Educators reflect on distance learning
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ONTARIO — Schools in Oregon have now closed for the school year. This time, the closure is not due to the novel coronavirus COVID-19, but because the 2019-20 school year has ended and it’s officially the start of summer vacation for students.
Due to the pandemic, schools state-wide were closed in mid-March. The Oregon Department of Education mandated that schools create a plan to continue education while the schools were closed, and distance learning was started in the weeks following spring break.
With the difficult spring now behind them, local school officials are now able to look back on how they performed with the mandated distance learning.
In Vale, Superintendent Alisha McBride said that the district’s move to distance learning was a good one, “given the circumstances.”
“I believe that our staff, students, and families did a very good job of ensuring that learning continued once in-person instruction was canceled,” said McBride. “It was not easy; however, everyone did the best that they could to transition to distance learning with very little preparation.”
McBride said the biggest asset to Vale School District in its move to distance learning was the staff aggressively reaching out to students to ensure that they knew they were still being supported by the school.
“Our staff did an excellent job of maintaining relationships with students which resulted in very high engagement throughout the distance learning process,” McBride said. “Our staff members truly went above and beyond to create individualized learning packets for students each week with personalized notes, learning materials, treats, and activities.”
McBride said some Vale teachers ended the school year with activities, such as virtual field trips, class awards and student recognition, which created a sense of normalcy for the students.
“The efforts of all of our staff members throughout this closure have been remarkable,” she said.
Over in Nyssa, Superintendent Darren Johnson called distance learning a “mixed success.”
“Many of our students took it seriously, worked hard to tune in each day and do what the teachers asked them to do, and others struggled with it to some degree,” Johnson said. “All teachers tried their best to reach all their students to help them continue learning.”
Johnson mentioned that distance learning brought up some issues of equity that made it harder for some teachers and students.
“Without the benefit of training, teachers had to learn as they went, and some were more tech-savvy in getting things going more quickly than others,” he said. “I know some students needed more than we were able to give, due to the circumstances, so we are focused on how we can help those at-risk learners.”
While there were still equity issues, Johnson said he was proud of how Nyssa School District was able to get Chromebooks for every student and gave Internet access to many students who otherwise didn’t have that at home.
“In this way, all students were able to connect with their teacher and their classmates,” he said.
Both McBride and Johnson said that they think their schools did the best they could have done considering the tight turnaround from schools closing to distance learning starting.
What did we learn?
At a staff meeting in late March, administrators of Ontario School District agreed that the forced move to distance learning would be a great learning opportunity for educators all around the country, as nothing like this has ever been done before.
“I think there were many great things that came from it,” Johnson said, adding that the district has noticed that some students actually prefer this method of education.
“Because of this, we are looking at offering distance-learning options for the future, much like other districts have done,” Johnson said. “I think it is best for students to have that in-person connection and delivery, but some people’s situations may necessitate distance learning, so we want to look at those options.”
Johnson said distance learning was also a big learning experience for teachers.
“It challenged teachers to alter their strategies, and while it wasn’t perfect, it helped us see that we can try new methods and be successful,” he said.
Johnson also added that holding electronic meetings was a time-effective and cost-effective method which he hopes can have some use in the future (especially when he doesn’t have to travel to Salem for meetings).
Reiterating that the successes of Vale School District come from the connections made between teachers and students, McBride said the school could not have succeeded in distance learning if it weren’t for the in-class model earlier in the year.
“I do not believe that those connections can always be made through remote learning,” she said. “Our staff does an exceptional job of making connections with students, and I am confident that the relationships that had been built during the first 3/4 of the school year placed our students and staff in a position to experience success this spring.”
All summer school programs will be kicking off with the continuation of distance learning over the summer. Ontario’s summer school program will kick off on June 15 with information for the instruction available on the school’s website.
Unfortunately, the distance learning continuation means there will be no binational teachers this summer. In past summers, teachers from Mexico would come to teach summer school classes at Ontario School District, often culminating in cultural performances for the parents.