Teachers, students and parents across Northwest Florida are settling into the "new normal" of distance learning in the age of the coronavirus pandemic, tackling the sudden shift to online curriculum and school closures with determination — and, at times, unease.
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School districts in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties went online last week, giving students and teachers a few days to settle into the new system. That system includes using laptops and computer tablets to transmit lessons electronically, and, in some instances, packets of paperwork for students to complete lessons manually.
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The transition to online learning hasn't come without hiccups, said Escambia County Superintendent Malcolm Thomas. The district's attendance records so far indicate 93% of its 40,000 students have been "actively engaged" in online learning, the equivalent to being marked as "present" in physical school. Around 2% of students have made contact with teachers but haven't been actively engaged, and the remaining 5% of the student population haven't made contact with teachers at all.
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“We’ve made multiple contacts but have been unable to locate them, so now we start the social workers process,” Thomas said. “Some of these people may have moved if they lost their job or had to relocate to another area and partner up with a family member. Some may have changed their cellphone number. … It’s a moving target because things are changing for some of these families weekly.”
Thomas encouraged those who haven't yet heard from their child's school to call the school as soon as they can to get on board with remote learning.
The rest of the process has been relatively smooth, all things considered.
“The vast majority are in a good position. The only complaints I’ve heard from teachers this first week are that they’re trying to find the ‘sweet spot’ – how much is too much, how little is too little?” Thomas said. “And then we have to be very conscious of what families are having to deal with in their homes. I mean, often, parents are having to work remotely as well.”
Santa Rosa County Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick did not return the News Journal's request for comment Friday. But Pace High School math teacher David Godwin said despite a lot of uncertainties at first, the transition to online learning has gone better than he expected.
"It doesn't replace or even come close to replacing what you do in a classroom," Godwin said. "But under the circumstances, it's going well. ... As of right now, there aren't any major issues for me that I've seen so far that are keeping me from being able to do my job."
Godwin said there have been a few technological hiccups, like students being unable to figure out how to submit assignments and materials taking longer to grade due to the online process.
Godwin can see when his students have at least viewed their assignments electronically, and teachers across the district are being encouraged to document at least three contacts with students per week. Godwin marks his students "present" for the week if he's made at least one contact with them and if they are regularly turning in their assignments.
It's not perfect, he said, but it'll do for now.
"Each instructor has their own way of doing things, but what I'm trying to do and what other teachers I've talked to are trying to do is show a little grace and compassion, because students are figuring this out for the first time too," he said.
JoAnn Lee, who works for a respiratory therapy company, has been working from home while her four school-aged kids all participate in remote learning from home.
Her two oldest kids, an 18-year-old senior and a 16-year-old junior at Milton High School, are relatively self-sufficient when it comes to remote learning, and have been able to handle the transition well. But her 9-year-old third-grader and 6-year-old kindergartner who attend Berryhill Elementary School are a little bit more of a challenge.
“It’s a little difficult. The biggest thing is trying to make sure they understand what they’re doing, especially with my kindergartner and third-grader,” she said. “I have to constantly check behind them and make sure they understand everything, while I’m answering the phone and dealing with patients and dealing with my own work at the same time. That’s the biggest thing, is trying to juggle working from home and helping them with their school work.”
Having to become a pseudo-teacher and re-learn things to be able to teach her kids has been a struggle, too, she said. The teachers are trying to make it easier by sending home answers, but she still has to fill in the teachers’ roles of guiding a student step-by-step through a problem-solving process, which can be difficult.
“For the little ones, there really is no guidance. The teachers send home answers to these worksheets, which helps if we have no clue what we’re doing,” Lee said. “But essentially, you have to break it down. If the kids don’t understand it, you have to break it down for them and understand it yourself. There’s no guidance or daily lessons, so you have to do that daily lesson.”
As of now, students and teachers are expected to physically return to school May 1. Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a news conference last week that he is on the fence about closing school campuses statewide for the rest of the academic year, but said Thursday that some students may return to school sooner than others.
“We’re going to make the best decision that we can, but it may be that not every county is going to be treated the same in this,” the governor told reporters. “There is nothing wrong with that. If the problem is different in certain parts of the state, we should recognize that.”
The uncertainty over the future is frustrating to Lee, because there’s already been so much upheaval in their daily lives that not having a solid plan for the near future is stressful.
Lee said she’d like to see a little bit more guidance from local leaders about how the next few months are going to play out, but for now, she’s just taking things day by day.
“As a parent, I would say it’s stressful. I know the county is doing their best and trying to make sure they’re doing it the best way possible to help the parents, but it’s still very unguided,” she said. “You’re still overwhelmed and you’re stressed and each week it changes, because we don’t know what’s going to happen from one week to the next. When all of this originally started, we were supposed to pick up enough work till April 15, now it’s May 1. So when we reach April 15, what do we do? Do we go back and pick up more or are we done? Nobody knows.”
Annie Blanks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-435-8632.