A school without students in classrooms, playing on the playground and blacktop, eating lunch in the cafeteria, or simply walking down the hallways has a somewhat eerie quality to it. The lack of the normal noises that accompany the presence of youngsters is equally peculiar. How is a school to function when all the students are required to stay at home? How do teachers, accustomed to working with students in a classroom, modify their instructional practices to somehow fit within the restrictions imposed by technology? How do our instructional aides, whose purpose is to provide support to students in the classroom and monitor them while they are at play to do the same? How do our custodial staff and food service personnel function when students are not present? The answer, in short, is with difficulty.
In March when schools across the state closed their doors because of COVID-19 our little country school which felt (and continues to feel) far away from the most serious effects of the pandemic, was like all Escalon schools: forced to craft emergency plans to continue providing instructional services to our students. Like a substitute teacher with a vague lesson plan, schools across the state were left to devise their own strategies and plan of action to somehow continue to provide services to students who would not physically be present and with whom we were to avoid (as much as possible) physical contact. The immediate result led to more questions than answers: How would our schools provide students with school work? How would teachers assess student progress and provide grades? How would schools take attendance? How would schools provide food to hungry children? And on and on ...
Reaction to the crisis of school closure resulted in what might best be termed as ‘Emergency Education,’ given that we had no playbook by which to continue our normal operations. The staff at Farmington, like that at our other Escalon elementary schools, collaborated to create packets appropriate to each grade level of practice assignments that would keep students working on something productive for a short while until additional plans could be implemented. Within two short weeks our schools distributed computers, that had always and only been intended for in-school use, to all who requested one. Teachers were instructed to use a variety of online resources at their disposal to provide students with some means by which they could communicate and share information, all the while understanding that not every student had internet access from home. This would necessitate continuing to produce schoolwork packets for those who needed and requested them. Our food service personnel shifted their routine from producing breakfasts and lunches on a daily basis to packing food for several days at a time and organizing drive through pick-ups at various school sites. Our maintenance and custodial staff focused their attention on deep cleaning classrooms and communal areas as well as on repairing and updating facilities that would otherwise have to wait until the summer. It would be accurate to say that ‘everyone kept busy,’ but even more true to say that everyone had new or different expectations and responsibilities thrust upon them.
We ended the previous school year with a feeling of sadness that our students could not say their customary ‘goodbyes’ or celebrate together the arrival of summer vacation. There was some hope that the crisis would come to an end by mid-August, but by mid-July it was evident that it would not, and that we would have to open the school year in a way never done or attempted before. This would require rethinking how teachers would provide daily live instruction, how they would provide students with assignments, how we would take attendance, and how our aides would navigate distance learning, just to point out some of the more notable challenges. In this respect Farmington was no different than any of Escalon’s elementary schools. However, due to our location we did understand that our students and families were more likely to need additional support and help if the technological solution we were offering was to work, namely because in Farmington, many families lack access to the internet at home. It is impossible to expect students to interact and connect with their teachers online if they have no connection with which to do so.
Although technological obstacles have not entirely been overcome, we have made significant progress. Escalon Unified’s IT department and its diligent staff not only helped our school deploy computers to every student who needed one, but also provided families with hotspots which they could use to connect to the internet. This solution, while not perfect, has at a minimum allowed many of our rural families to access the Google Classrooms our teachers are currently using to post assignments and organize their lessons as well as to participate in live instruction and classroom meetings through the use of conferencing application called ‘Zoom,’ an online tool that allows for live audio and video communication and conferencing. While this has alleviated some of the connectivity issues that our students and families faced in the spring, it has not completely resolved it; families with multiple students in a household can overburden the ability of the device to successfully transmit large amounts of data, resulting in students experiencing various glitches. Despite their best efforts, some families were unable to reliably connect to the internet, necessitating exchanging hotspots designed to connect to alternate carriers. We have found that since August our school staff have all had to learn basic troubleshooting skills to help parents and students to login to school provided computers, access and navigate the Google classroom, and access and use ‘Zoom’ to participate in synchronous class activities.
Perhaps the most pertinent questions regarding all of this is whether or not students are able to use the technological tools given to them to learn and whether our teachers have been able to provide instruction and worthwhile lessons. Teachers dedicated energies that would have otherwise been focused on crafting welcoming classroom environments to creating usable and friendly virtual ones. The use of Google Classroom has permitted our students to access teacher created content at any time of day or night, thus giving students and parents some flexibility regarding when schoolwork can be attempted and completed. Teachers provide students with access to live or recorded lessons and live classroom meetings through the use of ‘Zoom.’ In this way students can interact with their teachers and with one another during morning and early afternoon sessions. Although technical glitches continue to occur, particularly out in the country where hotspot connections are not always reliable, students are nonetheless participating, answering questions and engaging in learning activities. While the delivery method may be different, our teachers are doing their best to provide daily instruction and guide student learning. Are students learning? The short answer is yes. Are they learning as effectively as in the past? Unfortunately, the answer is no.
If the pandemic has demonstrated anything about the staff at Farmington it has been to put a spotlight on their resiliency and determination. The same can be said of our students and their parents. We understand that distance learning is neither ideal nor preferred, but rather only a means by which to function within the health and safety parameters established by our county and state officials. Our staff has adapted to the realities and necessities of distance learning, has learned a great deal about technology that would otherwise not have been the case, and has demonstrated great flexibility in the process. Nevertheless, we look forward to a time when we can see students safely return to their classrooms, play on the blacktop and field, enjoy the company of their classmates, eat a meal in the cafeteria and walk along the hallways of our school. We are sure they feel the same way.
Principally Speaking is a monthly article, contributed by principals from Escalon Unified School District sites, throughout the school year. It is designed to update the community on school events and activities.