Classes began in Talawanda schools this week, not with the sound of the school bell ringing, but with the sounds of keyboard typing. Rather than parents taking keepsake photos of their children climbing on the school bus, they were helping them log into Zoom classes.
Talawanda School District started the school year with virtual classes Monday for its third through 12th grades and Thursday for kindergarten through second grade. To welcome the children back, faculty and staff members at Talawanda High School (THS) created a welcome back video.
Starting the year completely online meant months of planning for the district’s faculty and staff. Holli Morrish, the district’s director of communications, said despite some minor issues, the year started off pretty smoothly.
“I think that overall we’ve gotten it up and running,” Morrish said. “We’re doing it. We’re just in the first few days.”
Like many other schools or businesses that held Zoom meetings Monday, Aug. 24, the school did experience some glitches as the online platform experienced some technical difficulties, which was repaired within hours.
Another challenge the district faced was providing WIFI hotspots to families who needed them. Though all Talawanda students have been equipped with either a Chromebook or an iPad for six years now, some still needed access to the internet while at home. After some shipping delays, the district received enough hotspots to complete distributions during the first few days of school.
Kalinde Webb, an English teacher at Talawanda High School, said she was surprised at how well the first few days went.
“Honestly, I’m amazed at how smoothly all the tech went. We’re just working out the tedious logistics,” Webb said, referring to managing Zoom waiting rooms, class meetings and emails from students, simultaneously.
Wednesdays to provide different learning opportunities
While classes are online at Talawanda, students will attend their normally scheduled classes Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Wednesdays, however, will be a special schedule.
Every Wednesday the district will offer professional development for staff, small group learning sessions, and intervention meetings for students. The focus of this structure is to provide students with the ability to make sure they understand and get caught up on the lessons from the beginning of the week before moving on, said Morrish.
In addition to options during the school day, the district will also offer help sessions for students and parents after school hours.
Online learning leads to an increase in STEM and technology skills
Despite an online school year not being ideal, Morrish said she thinks there are some benefits to the switch to virtual learning. Among those benefits are more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) lessons and practicing technology skills.
With online learning, students can practice “21st-century skills” that they have been developing for years with their school-issued devices and the world of technology around them. The situation, though easy to dwell on, can serve as an opportunity to test those skills, said Morrish.
Today’s students have grown up with iPhones and other devices, so they catch on pretty quickly, said Webb, who just got her first smartphone earlier this year.
The switch to online instruction also provides students with the opportunity to learn more about STEM.
During a typical school year, students have an additional STEM course implemented once every semester for six weeks. A STEM instructor visits all five schools, meaning only students from one school at a time can receive instruction. Now, because of the online platform, more students from different schools are able to take STEM lessons at once.
“We’ve been hearing for 20 years that there is a really great need for that science, technology, engineering and math to be embedded into the curriculum,” Morrish said. “Being able to get that curriculum to more students, especially in a worldwide pandemic, I think that’s a really big deal.”
Parents weigh in on the start of the school year
Some parents are unhappy with the decision to go online, with some deciding to open-enroll their kids and move them to a different district.
Brandy Lenos, a mother of two middle schoolers and one high schooler, was one of those skeptical parents until the school year started.
Now, Lenos likes the online option because it puts more emphasis on learning and less on social pressures.
“Usually the first week of school is so much drama you can’t fit it into your brain,” Lenos said. “(Online schooling) is different because it’s not drama filled. It’s not all kinds of stuff where (kids) feel bad about themselves.”
LaTricia Hillman, whose children are in sixth and eighth grade, said she is happy her kids started online because she thinks they would have ended up at home anyway.
“As much as I want my kids in school — I do a lot — eventually they would be home,” Hillman said. “And I wouldn’t be able to scramble and figure out schedules if they were going and all of a sudden had to be home.”
Because the teachers knew well in advance that they needed to prepare online options, Hillman said she thinks they have done a great job putting together detailed lesson plans that would work under the circumstances.
Along with class lesson plans, the faculty and staff also created a tab on the Talawanda district site for easy access to all five schools’ remote learning pages. The Board of Education is planning to review whether students can safely return to in-person learning every nine weeks. Until then, the school bell might not be ringing, but Talawanda students will still be learning.