For Kenai Central High School junior Rileigh Pace, life has changed “a lot” since the transition from the physical classroom to emergency remote learning.
She takes classes like U.S. history, trigonometry, honors language arts, anatomy and physiology and ceramics online using a computer she’s set up on a small desk in the corner of her bedroom. It’s a quieter space than her family’s dinner table, she said.
Pace is just one of the more than 8,000 students in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District who have had to shift to home-schooling due to state-mandated school closures, which have shut students off from school sites across the state for the rest of the academic year.
The closures came suddenly for Alaskans in mid-March, as students were enjoying spring break. Districts across the country are grappling with the unprecedented shift to emergency remote learning. Across the U.S., states have closed schools, impacting at least 55 million children, according to Education Week.
On the Kenai Peninsula, students in the district returned to school March 30 to remote learning. District staff had two weeks to plan for distance delivery, Pegge Erkeneff, district communications director, said in an email.
“Everyone is learning a new way to learn,” Erkeneff said.
To make the remote learning shift, the district first focused on connecting with parents to explain the plan for distance learning and to understand each family’s situation, John Pothast, director of innovation and strategic planning for the district, said in an email. Next, teachers were asked to focus on the content they teach and determine how they could teach it from afar, which included training on how those lessons could be delivered remotely. Pothast said the district “developed and delivered” more than 260 live, video training sessions for educators. The videos were saved and teachers have access to those training sessions.
The training sought to show teachers how to develop a virtual classroom, deliver instruction and materials to students online, how to effectively communicate with students and parents, best practices for working from home and learning from home and how to make materials available for families without access to online technology, Pothast said.
With the shift to online learning during an economic and public health crisis, the metrics for student success have also changed. Pothast said the primary definition for student success looks like students connecting with teachers and engaging with assigned activities.
Erkeneff said the district has a “do no harm mindset for grading,” and students won’t see their grades drop based on where they were, but will be given the opportunity to improve their grade based on “engagement and involvement in class.”
“Teachers have never taught like this before, on this scale,” Pothast said. “Likewise, students and families have never learned like this before, at this scale. Moving to remote learning in a matter of days is a significant shift for everyone; for teachers, students and families alike. And there are high levels of anxiety, for teachers, students and families.”
The district is addressing equity concerns among students by falling back on their practice of personalized learning — which, like its name suggests, is education tailored to each student’s needs. The learning strategy has been in use for years across the district, and is helping teachers take into consideration the types of learners students will be from afar.
“(The district) is ensuring that all students have equitable access to their teaching and learning, and find success, in this remote learning environment — not because any law compels us to, but instead because it is the right thing to do for every one of our students,” Pothast said.
For students who lack access to the internet, teachers are making accommodations with physical assignments, Erkeneff, said.
Melissa Nill, a special education intensive needs teacher in her first year at Kenai Central, said remote learning is “very challenging” for her classroom because most of her students’ learning required one-on-one support. Nill said she has “an amazing group of paraprofessional educators” to assist her in maintaining that one-on-one support. Nill said some of her students also do not have access to the internet.
This support looks like frequent calls with students and parents, where Nill and her staff make themselves available to help however they can, from afar. Nill said most of her students’ work is assigned offline. Each student is unique, and has different learning requirements, Nill said.
“I don’t deny having had a cry or two over how I was going to do this, but for me, the adventure continues and if I can do this, I can do anything,” Nill said.
Meredith McCullough is a 10th grade English and history teacher at Kenai Central. She said the transition to distance learning has been “fairly smooth.” She teaches Advanced Placement courses, which conclude in a test students across the nation can take to potentially count toward college credits. With the test up in the air, McCullough said her students are continuing to chip away at the work and prepare for the assessment anyway.
Jean Beck, a fifth grade teacher at Seward Elementary, has been practicing “blended learning” since the beginning of the year, which is a mix of online and in-person student instruction. She said “flexible content” from personalized learning is a “highly used element” in her classroom.
“I accommodate specific learners in my class, so I have arranged separate, but similar and attainable work for them during our distance learning,” Beck said. “The benefits are plain and clear: I am confident of my students’ abilities. They are savvy in the tools that we use and I wasn’t worried that they weren’t going to be able to figure out new ones that were introduced.”
To accommodate every student, the district made hundreds of Chromebook computers available to students who needed access to their virtual classrooms. Erkeneff said the district checked out 700 Chromebooks with a request for more on the way.
Pace said her family needed to check out a district Chromebook for her younger brother. She said her household had two computers, but three people who needed to work online because of closures caused by the global pandemic.
Families stuck at home
The need for parental input is greater than ever with students at home, Nill said. But balancing that need without adding more stress to parents’ plates can be tricky.
“I worry that daily contact is more of a burden than a help to my parents, but I want to be sure my parents and students know I am here for them, and try to offer as much help as I can,” Nill said.
Abigail Moffett, another junior at Kenai Central, said she can sometimes get distracted by other family members stuck at home when she should be focusing on online school. She said her emergency remote classes feel similar to other online classes she’s taken. However, she noticed her current teachers didn’t have as much time to prepare their virtual classrooms.
“Most of my teachers now didn’t have as much time to prepare so they are still trying to figure out things like class discussions and what to do about testing,” Moffett said. “I also communicate with my teachers differently. I’ve been using phone calls and Zoom meetings recently, whereas I used email to communicate with my previous online teachers.”
Being stuck at home has its perks. Moffett said she’s been enjoying more time with her family, the ability to sleep in and having time to cook her own breakfast and lunch.
Pace said students need to have the right mindset for online learning. She said the biggest drawback to online learning is how easy it is to fall behind on work and procrastinate.
Pace has taken online classes set up by the district and Kenai Peninsula College. She said she’s noticed her new classes are “significantly easier,” than her previous online classes. Her classes have the same objectives set at the beginning of the semester, but the material and assignments are “much easier.”
McCullough said the greatest disadvantage to the remote learning mode is the isolation people across the country are facing because of social distancing orders.
“Before all of this happened, I was blessed to see my students every school day,” McCullough said. “Not having them in the building, not being able to see them consistently, has been so difficult because they are the best part of this job. The first time I was able to video chat with my (AP world history) students, I ended up crying afterward because it was so nice to see their faces and hear their voices.”
McCullough said many of her students have mentioned they “miss their friends, their teachers, and the support staff who were a daily part of their lives.”
Bored at home
Pace, like other students, is missing the social aspects of school. She found out schools would be closing during a regional basketball tournament in Anchorage. This season, Pace was named captain of the Kenai basketball cheer team.
“It was so sad when we found out (the state cheer competition) was canceled because we worked hard all season to compete in it,” Pace said. “I do miss going to school. I definitely miss seeing my friends and teachers. It’s hard to spend your whole week with friends and then one day it’s just gone and you have to stay home all day … At first you think the change is fine and will be fixed soon but by now it’s gotten very boring.”
Moffett said she misses the little things about school, like socializing in the hallways between class and during lunch.
“My social life has definitely taken a hit with remote learning because I talk to most of my friends at school and I’m not great at communicating over social media,” Moffett said. “I miss being able to talk face to face with people, and I miss being able to walk around between classes. When all of my classes are online, I just sit at the computer and flip through them. I don’t move as much as I should.”
A post-coronavirus world
Many juniors and seniors begin to flesh out their plans for life after high school — whether that means going to college or a trade school or entering the workforce. However, some students are seeing the pandemic change their plans.
Pace said preparing for college during a pandemic is “stressful.” She was supposed to take the SAT test at the end of March, but it was postponed until June. However, some colleges are saying they may waive SAT and ACT application requirements, due to the pandemic.
“Right now, I’m supposed to be looking for colleges and starting to apply soon, and without taking this test, I’m not quite sure what will happen,” Pace said.
For Moffett, the global pandemic has helped solidify her dream of becoming a doctor. “If anything, this pandemic has strengthened my desire to go into the medical field,” Moffett said.
Moffett said she is “a little concerned” about whether or not fall sports will take place.
“I was looking forward to spending one last year on a team with my friends,” Moffett said.
Looking ahead for the district, Erkeneff said the district is still fully immersed in assisting teachers, students, parents and staff with providing student education and meals. Initial conversations about “post-crisis learning and recovery” are just beginning, Erkeneff said.