Trisha Dotts

Deer Park Elementary School
Deer Park, Washington
Trisha Dotts, NBCT; SEL/STEAM

Transition to the future with COVID as a catalyst.

One of the most impactful consequences of any disaster or unfortunate event nations encounter is when their children cannot attend their local school. Earthquakes, hurricanes, and illnesses have caused many local communities across the world to experience the burden of adapting childcare and organize remote learning for short periods of time.

While distance learning has been around for centuries, today’s communication technology has offered many families an opportunity to shift to online learning. This technology use made decisions to close schools in light of the COVID-19 pandemic a popular choice. While it brings forth a greater awareness of the digital divide in our rural and disadvantaged regions, business partnerships are working to reduce the divide. This allows many families to experience synchronous and asynchronous learning via the internet.

While a version of learning, coached by professional educators, occurs by video and packets in homes, additional concerns unrelated to education exist. Called “triple-duty,” teachers teach from homes where they are charged with helping their own children complete assignments. Parents are working from home and need to schedule their video conferences around their children’s school schedules for computer use and even share the home’s bandwidth.

Some parents need to go to the worksite but cannot since their children are not cared for at a school building. These parents have to forgo earning a paycheck to stay home. Children are not receiving their meals at school. This increases the financial impact of this pandemic.

Bravely, considering the needs and situations in many communities, officials have allowed some schools to be open. I am blessed to teach for a district that has opened its doors.

I love it. Seeing my K-2 students each day, watching them build independence fills my soul.

My community loves seeing our kids off to school so that they can go to work. Though our students are spending less time in the building, teachers can address academic concerns more readily since we are faced with fewer students each day.

My district has returned to a version of school, called ‘hybrid,’ which is not new to education. In our case, this means that we have three schedules. A/B and C. The C group is fully-online, the A/B groups meet two to three days a week. We chose to alternate our Wednesdays. And to be festive, we changed “A” and “B” to our high-school mascot colors, blue and gold. Hybrid allows us to reduce the number of students in the school by more than HALF, ensuring a 6-foot social distance between students.

Their parents assert they have checked their child’s temperature, that they have not been exposed, and that the child feels well. Students are not allowed into the building without this health check.

Students stay in their homeroom class pods. This means they spend much time together as a class. They eat meals together, and they stay together outside on the playground, where they are allowed to remove their masks because our school has a lot of room outside for organized activities.

If a parent reports that a child is ill or tests positive for COVID, we complete a contact tracing. The COVID Response Team works with the health department and checks the classroom seating chart. The students in closest proximity are kept at home to isolate for the 14 days, to be safe. While there have been just a few students from the community who acquire COVID outside of school, we have no cases that have transferred during school, so our health department recommended protocols must be working.

For in-person teachers, things look different than they used to. We see students every, single day. We teach the first group the day’s lesson, then repeat the lesson the next day with the second half of our class. We set the students up to complete assignments at home, asynchronously. Students line up 6 feet apart at school, either on marked dots or hold onto an assigned place on a guide rope. They wear masks and wash their hand regularly. We clean surfaces several times each day and disinfect nightly and sanitize weekly.

The online teachers, one or two at each grade, blends both synchronous and asynchronous experiences. Some families have chosen this option to assert their right not to wear a mask by staying at home. Some were uncomfortable that their child might become exposed, unsure what procedures we have put in place to protect our children. Others are taking the opportunity to spend this precious year with their child homeschooling with a classroom teacher’s support since the parents are at home.

Since our students are young, we are careful to limit screen time, though it does place more responsibility on parents to facilitate the assignments. These young children are just learning to form letters, learn sounds, and count.

While I happen to have an MA that focused on distance learning, I NEVER imagined that I would be using my skills to create an online curriculum for kindergarten students. It is a different challenge than video conferencing with middle and high-schoolers.

Despite the paradigm-shifting alteration to our school day, I believe that this pandemic offers us an outstanding opportunity. First, the reduction in the number of students in front of a teacher makes a HUGE difference. I have never been a proponent of reduced class size. But, since we have half of the students each day, our classrooms are already better. Kindergartners already know their classmate’s names. More students can respond directly to the teacher’s questions. My favorite is how much individual time I can give each student. I teach every single student in the school. I know how important it is to call each student by their name. But it usually takes me weeks to learn names when I only see each child once a week. But, with the small class sizes, I know almost everyone’s name already! Their personalities help me tell them apart since their masks are on their face. I am happy to see that we use more information than facial features to ‘know’ people.

At school, children have the opportunity to learn how to interact with non-family members. They have to learn to share attention and they become more aware that their choices impact others. I am fortunate to teach students about resilience, perseverance and how to handle disappointment while they struggle through engineering projects.

At school, teachers are able to give more immediate feedback based on our training and understanding of how people learn. As parents, when we were in school, we only knew how the teachers were teaching us, we did not know why they made the teaching moves. We never learned the science of teaching.

Thankfully, the amount of parent involvement has increased more than doubled. I am so excited that the families get to see, at home, all of the amazing things their children are learning each day. See, most primary age students do not remember everything that happens at school each day. So, when a parent sees a child after school and asks them about their day, the responses are usually general or refer to one piece of joy or concern that happened. But now, parents can see the science the students are learning and see the approach used to teach writing.

Instead of relying on the student to explain Common Core math, parents get to see the lesson firsthand, and now they understand the ideas better. When parents raise a concern, there is already an open communication path so that teachers can explain concepts right away. The only drawback I have seen from the increased parent involvement is that here, at school, we tend to give the students more time to struggle before we jump in to help. Sometimes, that is because we are working with other students, but more importantly, one has to struggle and even fail a little bit to learn. A few teachers have reported that it is easier for them to do too much for children because there are fewer in our space. The students do not have to be as independent. The tricky part for a teacher is learning the students well enough to know the right moment to help. It is different for each child.

Third, because almost nothing is ‘normal,’ we can examine our systems and decide if it is time for a change. In the past, we often kept doing the same thing because it was easier to fix the problems than start over with a new approach. The status quo almost always wins. Now that everything is new, we can decide what practices we need to get back and what ineffective methods, procedures, and practices to leave behind.

My colleagues are bolstering their 21st-century skills, despite having been reluctant in the past. They find themselves embracing cloud-based content and communication for the first time.

This new learning also highlights the fantastic adaptivity teachers display every day. When given updated standards, unfunded mandates, and new programs, we are seldom adequately trained, but we scramble to catch up so we can perform our best for our students. This situation is no different.

I do ‘wish’ there were a funded, cohesive plan to educate our teachers on distance learning pedagogy. I was disappointed that one of our nation’s largest cell phone providers refused to reduce their prices for at-home wifi access. But another company stepped in. So, like every other shift in education, we are making it work. This time, because we are so transparent with videos and parent involvement, families are watching us learn, right alongside the students.

In the end, when we do go back to regular school. I have high hopes that it will be better for all students than it was before COVID. We will be more individualized and responsive to student needs. We will have better parent communication and be comfortable with increased transparency. And we will be more willing to make necessary changes because we see that school systems can adapt to new information about how people learn.

It has been an exciting transition. I hope your families can join the environment back at school.