Area Teachers Share Thoughts on Return to School, Offer Advice

Abbotsford (OnFocus) – As area schools have completed three weeks of school, adjustments to returning to school have been made by teachers and students alike. The pandemic caused an abrupt shut down of in-person learning in March, and although it was challenging for students, parents, and teachers to make the switch to 100% virtual learning, everyone learned from the experience.

The return to school this fall has allowed teachers and students to connect in person, and to get a glimpse into how everyone is adjusting, we reached out to area educators to get their thoughts.

OnFocus: What are some things you, your school, and/or your district learned from last year’s move to 100% virtual instruction for the final two and a half months?

Carry Bellanti, Wausau West Family and Consumer Science Teacher: I work at Wausau West High School.  When we went virtual last spring, we had many students who jumped on board and completed their instruction for their classes promptly and eagerly.  We also had many students who we never heard from or had limited connection  and communication with.  I/we learned that during those 2 months last spring, many students went down hill not only academically, but it affected them harshly mentally and socially too.  Those are the students who will still struggle when we can finally come back and experience some normalcy.  We learned that all students are unique, their homelives, their home environments, their learning styles are all different.  Even students who were our top 10% students struggled when the structure was taken away from them.

Brian Lewison, Owen-Withee Social Studies Teacher: Good people have an enormous capacity to rise to the occasion. Educators have to be flexible under normal circumstances. Under the current circumstances, you can’t survive if you can’t adapt and accept change. Things are changing everyday, sometimes even hourly. No one can get away with the mindset of “that’s not how I/we do things.” Schools are constantly challenged to find new ways to work with their students and communities. I think everyone adapted well beyond expectations last spring. We have and will continue to do that this fall.

Jennifer Lindner, Neillsville 1st Grade Teacher: As a teacher, I was able to see that not all of my children had internet access or access to a device. With that being said, it was very hard to communicate with the students other than by phone/email. Most of our elementary used Seesaw. This was a way to communicate with parents online while also sending/receiving work to the students. For the majority of the families, this worked very well. In addition to sending work over Seesaw, teachers also sent hard copy work (paper and pencil) by mail. This was extremely beneficial because all of our students were able to complete the work. Overall, 100% virtual learning was a “new thing” thing for us teachers and therefore we were able to try things that we may not have ever used before. The things we learned throughout being 100% virtual last Spring, will be carried over into this school year as some of us teachers have both Remote learners as well as in-person learners.

Nathan Dahl, Edgar science Teacher:  I learned that here in Edgar, we have a great group of students that truly want to learn and get better.  I had an extremely high percentage of students that “bought-in” and were actively engaged in learning and completing the work that was asked of them.  As with all districts, we had to switch to virtual learning in the blink of an eye, and our administration, staff, and students took very well to it.

Kariann Haluska, Verona Special Education Teacher(formerly Wisconsin Rapids Area Middle School): I learned a lot more about technology and how we could implement it into the classroom to benefit students for when the time comes for in-person instruction.

Jordan Rayburn, Pittsville Business and Information Technology Teacher: I feel that teachers and schools have learned what does and does not work for full virtual schooling. We realized every student’s learning needs in a virtual environment are different. I think teachers and schools learned more patience and flexibility when it came to meeting learning goals. Schools also learned the challenges and limitations of the technology required for virtual learning.

Kristen Lucas, SPASH Family and Consumer Sciences Teacher: Due to the eleven inclement weather days our District had during the 2018-19 school year, we found ourselves unprepared to teach virtually. As a result, it was a goal during the 2019-2020 school year to create more virtual lessons to be used throughout the year. The goal was to use this virtual instruction on days such as ACT test days so that sophomores and seniors could be out of the building while juniors tested, but instruction could still be offered.  However, I think few teachers were prepared to teach a whole quarter of instruction virtually. 

In terms of what we learned, I would say that, first and foremost, some students and/or parents found it difficult to make sense of the different ways teachers were presenting their coursework virtually. The on-line learning platform we use is Schoology and we were not given a standardized template to use. As a result, each teacher was presenting lessons in a different format. This was very confusing to some students.  This year, we have been given direction on what is absolutely necessary to include in our Schoology pages, but not a standardized template. 

We also learned that most of the students who were engaged in face-to-face learning, were also engaged in virtual learning and worked right up until the end. Those students who needed prompting in class were much more challenging to engage online.  

Lastly, the grading method we used for last semester was that if students were passing 3rd quarter, they automatically passed 4th quarter – even if they didn’t log in to Schoology once to submit any assignments. Some teachers bumped certain student’s grades during the 3rd quarter to give them some incentive. However, this came back to burn them as a majority of those students did not continue with their coursework enough to earn a passing grade. Our students did not have the option of letter grades. Our students received a P (Pass) or P+ (Pass with Distinction). If they did not pass, they received an Incomplete grade with the option to complete the coursework over the summer. Some students took advantage of the system once they found out they would not be receiving letter grades and they chose not to engage at all.

Area administrators share thoughts on challenges schools are facing

Shannon Tibbetts, Wisconsin Rapids Social Studies Teacher: In moving to virtual instruction this past spring, our primary focus was the emotional well-being of students followed by reinforcement of academic standards and enrichment opportunities. Although student wellness was of utmost importance, it became evident a few weeks into remote learning that most students also needed structure, engagement, and rigor. Having teachers conduct virtual meetings and lessons was critical in keeping students connected with school and their peers. Consistent communication with families was essential in offering academic support at home.

Andy Brehm, Abbotsford science Teacher: We learned a few things from last spring.  The logistical part was huge.  Many kids didn’t have the technology or internet access they needed in order to be successful.  Our administration did a great job checking up on those kids.  They also found many of those kids had family responsibilities that superseded homework, so it was double tough on them.  Lastly, not having extracurriculars to keep a lot of our kids motivated hurt, so the grades the kids got, I don’t believe, really reflect what they know or could do from last spring.

Cheryl Cook, New Holstein 4th grade Teacher: Things I learned last spring: going virtual practically overnight was really stressful for teachers, students and parents. Even after putting in countless attempts to get students on board and to participate, in some cases it just did not happen. Holding students accountable was a big issue. In some cases (me for one) teachers were forced to learn technology at the drop of a hat. Thankfully fellow staff members were helpful and were there for those of us who are not or were not technologically adept. There just didn’t seem to be a consistent teaching plan, teachers were doing their own thing. When preparing for this year’s virtual option, time was spent on how to hold students accountable with “attending” classes and doing the work. Professional development was given to those teaching virtual classes. Teacher support meetings are held for those teaching with a combination of face to face and virtual classes.

Chad Eichstadt, Owen-Withee English Teacher:  I believe that we learned how important it is to be in “contact” with each student and that process is much more difficult when you are unable to see each other on a regular basis. While some of the students did very well virtually, others did not interact with their Google Classroom assignments or emails because they did not maintain that needed “contact” with their teachers. It was a frustrating process for all of us, teachers and students alike, because we felt very fractured and distant from the learning process.

Area principals discuss challenges schools are facing this year

OnFocus: How have staff adjusted to the return to school this year?

Haluska: This start to the school has been much different than in years past. When we returned this year, all of our students were going to be receiving instruction virtually. We were given two weeks this year to prepare for the virtual world which was so nice to have the extra time to make sure we were ready for the students.  We were given many professional development opportunities on virtual teaching and time to prepare for the school year ahead. After about a week and half of planning, it was decided that students in special education may return to in-person instruction for this school year due to the overturn of an emergency mandate in the county I work in. We had to switch our mindset very quickly to prepare for in-person instruction as well as prepare for families who wanted their child to remain in virtual instruction. It has been hard to adjust to the changes, but I think overall, staff as a whole have adjusted very well and are being very flexible as things are changing often in 2020. We are working as a team to ensure each student gets the best possible service.

Dahl: We have an excellent staff, and we are adjusting well and in stride.  I think for myself and many other teachers, it is great seeing students in the classroom again.  It is refreshing to have in-class communication and interaction.  I was truly missing that this spring.  All staff has quickly adjusted to the new protocols set in place for the safety of all in the building.

Cook: How has staff adjusted coming back to the 2020-2021 school year? UNCERTAINTY! With districts all around us following a variety of plans, we don’t know how we will be teaching from one day to another. Now that school has started, teachers are half expecting to be told by their district or the state that we are switching to all virtual. As a teacher, we feel like we have to cram in as much as we can before that happens (with technical how to’s). Teachers have to also consider their own families, what will happen to their own children if they come into contact with COVID or test positive.

BrehmAs a staff, we are all trained in  Google Classroom, Screencastify, and Zoom…so as a whole we are much more proficient in the realm of technology.  I also believe we have a staff that will work together to get stuff done when the unexpected happens, which it certainly will!

Lindner: Staff have been trying our very best to allow a smooth transition for the students with returning back to school. Our Elementary school is working very well with one another to ensure we are all figuring out teaching virtual learning as well as in person teaching. ​With that being said, we have become very flexible to adjust to our student’s needs. As a teacher, seeing my students is a great way to build rapport as well as a social connection. These are both very vital aspects to their learning.

Lewison: From the structure of our school day to how lunch is delivered, everything has changed in our building. We are using modified block scheduling in our middle/high school for the first time. We were formerly on an 8 period day. That is the biggest adjustment so far. Making it through the first week, I think the staff realized that we will be able to deal with all the changes. 

Lucas: Our staff has been overwhelmed, to say the least. Even though we have been given directives on what to include in our Schoology pages in an effort to diminish students’ confusion, as teachers we are finding it very difficult to plan online lessons while having to plan for in-class instruction In our district, we are doing the hybrid model, but we are also for those students who opted to learn 100% on-line. This seems to be an impossible task for us, especially for those of us who do not teach in teams and have more than one prep. 

Eichstadt: The staff has made an adjustment to the start of the school year this year in their willingness to take on multiple changes and make learning work for all students. Teachers are taking temps and recording each student entering the school in the morning, eating lunch with their homeroom students, teaching students in the classroom while also teaching others virtually and making this happen so we can reach every kid where they are at currently.

Bellanti: With the return of school this year, West has decided to begin virtual.  As a district, we have had more training with our online model as well as so many more trainings on how to appropriately use google meets.  I am excited to begin this new model of instruction and learning, but I will greatly miss the face to face instruction and relationships I make when students are face to face with you.

Rayburn: Our staff has adjusted by being more consistent in the way in which we do things like attendance and homework deadlines. Our staff has also worked very hard on providing the same learning opportunities for students whether they are in the building or not.

Tibbetts: Staff have successfully adjusted to the return to school. Teachers are collaborating with colleagues to deliver and modify lessons to meet students’ needs. Staff members have taken advantage of professional development opportunities to explore new digital platforms that can be used to enhance curriculum.

OnFocus: How have students adjusted to being back in school?

Lindner:  As an educator, we have been implementing our routines into our classroom to ensure a smooth transition back to school for our students. Children need routines and we are able to create those in the classroom. While creating our routines, the students are able to adjust back into the “school mode” as well as become aware of the classroom/school expectations. Overall, the students are extremely happy to be back to see their friends, teachers, and other staff members…while learning of course! 🙂

Brehm: Our students have adjusted well so far.  They have been compliant, for the most part, in wearing masks.  They have done a nice job of adjusting to a block schedule so far.  Time will tell if we will have a group of student leaders who can lead by example everyday, but I believe we have many students who can assume and fill that role successfully.

Rayburn: So far, students have adjusted great to being back in school. Although I’m sure some students are still adjusting to the precautions, I feel most are excited to see their friends and teachers and be on a routine schedule again.

Tibbetts: Students have proven to be resilient by adapting to the hybrid model. They are genuinely excited to be physically in the classroom and engaged with teachers and peers.  Students are respecting social distancing guidelines and have been following school expectations.

Dahl: Whether students may admit it or not, they like being in school!  The schedule and structure benefit them.  I can tell students want to be here and the virtual learning that took place may not have been ideal for some students.  Just like the staff has adjusted quickly to the new protocols set in place, the students have also done a great job with them.  Everything from staggered lunchtimes, to specific directions to walk in the hallways, and of course wearing facemasks has gone really well.

Bellanti: We have started 100% virtual this year.  This past week we had meetings with homeroom students and parents explaining our new process to begin the school year and how the new updated virtual model would look.

Eichstadt: The students have adjusted well to the beginning of the school year as they have learned the importance of staying healthy to remain in school. Many of the students have come to appreciate being “in school” from being forced out last year.

Cook: Students have seemed to adjusted to the start of a new school year pretty well.    Having the choice in our district between face to face or virtual instruction was a big plus. For those who are attending in person, there have been a lot of things that have changed. Whether it be how many can be in the lunchroom or at recess or in the hallway at one time, when and where to wear masks, cleaning and bus procedures, students for the most part are rolling with the punches.

Lewison: For the most part, the students that are here are the ones that want to be here. That helps reduce the negativity that may be associated with all of the adjustments we’ve had to make. They want to be here as long as possible because these students do not want to go back to virtual learning for a prolonged period. No one wants to go back to that, so everyone has been pretty accepting of the things we need to do to stay here as long as we can.

Lucas: I think that most students are thrilled to be back in school and, as a result, have complied with all of the new mandates (masks, social distancing, hand washing and sanitizing) to the best of their ability. Our class sizes are remarkably small. I am used to having 28-30 students per class and I now have classes as small as three students on any given day. I believe this is largely in part due to COVID 19 and not students skipping. However, I can’t be sure. I have had zero behavior incidents in my classroom and students seem to be so eager to learn. The quality of work I am receiving has been impressive.

Conversely, however, the students who are 100% online seem to be struggling a bit. In our district, we are responsible for teaching the hybrid model as well as the 100% online students. This seems to be a bit challenging for some students. Although we are doing our best to teach three different cohorts of students, the fully-online students don’t seem to be doing the same caliber of work. I have gotten several complaints that they don’t have printers at home or that they don’t understand the assignment. I know we can send copies home, but I am just not there yet. It has been a pure struggle to teach three different cohorts and to upload everything to Schoology (our online learning system). Teachers are at the end of their rope trying to keep up with everything. However, this question is relating to students and not to teachers.
So, to summarize, I think students overall are doing quite well. I know they all miss the way things used to be and are hoping to be back in school full-time with ALL of their friends. They feel like school is a ghost town.  Some also are disappointed that they cannot be with their friends due to their assigned cohort. Our students were not permitted to choose which days they came to school unless there was a situation that warranted that to be the case.

OnFocus: Any advice you can offer for parents in supporting their children in these uncertain and challenging times?

Lucas: My advice for parents would be to trust that teachers are doing their best to give meaningful instruction to their children. I realize many parents feel they need to “teach” their children at this time. I feel like parents need to be more like a principal and make sure their children are engaging with their teachers during face-to-face instruction as well as virtually. I don’t know of one teacher who is happy about teaching virtually. We became teachers because we want to be with our students and to build relationships with them in a face-to-face learning environment. If parents could support our efforts and know that we are here to answer their questions and work with them as much as possible, I think we will get through this much more effectively.  

Eichstadt: The most important advice for parents at this time may be simply to be there, be present and be positive for their kids. Teachers are trying to do their best for the students and students are trying to do their best to learn.

Haluska: Just know that we are all in this together and the teachers will be there to support you. We are all a team. Stay positive, and take things day by day. 🙂

Dahl: Having a son that comes to school with me every day, I can say keeping open communication is important.  Asking them how their day went, how their classes are going, what they are learning, etc. is essential to let them know that you care and are actively involved in their lives.  That comfort in knowing you are there for them is key.

Bellanti: Please be supportive and patient with the schools and teachers.  We are all learning on the go and we are all dealing with the same uncertainty together.  Please continue to support your child and all kids.  Keep talking with your kids about their feelings.  Stay connected with the recent activity that is happening at the schools and keep your kids as organized as you can.

Brehm:  I guess if I was a parent I would communicate in a positive way any concerns I have about my child, and support the district’s decisions to keep students learning in the safest manner possible.  They are doing a really good job right now…keep it up!

Cook: Advice – be available to listen to your child’s concerns, communicate with the school (your child’s teachers, guidance counselors) with questions or concerns. Become familiar with what is expected of your child and hold them accountable for their schoolwork.

Rayburn: My advice is to be patient. Students will take time to get adjusted to the new normal. Some students may not see their friends or may not be able to do the things they once enjoyed the most about school. They may deal with adversity both academically and socially. However, in due time they will adjust. Continue to check in with them and their teachers to see how they are doing in their classes. As teachers we are more than happy to help. 

Tibbetts: I would advise parents to keep a consistent routine for students on remote learning days. Designating a quiet space for students to work and setting a schedule for learning activities are key. It’s important for parents to review communication from the school and teachers to support student learning

Lewison: Be as positive and flexible as you can about all of the changes. Schools are doing the best that they can with the best information that we have. As the information and knowledge about how to deal with the virus and its effects continues to be updated, we will be adjusting again. It’s not comfortable for anyone to live that way, but right now it is what we have to do.

Lindner: As a parent, teachers would very much appreciate you being supportive, understanding, and open-minded as we are getting back into the swing of things. Many teachers might be trying new things with our classes in order to better teach both our remote learners as well as our in-person learners. We are doing our very best to give your child the best education as we possibly can. 

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David Keech
Author: David Keech

David Keech is a math teacher in Wisconsin Rapids and public address announcer for Abbotsord High School. He officiates basketball, baseball, and softball in central Wisconsin. He has reported on amateur sports since 2011, known as 'KeechDaVoice.' David can be reached at [email protected]