtually.
“In the spring there was an established relationship between the teachers, students and parents,” Dugan noted. “With starting fully remote this fall, those relationships had to be forged virtually over (Google) Meets. The curriculum is more rigorous and the concepts are new, whereas in the spring everything was review.”
Hoffmann pointed out that, since assignments were graded this year, the curriculum is essentially the same as it would have been under normal circumstances. She said that has challenged and motivated students, who seem to be handling remote learning better this school year.
“It seems that students are learning much more than in the spring,” Hoffmann said. “Students are becoming more and more familiar with the technology and are embracing all the new platforms we have presented them. Of course, we are truly missing our students and the interactions throughout our lessons that make them more memorable and meaningful. We are also unable to give immediate feedback to help our students learn and grow from their mistakes in an environment where it is acceptable to take chances and try again. So, while remote learning has been good, nothing can replace the in-person learning experience.”
Stevens said assessing how much students are learning is one of the most difficult tasks of remote learning because teachers must change their assessment and take into consideration how abnormal the last few months have been.
“We have all had to adjust to different types of assessments due to the amount of technology and support they have access to if given a traditional style assessment,” she said. “To truly understand how they are learning we need deeper level questions, applications and other means of displaying their knowledge. All of these are actually good pedagogy, but they all take time to develop.”
In her experience, Clinebell said the response to remote learning has also been mixed.
“Some students are enjoying and thriving in the self-paced environment of remote learning,” she explained. “They enjoy being able to self-select the order in which they do their work and the time of day, they like the electronic communication with teachers and, in some cases, the more rapid feedback on practice, quizzes and assignments. However, there are also students who are struggling with the responsibility and the new learning platform.”
To have as much success as there has been, teachers said they have been working much more than normal.
Dugan said most of his staff is working 10-11 hours each weekday and for at least some time on the weekend, while Clinebell said she is working around 12 hours a day plus five or six hours on the weekend.
With the move to a hybrid model that requires teachers to instruct students in-person and remotely, that workload may increase again.
“The hybrid model theoretically doubles the workload for teachers,” Clinebell explained. “Obviously there are only so many hours in the day, so I will simply need to become more efficient and recognize that I will not be able to grade and return work as quickly during the hybrid model. We will be working very hard to maintain equity in learning opportunities.
“There will be a great deal of time now spent on safety protocols such as certifying each student as they arrive at the beginning of the day, sanitizing between each class, monitoring restroom use and hallway traffic, posting attendance for A group, B group, and remote learning group, in addition to teaching students physically present all morning, interacting with students remotely, grading and responding to all students, preparing lessons, recording and editing instructional videos and posting material online.”
“We will be doing two jobs, teaching students in-person and teaching students remotely,” Dugan summarized. “The amount of time spent preparing, teaching, and grading will increase exponentially.”
Hoffmann, who said her work schedule has not increased so much as changed, said teachers will be up to the latest obstacle.
“Teachers are very good at adapting, and we will just have to adapt again,” she said. “We are looking forward to seeing our students again, and I am confident we are up to this new challenge.”