Area parents and teachers work to embrace distance learning
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 9:51 p.m. to correct the launch date for distance learning.
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — It is a challenging time for schools and families as they prepare for indefinite distance learning.
Now that schools know they will be closed at least until April 17, they’re preparing for the prospect of the closure lasting the remainder of the school year.
And making a cohesive plan to educate 2,600 children of all different ages from afar is no easy task.
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This week is a practice week, Steamboat Springs School District Superintendent Brad Meeks said at a Steamboat Springs School Board meeting Monday.
The district is working to ensure continuing education — including for students with special needs and English language learners — but can’t do it successfully without the help of parents, Meeks said.
There are stringent legal requirements that ensure equity, but at this time, it isn’t known whether districts will receive more flexibility on those. And now equity also means access to food, technology and internet access.
“There are a lot of variables here,” Meeks said.
The district has already established a system of providing grab-and-go lunches for all students.
Board members said they are getting a lot of feedback from seniors about graduation — a seminal life event that now may be held virtually or not at all.
Though it may be postponed, said board member Katy Lee, “we will celebrate it in some way.”
The software platform Steamboat is moving forward with is Google Classroom. Some teachers use it already, primarily for kids who are absent or athletes who are traveling.
Some teachers are new to it and jumping in on a steep and fast learning curve.
What the virtual classroom looks like varies significantly by grade level. For older kids, they are largely self-sufficient on the computer with daily lessons. Younger kids require more parental supervision and participation.
Some parents have more time to invest than others, depending on their current work situation.
Juergen Kuhmann and his wife, parents of a 6-year-old first-grader at Strawberry Park Elementary School, are struggling with the rollout of distance learning.
Kuhmann is a software engineer with more than two decades of experience developing software products for global utility companies. While he understands the unique circumstances and challenges, Kuhmann said his main issue is a lack of communication.
“There’s a lack of coordination,” he said. “There’s no other person we can talk to than the teacher. And the teacher has to worry about content.”
The teacher should be focused on content, he said, not technology.
Kuhmann has reached out to Meeks and volunteered to help. If he were rolling out new software, Kuhmann said he would do it very differently. He would go through more of a defined process — at a slower pace, with more training, including parents, testing and feedback.
Kuhmann would like the expectations for parents to be more clearly defined and communicated. There hasn’t been any training for parents, and he thinks Google Classroom is too complicated for young students.
So far, Kuhmann hasn’t seen a virtual classroom where kids actually interact with their teacher and classmates. His son wants and needs that, he said.
His son is lonely, Kuhmann said, and that is upsetting.
Help out there
Kandise Gilbertson, a Steamboat Springs Middle School teacher who is already proficient in Google Classroom, has been working hard to help her colleagues learn the tools.
Every week — every day — they get better, she said. Gilbertson said the district’s IT staff has been working closely with teachers to translate their lesson plans online.
Gilbertson teaches language arts and American history.
Teachers have been going through numerous online tutorials, she said, and sharing tips and resources with each other.
For the district to already have familiarity with Google Classroom has been a lifesaver, she said.
Gilbertson has started to hold more virtual classrooms with her students in Google Meets, which she describes as a lot like Zoom meetings. The teacher and the students get to see each other’s faces and hear each other’s voices. They need that, she said — they crave that.
Gilberston fully recognizes the importance of socialization for her students. The first large-scale virtual classroom meeting they held turned into a show-and-tell of pets, she said.
Gilbertson said she always carves out time to talk about what is happening and how everyone is feeling.
She does her part to explain the reasoning behind social distancing, the need to protect vulnerable people like herself and the bizarre reality in which we find ourselves. After news came out Tuesday that a teenager was diagnosed with COVID-19, Gilbertson said she would likely bring that up to reinforce to her students that everyone can get sick.
Those conversations, of course, look different at every age level. But the point is to keep that social-emotional piece in the forefront, Gilbertson said.
They are coming up with classroom protocol, she explained, like everyone has to be on mute until called upon. One important part of the feature is that parents aren’t allowed in the classroom, she said. They get regular updates, but they can’t participate in the classroom discussions.
But again, what that looks like in eighth grade looks very different for first grade.
The distance learning design isn’t intended for students to spend large blocks of time in front of the screen. There are assignments on paper, they are reading physical books, and teachers are getting very creative with science experiments using common household supplies.
Gilbertson acknowledges unique challenges at the elementary school level. She is personally grateful to have a kid in high school because she is so busy figuring all this out as a teacher, she doesn’t know how she would find the time to play the role necessary for parents of an elementary-aged child.
The district has set March 30 as the official distance learning launch date. A trial-and-error approach most likely will continue into, and after, next week.
Across the district, county, state and country, every school and community has to figure out what works best, Gilbertson said.
One important theme is getting kids on a regular schedule, Gilbertson said. Another is adaptability and flexibility.
“It’s hard,” Gilbertson said. She’s concerned about her students. They want interaction. She wants to be able to read their body language. They thrive on structure and consistency. They need human contact.
And it’s likely the youngest, the most vulnerable and the ones with the greatest needs who are struggling the most.
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