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Students adapt to remote learning

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Arthur Hall in a Zoom meeting with friends.

Local parents Chris and Kate Hamilton have three children — a daughter in ninth grade, a son in seventh and another son in fifth — one in each of Yellow Spring’ three public school settings.

The three siblings are sharing the same educational setting this spring, however, as the family of five shelter in place in their home on Spring Glen Drive amid the COVID-19 global pandemic.

With Ohio’s school doors closed since mid-March, the Hamilton kids, like all K-12 students across the state, have transitioned to distance learning from home.

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Interacting with teachers and classmates mostly through websites and online programs, distance learning provides an alternative to in-person classes. But that alternative will now remain the norm in Ohio for the duration of the 2019-20 academic calendar, Gov. Mike DeWine said Monday, April 20, announcing his decision to keep schools shuttered for the rest of the school year.

Locally, district leaders would like to see the year end two weeks earlier than the originally scheduled conclusion May 29; and with the state’s approval would like to release students after the district meets the state’s required minimum number of instruction hours in mid-May.

Chris Hamilton said the ongoing school shutdown has been a challenge for his family, but they’re making it work.

Retired from the U.S. Air Force, Hamilton is a supervisor with an engineering defense contractor. Currently working remotely from home, with Kate coordinating the local mask-making effort, and each of the three kids staking out areas of the house to work, Hamilton said the work-study arrangement isn’t ideal.

“Clearly, it’s been tough trying to work from home and help the kids at the same time,” he said in a recent phone call.

From his observation, his children miss school more than they expected.

Middle schooler Justin agreed with his father’s assessment.

“It’s been very different from normal school,” Justin said of his distance learning experience.

After the state’s initial three-week school closure, during which students were given assignments that supported previous classroom learning, the district launched a districtwide distance learning plan Monday, April 6, under the umbrella theme “Together, when apart.”

The plan involves asking a general “essential” question each week that all grade levels approach in ways appropriate to their age and educational level. One week, the question was “How can we communicate our thoughts and ideas to others?” Another week asked, “Where are we in time and place?”

Justin said the weekly question is presented for seventh graders with an introductory video each Monday, and daily assignments are posted online every morning. Then there’s a class meeting in the afternoon, when students share their work or ask questions.

But not everyone is finished with their assignments by meeting time, and not everyone participates each day, he said.

Justin, however, said he’s found the workload “easy to manage,” and he enjoys the classroom meeting.

“It might be nice,” though, he said, “if the teachers considered live lessons.”

Father Chris said he appreciates the district’s decision to focus on a shared theme across grade levels, which helps unify the family’s efforts.

He said his children balk at some of their assignments, but they often end up enjoying the projects. Daughter Zoe, for example, was less than excited about an art project where she was supposed to re-create a work of art with objects from around the house. But she found herself engaged by the activity, her father said.

He and his wife have been frustrated, however, when trying to get their children to spend more time on educational pursuits than the minimum set by the schools.

The time required depends on grade level. Kindergarteners and first graders are asked to spend 60 minutes on school work; second through six graders are assigned 75 minutes; middle schoolers are supposed to spend 90 minutes; and high schoolers are expected to work 120 minutes on assignments, unless they have AP classes or are taking College Credit Plus classes, which have different requirements.

“The kids refuse to do any more educational work,” Chris said. “It was impossible to get them back on a regular schedule after spring break,” which fell a week after schools closed.

Justin acknowledged his parents’ frustration, but added he was enjoying the additional family time — playing board games and watching movies together — that the stay-at-home orders allowed.

Keeping to a schedule has been difficult for the Colón family as well.

Mother Deborah Clark Colón, a musician, said she and fifth grader Lilly Clair and third grader Adelia are all challenged by ADD.

“We struggle with structure,” Deborah said in a recent phone interview.

For her part, Adelia said she sometimes has trouble focusing on her work, and gets “mad” at herself because of it, but she isn’t finding the load overwhelming.

“It’s not too much to do,” she said. Still, she said she’s been surprised that “even the things I like are a lot harder” under current circumstances.

Lilly Clair said that the length of her virtual twice-weekly class meetings felt too long in the beginning, but “they’re shorter now,” so she’s satisfied.

But for the most part, both girls have enjoyed their assignments, their mother said. One involved decrypting codes and another telling tall tales.

“They really enjoyed creating a tall tale character,” Deborah said.

Both girls said they don’t mind staying home for now, but they miss their classmates and playing on the playground.

Father Karl Colón, director of Greene County libraries who is also working from home, said he’s been impressed by the efforts of the school district.

“We didn’t do this at all four weeks ago,” he said of distance learning. “We’re re-inventing school in real time. We’re fixing the airplane as we fly it.”

Both parents agreed that the current pandemic and the related closing of the schools is a traumatizing event in children’s lives, and they’ve been impressed by the recognition the schools have given to students’ emotional and psychological well-being.

They noted that Mills Lawn counselor “John Gudgel has been putting out writing prompts that help students recontextualize their experience.”

“We’re super, super grateful,” Karl said.

Chris Hamilton said he’s seen an improvement over the course of the shutdown in communication from the schools.

“I think the teachers — they’ve tried to be out in front” of any problem, he said.

A new frontier for teachers

Learning to educate in a new way has been a challenge, high school English teacher Desiree Nickell said in a recent phone interview.

“I’m older,” she said, noting that the use of new technologies constitutes a significant learning curve for her.

“This is a learning process for all of us,” middle school science teacher Rebecca Eastman, who is earlier in her career, wrote in an email in response to outreach from the News.

“But I can tell everyone is working extremely hard to try and meet the needs of our students and their families,” Eastman added.

Cameron McCoy, the middle school PBL foundations teachers and the middle/high school assistant principal, said he thinks the schools’ push to incorporate new technologies as well as newly formed collaborations between teachers will make them better educators when they return to the regular classroom.

While the middle and high school faculties have formed multi-subject teams that collaborate around the district’s weekly question, each teacher is also responsible for keeping track of about 10 students — not just academically, but personally.

“If we haven’t heard from them, then we make sure to find them,” Nickell said. The principal and other support staff may get involved as well, she added.

Nickell said she’s at her home desk from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. each school day. She holds regular “office hours” devoted to being accessible to students and families, and works with students on their assignments. She also leads an AP writing class that meets regularly online.

“A lot of students are really profoundly affected by this,” she said. “The more personal time we can provide, the better.”

Eastman and Nickell both said they miss seeing their students in person.

One of the important developmental things school does is create a space where “we’re all together as one big family,” Nickell said. “Now we’re trying to create that in a virtual kind of way.”

‘A big lift’

The district’s goal is to make students’ school work as manageable for families as possible, Superintendent Terri Holden said earlier this month.

“I can’t begin to imagine what it is doing to our children,” she said of the pandemic’s effects. “I have instructed teachers that our primary goal is to connect with our students and make sure they are OK.”

As for the district’s educational plan, “you cannot simply take your traditional schedule and move it online,” Holden said in response to a question from the News about the plan’s structure.

“It is important for everyone to remember that we have not moved to an online learning platform because all of a sudden three-quarters of the way into the school year we thought it was a good idea. We have moved into a remote learning, online platform for instruction because we are experiencing the worst pandemic in 100 years and we can’t be in school.”

Holden said that the transition from one mode of educational delivery to another has been difficult for everyone.

“This was a big lift for our educators, many of whom have not been necessarily trained to deliver instruction this way,” she said.

To assist teachers in moving their instruction online, the district has brought in an additional technology support person from the Clark County Educational Service Center. He has hosted online classes for the local educators and provided one-on-one sessions as well, Holden said. Teachers also have attended professional development webinars and held multiple virtual meetings to coordinate their efforts and support each other.

Ending the year

Yellow Springs’ final day is currently set for May 29, with teachers’ last day scheduled June 1. But Superintendent Terri Holden said Monday that she is recommending the school board truncate the school year by two weeks and conclude the instructional year May 15. Teachers would continue working through the June 1 contract date, but their time would be spent in evaluating the district’s distance learning experience and planning for the start of the next school year, which could include a remote instructional component if the COVID-19 crisis continues.

At a special meeting of the Yellow Springs school board, which was live streamed online Monday evening, Superintendent Holden told board members that she felt the governor is giving districts “great flexibility” to determine the educational models that work best for them. And that includes when to end the instructional year, as long as the district meets the minimum number of instructional hours mandated by the state.

Ohio currently requires 910 hours for elementary grades and 1,001 for secondary grades, Holden said.

“When you meet those hours, you can call it a year,” she said. “We meet our minimum hours May 14.”

Since the next day, May 15, is a Friday, that seems the logical day to conclude, Holden added. She said she has consulted with other area superintendents whose districts are considering a similar action.

Ending the year early would serve several purposes, including allowing more time for assessment and planning. But perhaps the most compelling reason in Holden’s mind is to relieve students and families from the demands of continuing to conduct school at home when it’s not legally required.

“It’s been my sense that parents have been very supportive [of the distance learning plan], but at the same time, people are reaching capacity,” Holden told the board.

She acknowledged that the Ohio Department of Education is currently recommending that districts stay the course. But she doesn’t believe it’s a necessity. She said she fears families are struggling to keep up with their children’s school work while navigating all the other pressures and concerns of the COVD-19 pandemic.

“I’ve had parents say it’s too much,” she said.

She added that the food program, which is currently delivering meals to about 190 students, would continue, as would some services to students with disabilities and other needs.

Board members responded favorably to Holden’s recommendation.

Board President Steve Conn suggested they also think about starting the 2020-21 school year later, perhaps the Tuesday after Labor Day.

Board Vice President Aïda Merhemic said she liked Conn’s suggestion. But before acting on changing the calendar for this year and/or next, Merhemic said she wanted input from teachers and families .

Conn agreed. “My sense of the board is that we’d be happy with the decision to end [early],” he said. But first, “I would like to have a consensus among the faculty about what is the smartest way to do this,”

Holden said she would survey parents and teachers about their thoughts.

On Tuesday afternoon, the superintendent said she hoped to have an end-of-year plan ready to present to families by the end of the week.

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