Distanced learning changes normality for staff, students
By Halle Wyatt, Managing and Feature Editor and Catherine Brown, Photo and Business Editor
Despite zero deaths and few confirmed cases, the island community has nevertheless undergone serious lifestyle changes throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. To accommodate these changes, all school district members have seen their lives turn upside down.
After Governor Jay Inslee announced statewide school closures on March 12, the island paused all continuation of education for the next six weeks as students went home and prepared for a month and a half of optional learning.
On April 6, Washington state public schools were officially closed for the rest of the year. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) also announced that optional learning would transition into required instruction. The school district entered this new phase of schooling on April 13.
This transition into an education without a structured routine with little accountability and boundaries hasn’t been simple for anyone. From the administration to staff and to students, the whole community has struggled to quickly adapt to an entirely new functionality.
By the first week of March, administrators had begun discussions surrounding a potential school closure as they watched COVID-19 cases rise across the county and nearby districts close their doors. Once the first case was reported on the island, the school district rapidly made plans to close the school beginning on March 13.
Administrators and other staff members spent the morning of March 12 solidifying plans and working within their department teams called “Professional Learning Communities.” With their teams, they arranged what kind of content would be offered during the closure and how they would offer that material.
“We were in a really good position as a school to move into this digital interaction,” Principal Danny Rock said. “We were already using a lot of online supplements, and a lot of our curriculums had online components to them that we might have been lightly using at that point, but the students were at least connected to [them] already.”
One of the most difficult adjustments of the transition to distanced learning was overcoming inequity issues. Dozens of households in the district did not have initial access to either internet, devices, or home support.
A lack of devices, such as computers, were the easiest issue to solve as the schools frequently checked out loaner chromebooks to families even before the pandemic. Prior to school closures, about 10 families between the middle and high schools had borrowed one of these decommissioned laptops. Between the last day of in-person schooling and the first few weeks of optional schooling, about 20 more were checked out.
“We focused our efforts on our families who had already identified as having the most need,” Rock said. “We continued to ask folks what were their access challenges and we used that information to figure out who to support.”
It was more difficult to provide internet access to students, because as schools closed across the country, the demand for cellular hotspots spiked. After multiple weeks without, the district finally acquired four Verizon hotspots for families in need. Unfortunately, they are limited to only 15 gigabytes per month, making it difficult for students to use the hotspots for any action larger than downloading documents.
Post shutdown, Rock faces less adaptive challenges and far more technical challenges, such as managing and distributing resources to teachers and building the master schedule. The master schedule outlines the days and times different classes will hold office hours, release assignments, and expect submission of those assignments.
“[The master schedule] reflects two competing interests between students to get the classes they signed up for, and the interests of teachers to have sustainable work duty,” Rock said.
“I’m working nearly as many hours but without the best part of the job, without the student interactions, without the in-person interactions,” Rock said. “It’s not nearly as rewarding, and I’m trying to balance… being a husband, taking care of the house and the property, leading my kids through school, [and] being a school principal. Suddenly, all of those things are taking place in the same place at the same time. That’s been challenging to be good at all of them at once… It’s hard to get in the mindset of school when you’re not at school. It’s helpful for us as human beings to compartmentalize our worlds so that we can really focus on them when we’re in those worlds.”
Superintendent Slade McSheehy’s job has also become more stressful. Mondays through Wednesdays, he now partakes in 20 to 25 Zoom meetings, with slightly less for the remainder of the week.
“My job is 80 to 90 percent relationships,” McSheehy said. “Most of my position and most of my responsibilities are prefaced on relationships. When you’re limited to screentime with people, that can certainly add an additional challenge trying to maintain and keep those relationships healthy and moving forward. I think we’ve done a great job of that in terms of our administrators and our teacher leaders and our teachers.”
Retaining clear and frequent communication with staff has also been a struggle for administrators.
“It’s been much more challenging to coordinate with this communication,” Rock said. “I don’t have the dozens of casual and quick interactions with staff that allow me to coordinate action on a smaller scale. Teachers are making a lot more decisions on their own than they might have done in the past, [although] they have fewer decisions to make.”
Despite the district’s many online resources, the switch from in-person to distanced learning has left some teachers feeling challenged.
“Distance learning has been interesting intellectually. I’ve kind of enjoyed the challenge of creating a learning platform on the fly. Emotionally, it has been challenging, too, but not in a good way,” math teacher Warren Maierhofer said. “I tried to create an online math course, but I’m really just throwing a cat over a wall and hoping that a student catches it!”
Although while keeping schoolwork a priority, teachers have recognized there is more than just school in students’ daily lives.
“There is certainly a lot happening in the country right now. Geometry can seem rather insignificant,” he said. “I hope students begin to understand that knowledge is the gateway to power and wisdom. Righteous use of power can result in positive changes. To affect change, though, you need the power.”
Student engagement in online learning has been fairly high. In a survey sent out by the Riptide, out of 31 responses, 83.9 percent of students said they regularly partook in distance learning.
“The transition was a little hard because a lot of the traditional interaction I would have had in the classroom as I was teaching is no longer there… even in Google Meets, the interaction is different,” social studies teacher Heather Jurs said. “I am used to and love classes that are rambunctious, loud, and interested. On Google Meets, students are so respectful and keep themselves muted most of the time, which is really different from what I experience in class.”
While they aren’t able to talk in person, staff and faculty have been able to keep in touch with each other.
“We have a lot of communication between teachers and administration,” Jurs said. “We have weekly staff meetings, department meetings, and grade level meetings. I think that everyone is on their email a lot more frequently, so we respond to each other pretty quickly as well.”
Outside of core classes, many students are still active in their more creative courses.
“While I am focusing on practicing creativity and responding to creative challenges and prompts, I cannot require very much specific skills-based work, as students simply do not all have access to the same resources including materials and time,” art teacher Kristen Dallum said. “I feel fortunate that with art we can adjust the curriculum to fit the needs of the moment, and right now it feels like everyone benefits most from [the] opportunity to create projects that feel manageable, personal, and fun.”
During the change from in-class learning to distanced learning, the most impact is left on the students. Like teachers, many students have found it difficult to motivate themselves while learning online.
“I’ve found that my geometry class has been the hardest to keep up with, and I’ve been really lacking motivation to do anything in that class,” freshman Celena Becerra said.
Along with the lack of motivation, many students have struggled with their mental state during these times. Not only does being stuck at home take a toll on students, many have found that being at school was their time to socialize and not feel alone.
“The lack of structure wasn’t great on my mental health at first,” junior Mary Krouse said. “A month or so in, I set up a daily schedule with my family’s help. It’s not so fun in the moment when my alarm goes off for class to start, but I feel a lot happier later when I have my own permission to rest, and then I tend to feel a lot better overall.”
Neighborcare, the high school’s clinic, has kept their counseling services open during the shutdown. Many students continue to meet with Neighborcare’s sole therapist, Anna Waldman, over the phone.
“I think the most common thing [students struggle with] is… feeling really isolated and disconnected from friends and also disconnected from… things that are stimulating in a positive way,” Waldman said. “Coming to high school is such a stimulating environment… I think I’ve seen a lot of kids flipping into a little bit of a depression because they’re lacking that stimulation.”
Although Waldman sees about nine to 12 students a week, she acknowledged that phone therapy hasn’t worked for many of her clients.
“I still believe that there’s more mental health need out there than we currently have resources to serve,” Rock said.
Nevertheless, students have worked to make this shutdown easier for their mental health themselves.
“My mental health has definitely taken a huge hit during this and I’ve had a lot of problems with it, but I have been working on feeling better, and the free time is giving me time to focus on myself,” Becerra said.
Now with a freed up schedule and nowhere to go, students finally have time to prioritize their personal life and give less time to their studies.
“I have been drawing more. I have read and listened to a few books, which I could never do back in normal times,” Krouse said.
One of the silver linings to distanced learning for the students was found to be the new grading policy. It leaves students significantly less stressed. Students are able to focus less on the quality of work, taking a huge weight off their shoulders to do well. Although that might sound like busy work, it causes students to learn without the stress of doing well.
“I can plan my own home-school schedule to better fit my learning style, and I now have infinitely more free time,” Krouse said. “However, you really do get something important out of being present with a living teacher, other learners, and the classroom. I do miss everyone when I think about it.”
On Monday, June 8, an OSPI taskforce shared its guidance for reopening schools in the 2020-2021 school year. To prepare for this announcement, the district has formed its own planning team made up of around 45 members. This includes staff, students, and community partners from organizations like Vashon Be Prepared, Vashon Youth and Family Services, and many more.
Students will be vital in determining how the district will proceed in its plans, especially in the event of a second wave of the pandemic.
“Some of what has happened has actually worked for some students. We know some of it hasn’t worked for some students as well,” McSheehy said. “We want to better understand each of those dynamics.”
The district is also relying on students to provide input on miniscule details required for reopening. Their feedback is expected to answer questions related to mandatory usage of masks, transportation, and a revised school day to follow social distancing practices.
“I hope we can come up with a better plan for online learning in case something like this ever happens again,” junior Lucy Rogers said. “I hope students that have been struggling will be provided plenty of helpful resources and people to reach out with. I also hope the school can provide a place for students to talk and discuss the events, especially for students whose mental health was severely affected.”
The district is set to announce their plans for the next school year on June 15. No matter how administrators choose to proceed further, they hope that students and staff will come out stronger on the other side.
“I… expect us to really recommit to community and relationship,” Rock said. “I think that once we finally get the chance to gather again, we’re going to have a lot of pent-up desire to celebrate with each other.”