The coronavirus pandemic changed how people live, work, shop, play, and sleep, but the way our young people live has perhaps been changed the most. The routine of students who have attended classes for all but a few years of their lives has been disrupted, with spring sports canceled and plans for 2020 graduation and prom changed.
Gov. Ron DeSantis announced last week that Florida schools will remain closed the remainder of the school year. Like so many other areas of life, though, education, educators, and students have adapted.
Nassau County Schools Superinten-dent Dr. Kathy Burns calls it “doing school differently,” and Assistant Superintendent Mark Durham has said “distance learning,” in which the district provided computers to all students, is working.
“With technology, there will always be glitches, but we have two full-time help desk employees assisting students and teachers,” Durham said. “We also have a site set up at the Full Service School in Yulee for students to exchange laptops that are broken or aren’t working properly.”
Each teacher is deciding individually how to use technology, and their approaches are evolving.
Erin Cooper teaches AP Human Geography, Honors English I, Social Studies and dual enrollment English at Yulee High School and said distance teaching is a matter of discovering what works best for students and teachers.
“Everybody is taking their own route, whatever works better for the teacher and the class,” Cooper told the News-Leader. She said the administration at YHS has allowed teachers that leeway, and is thankful for it.
“Our principal, Natasha Drake, is wonderful. She is very much our touchstone, as is our whole administrative team,” Cooper said. “They understand that we need to approach it 1,000 different ways because for every teacher that has been using technology this whole year, we have teachers that are older and been teaching 30 years one way and suddenly have to do it all online.”
The Nassau County School District has announced that Drake has been selected as the district’s director of Secondary Education. Drake is a graduate of the University of North Florida with a master’s degree in educational leadership. Over the past 25 years she has served as a language arts teacher, assistant principal, and currently
serves as the principal of Yulee High School.
Cooper said she uses Google classrooms and Microsoft teams to provide information and interact with students.
“Instead of me lecturing, I will put stuff on the Google classroom and (the students) can read it and go through it and turn their work into me,” she explained. “We also have Microsoft teams where you can have group meetings, where the kids can ask questions one-on-one. Some people are doing live lectures, but that is hard because the kids have so many classes and most of them have irregular sleep schedules. A lot of people are doing recorded lectures which they post so students can watch it as many times as they need to, or links to videos.”
One of the teachers recording lectures is Shelby Goodwin, who teaches English at YHS.
“For lecturing, I do 15 to 20 minutes (of) video lessons, three per week,” Goodwin said. “I use a system called Screencast-O-Matic. You can use anything on your screen and I record my voice as they click through slides. I know my students, so I keep it to 20 minutes.”
Teachers are staying connected with students though video chats.
“I have a Google meet once a week,” Goodwin said. “About half of them show up, and I get to see their face(s) and catch up with them. I don’t even teach; I just do a live video chat and kind of connect with my kids. Every Monday, I look forward to getting up and talking to them.”
She said students interacting with her from their homes has allowed her to understand issues affecting them.
“We are learning about the lives of our students,” Goodwin said. “There are things I would have never known – that they are displaced or have lost jobs. There’s lot of bad, a lot sad, a lot of boredom and laziness, but I’m trying to focus on those positives.”
Communication with other teachers is one of those positives, both teachers said.
“I’ve had more conversations with my coworkers lately about distance learning than I have before,” Goodwin said. “I talk to teachers I’ve never gotten to know in terms of how to get a kid on track. We now have (time) to sit, take all this in, and now I really look at each and every one of my 78 kids under a microscope more than I would have had time to do.”
Both teachers say the most difficult aspect of distance learning is not being with their “kids.” They also lamented the lack of closure to the 2019-20 school year. Students left school for spring break but were never able to return, missing the rituals that mark the final weeks of the year. For seniors, those activities, like prom and graduation, would have celebrated their achievements of 12 years of hard work.
“I’m just – can you just sit in my yard six feet apart and I’ll teach you?” Cooper said, laughing. “I need those people. I miss my babies so much. I am not done with them!”
Another aspect of teaching from home is that life goes on in front of the computer or other digital device. Goodwin said her 20-month-old son, Saxon, sometimes needs attention while she is recording a lesson, but her students roll with the punches and are pleased to see the toddler.
“There are some really huge positives that we would have never encountered without this,” Goodwin said. “Kids are having to be more responsible than every before and are learning skills. Parents are more involved in their high school students’ education than they ever would have been or have been since they were in elementary school.”
“Lots of grace and mercy, that’s been our overarching concept,” Cooper said. “They’re giving it a shot, and they’re trying to get it done, and we’re trying to be very understanding that not everyone is in a comfortable place right now, but 98% of my kids are doing exactly what they need to be doing.”
Durham said testing for seniors to graduate has been waived this year so seniors who have met credit requirements will graduate.
Returning students will be assessed in the fall and the district will provide the remediation and support necessary for them to succeed, Durham said, adding that school closures have had no effect on the district’s budget.
Burns gave kudos to staff for their efforts. “There have been many unknowns, challenges, and changes during this unprecedented time,” she said. “We want to thank our teachers, students, parents, and families for their patience, support, and hard work. We will continue to work together for the success of students.”
Cooper thinks distance learning may be changing the face of education. “I don’t think education will ever be the same,” she said.