Juneau School District started its school year at a distance on Monday, with teachers using web apps to connect with classes. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

Juneau School District started its school year at a distance on Monday, with teachers using web apps to connect with classes. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

1st week progress report: teachers and students return to (distanced) school

It was a good start that will get better, superintendent says

Editor’s note: This is the first part in a series about the return to school amid the pandemic.

The halls are empty, but school is back in.

“It’s been exciting,” said Corinne Marks, an English and acting teacher at Thunder Mountain High School. “It’s been so fun to see students and their faces, and I wish that I was seeing them in person, but I’m glad to be back at it and building community as best as we can.”

Schools restarted in earnest on Aug. 24th after two weeks getting teachers prepared to deliver education over Zoom and other apps.

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“It went great. We had the classic hiccups you get with any first week of school and some additional hiccups with COVID,” said Juneau School District Superintendent Bridget Weiss. “We’re gonna do whatever we need to do to keep people safe and keep kids learning. It’s the delicate balance of how we can mitigate safety concerns as we go forward.”

For now, focus is being paid to not overdo screen time, but delivering education in bite-sized chunks can be difficult, Marks said. For other teachers, they’re getting students ready for the technical challenges of using software to learn by slowly escalating.

“We’ve decided not to throw the third-graders into the deep end by throwing a bunch of programs and work at them. We’ve been slowly ramping them up into the school week,” said Geoffrey Wyatt, a third-grade teacher at Glacier Valley Elementary School. A large part of the first week has been establishing personal trust with the students and slowly integrating them as a whole class. “We’re making sure they understand the basic functions of a Zoom meeting, but mostly talking to them one on one so we can get to know them as individuals.”

Peter Segall / Juneau Empire                                Juneau School District started its school year at a distance on Monday, with teachers using web apps to connect with classes.

Peter Segall / Juneau Empire Juneau School District started its school year at a distance on Monday, with teachers using web apps to connect with classes.

A heavy load for teachers

While the kids seem largely on board with the software and excited to get back to school, the increased workload preparing videos and materials and coordinating technical operations has been felt by the teachers, said Jessica Cobely, a seventh-grade teacher at Floyd Dryden Middle School.

“It has been a rocky start for some of us teachers getting used to online learning and the programs and preparing. I don’t think the kids have seen the stress as much as the teachers have felt it,” Cobely said. “We’ve done a lot of work trying to understand, and we’re doing the best we can.”

The requirement to faithfully deliver a viable education over videoconferencing is a demanding one, Marks said. The workload for all teachers has substantially increased.

“Doing online learning like we’re doing is a specialized skill, and the district did a lot in the two weeks before the school started, but two weeks is not a year,” Marks said. “And I think that’ll calm down, but that’s where it is right now.”

Weiss expressed a similar sentiment, but pointed out significant improvements in best practices since the early days of the pandemic.

“What we are really feeling is so relieved to be launched and to be providing education to kids again and doing it from the get-go on Monday as a higher quality of education,” Weiss said. “It’s far from perfect. But we are so much better than the spring.”

The return of the students, even electronically, is welcomed by many.

“It’s been exhausting to be on the screen. It’s lonely in the school. The thing that makes a school a school is the energy the kids bring. When we get online with the kids, we get some of the energy there,” Wyatt said. “What we’re going through right now is not why a lot of people got into education but we’re trying our best and we’re hopeful.”

Teachers will continue to do their best to support and educate the students in this time of weirdness, Cobely said.

“On all ends, there have been stresses and there have been complications. Everyone’s stress levels are high,” Cobely said. “We’re really trying our best to manage our own stress and be there for the kids as best we can.”

Same goals, new methods

While some students have experienced some reluctance using Zoom’s video feature, its chat function has allowed others to communicate more comfortably, Cobely said.

“On my Zoom classes, there are definitely students that are shy about having their cameras on,” Cobely said. “I think, in some ways, kids feel more comfortable sharing because they’re alone in their room instead of in class.”

Elementary-school students are on more flexible schedules to accommodate needs of the family members watching them at home, Wyatt said.

“Overall we’re getting a lot of positive feedback, No one wants to be doing it this way. I think that parents are doing their best to adjust and be flexible. We’ve also made a schedule for our students with lots of flexibility,” Wyatt said. “We have a time every day that we’re meeting with students as a whole group. We’re trying to keep the lessons short. We’re creating videos they can watch so they can do their assignments whenever it works for them and their family.”

For middle and high students, students are currently on bell schedules. A regular class involves a period of instruction followed by a period where the students get off Zoom to do their work, Marks said. The teacher stays on Zoom to help out students with any questions they might have.

“The teachers are all in the building unless they have mitigating circumstances. We’re pretty much doing regular bell schedules,” Marks said. “We’re trying to be mindful of Zoom fatigue so we’re trying to keep students on Zoom for no longer than 30 minutes.”

Teaching classrooms full of children over screens spread out across Juneau is not what most teachers signed up for, but they’re grinning and bearing it, Marks said, looking to find the best practices for distance learning.

“Teachers, unlike most other professions, are having to rethink their entire career. Not whether or not they should do it, but how they do it,” Marks said. “Teachers are finding new ways to present the content standards students need, finding new ways to hold students accountable.”

Moving forward

This is a good starting point, Weiss said, but it is just that — a start.

“It’s not all or nothing. We’re trying to find more constructive steps towards face to face,” Weiss said. “But it’s early. This was Week 1. There’s a lot of dust settling.”

The district will re-evaluate the state of the city and the coronavirus pandemic at the end of September, deciding how to proceed then. But that doesn’t mean they won’t be fine-tuning the establishment in the ensuing weeks.

“In the meantime, we’re taking all these baby steps. We’re looking at what we can do, where we can do, how can we do it,” Weiss said. “We miss our kids. There isn’t a really great replacement for what we do every day face to face.”

The district is also looking at expanding its child care options, supporting parents who don’t have the privilege of staying home all day with younger children while they attend classes over Zoom.

“Child care is only one of the solutions that we need. Childcare has some challenges to function full force with the volume that’s needed. We’re trying to do our part,” Weiss said. “That will be potentially one piece of the puzzle to support the other solutions the city is working on. The other potential solution is putting children together in pods. That is something we’re exploring how we can help parents.”

• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757-621-1197 or mlockett@juneauempire.com.

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