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LESSONS LEARNED | Are school districts making the grade with virtual learning?

How is distance learning really going in East Texas? Local school districts reveal their lessons learned and how they're implementing changes for students this year.

Remote learning presents challenges daily for both students and educators. 

"I've been teaching for 20 years, second, third and fourth. When I thought teaching couldn't get any more challenging, it did," Becky Yowell, Lindale ISD teacher at Velma Penny, said.

Becky Yowell teaches second-grade at Velma Penny Elementary in Lindale. Their time on campus at the start of the year was short-lived after positive cases of coronavirus popped up.

"They decided we needed to isolate the problem and go remote, but I am glad we had those four days with the kids because I got to know them a little bit so I know a little bit about their personality," Yowell said.

"You know, our district was so good about giving us a heads up back in the summer and so we worked all summer to get our lessons to learn the new Canvas platform and we knew that this was a possibility. So when, you know, day one, the first day of school, we started, you know, getting them ready to start learning their lessons on Canvas. "I even had parents email me and said, 'thank you for showing them how to use this platform because they already knew a lot about it just in those four days that we had them'. So we were really grateful to get to work, and back in the summer to learn the platform so that when they started school, we could, you know, start day one."

Even though students stayed connected through iPads and Lindale's new online learning system, Canvas, there were challenges.

"We had a few that were crying and they were very sad. They didn't want to go back. They wanted to be at school, you know they love the interaction. They like a schedule and they like to be with people," Yowell said. "You know, we just told them, we're going to be OK and that we will see them through Zoom and will be talking to them, and if they need us you can email us through Canvas."

Most students and teachers at Velma Penny returned to campus on September 8, but Yowell is still responsible for reaching her virtual learners.

"Quite a few students that chose the remote learning and so one of the things that we worked on back in the summer was getting our lessons up on Canvas, and we tried to put our lessons up as closely as what we would be doing in the classroom. We have two days a week that we set office hours for those remote learners that we can troubleshoot and touch base with them," Yowell said. 

For many e-learners, reliable WIFI access remains a challenge. 

"I think really, the biggest thing for us is that should be no surprise to you that WIFI access internet access is pretty spotty in East Texas and I think a lot of things are being done on the legislative level to help fix that, but that's really our biggest hurdle is getting the kids familiar with how we do it. One of the things we did is the first, really the first week of school we started on Tuesday, August, that was the 18th. We required all of our teachers to teach their in person kids how to use Microsoft Teams, which is our platform for remote learning and that's been very beneficial because most of the kids understand it now, so I would say the consensus has been it's positive, but it's not without its hiccups and it's roadblocks for sure," Ben Peacock, Principal at Jacksonville High School, said.

Peacock says their leadership team thought long and hard about which model would be best for students, so teachers have both online and on-campus students in their classes.

"And that really is the question that drove our decision as a campus was, what's best for the kids is for the teachers to be responsible for the lessons and for the teachers to be responsible for both in person and remote, but it definitely means that it's more work for everybody at the school level. If, you know if Mr. Peacock is my teacher one day, and then I have to go home for COVID and I have a different teacher for four or five days and I come back to Mr. Peacock and so that model that we have, I think is the best thing for students. It's definitely not the only model out there," Peacock said.

Peacock says about 1/4 of their students chose remote learning and they've already had about 30 virtual students switching course to come back on campus.

"It's a little more rigorous than they probably thought it was going to be and, you know, really the thing is, then it's, if we say this all the time, if remote learning was so great, we would have done it 20 years ago. So, nothing replaces a teacher being in front of you, helping you, answering your questions. Remote learning is something that we are required to do and I think we do a really, really good job of it," Peacock said. 

Over in Marshall, about 1,500 of their more than 5,000 students are logging in to learn, but every 6 weeks that could change.

"Because we're going to open the window about a nine day window because you'll need the last at least four days or five days for the counselors to make the switch from, and now we got to make sure our class sizes are right," Dr. Jerry Gibson, Superintendent at Marshall ISD, explained.

Gibson believes their decision to implement Edgenuity, their new online learning tool, during summer school helped them work out some issues before the start of fall classes.

"That turned out to be a really good decision for another reason. It gave us about six weeks to really start working out the kinks, finding Edgenuity and we got to basically pilot it. Our technology department got to pilot it. We had teachers that got to pilot it, some principals, you know, administrators got to see really what it was all about," Gibson said. 

Unlike the spring, students report to class like a normal day.

"You know, high school is a little bit of a challenge. The big challenge was and we did some FAQs and things like that. Once we put our plan out, a lot of parents had a hard time grasping that this is not gonna be like it was in the spring, you know, we're trying to stay a day ahead and we were, you know, sometimes it was just pass out assignments, but it was a lot of, OK, here's your assignment for the week. It's not like that. Edgenuity you have a class schedule, say I'm a high school sophomore, and I'm given a schedule. As I Zoom in or you know, during an Algebra I at 8:30, I have to be there on the computer at 8:30. I follow a schedule, just like I was there," Gibson said.

Gibson is impressed by what he's seeing on the elementary level.

"I go to campuses every day, but I was on a campus and it was really nice. She probably had only 12 students in the class I would guess, about six virtual. Well, there's two teachers, one standing up teaching. Now, she had her just like this, she had her virtual, but the other teacher is monitoring the other students. They have a question she could, you know, check in making sure they're actually tuned in and they're not playing Madden 19 while they should be in class."

Some classes aren't just about learning the information, but getting hands on experience.

"The challenge has also been virtually how do you do a science lab? That's kind of a challenge. How do you teach welding? So, what we've done is set up a time either before school or after school for that student to come up one on one."

No doubt, there will be many more lessons learned as educators navigate a new year and teach through a pandemic, but Gibson firmly believes this is the most important thing we've learned.

"We limit ourselves. I limit myself on what I can and I cannot do, and we're learning that there are no limits to what we can do, and I think that's a great lesson for our students to see as well," Gibson said. 

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