Whidbey schools tackle online, distance learning

— Created April 22, 2020 by Kathy Reed

By Kathy Reed

Classrooms may be empty for the rest of the school year, but teachers and staff at all three Whidbey Island school districts have been working hard to navigate the tricky, sometimes complicated online learning situations imposed upon all Washington State schools in the wake of COVID-19.

All schools are required to provide distance learning for the remainder of the school year, which is set to end June 19. It’s a concept most educators would never have believed possible just a few short weeks ago.

“Public school is a face to face business,” said Jo Moccia, superintendent of South Whidbey School District. “In a matter of days we have changed from this age old model to emergency remote education. Considering this monumental shift, it has gone very well. Everyone has stepped out of their comfort zone into this new way of doing school.”

“It’s incredible to think where we were in March when the closure was announced,” said Lance Gibbon, Oak Harbor Public Schools superintendent. “Even before on-site school was canceled for the remainder of the year, our teams were preparing to roll out our aligned distance learning classrooms. This doesn’t happen overnight and it’s a true testament to having a wonderful team and a great community.”

All three Whidbey Island districts have provided technology, and in some cases, internet connectivity, to students, who are now opening Chromebooks rather than textbooks. Google Classroom has proven to be the tool of choice among the districts, supplemented as needed by other learning applications.

Even so, districts must accommodate curriculum for kindergarteners through seniors – an immense challenge that has required hours of planning and problem-solving for teachers and students.

“We have leaders at different levels working with different committees to make sure appropriate instruction for each grade level is accomplished and aligned,” Gibbon explained. “It was a big priority for the district to make sure all five elementary schools had the same model. This was accomplished with a team of about 50 teachers representing all grade levels working for almost two weeks to build the foundation of the program.

“The intermediate, middle and high schools were able to manage their own teams through departments and teaching team meetings to develop their programs,” he continued. “Each of the levels meet with one another to make sure the instruction vertically aligns with the other schools.”

“It takes every single staff member working together to transform what we had been doing,” Moccia said. “We are all involved in making this happen. We have been meeting several times per week virtual since mid-March.”

“Teaching and learning has changed so radically in the last couple of weeks,” said Val Brown, president of the South Whidbey Education Association teachers’ union. “We have been moving quickly to adapt and meet the needs of our students and teachers.”

Brown said it has been exciting to see the amount of creativity being applied to these new, virtual classrooms.

“Teachers are busy Zooming with classes, sending pre-recorded lessons and live streaming instruction,” she said. “They are reimagining learning and keeping students engaged in new ways. Students have had South Whidbey teachers deliver virtual chemistry lessons, recorded history lectures, YouTube videos on how to tell time and much more. It is really exciting to see staff leverage technology to deal with the changes and challenges.”

 Kendra Hackler, who teaches third grade at Olympic View Elementary School in Oak Harbor, said all this is new for teachers and students alike. She said the school shut down happened so quickly, it’s been nice to be able to “talk” to her students again, even though it’s not in person.

“It can be heartbreaking, especially with how quickly it all happened,” she said. “We said goodbye Monday, thinking this was only six weeks. Then, for some kids I know who will be moving, there was a chance I wouldn’t ever see them again and that was really hard to cope with.

“But I have been able to keep up with them now through emails and have been able to use Google Meet with them this week,” she continued. “The nice thing is, I’m not alone in this. I’m not the only teacher grieving at this time, I’m not the only one who had to say goodbye to their kids.”

“I miss seeing my teacher every day and having her there to ask questions right away,” said SWSD third grader Dailee Franks.

Most South Whidbey students who responded to our questions told Whidbey Weekly there are both good and bad things about the new distance learning model.

“I think it’s fun,” said sixth grader Irene Stewart. “I like seeing my teachers because they let me show everyone my puppies! I miss seeing all my teachers because I’m in sixth grade and will not be able to say goodbye before I move to seventh grade.”

“I miss recess because I miss the tether ball and I don’t have one,” said fourth grade student Jocee Franks. “I like seeing my teacher on Zoom because it’s different.”

Judah, a fourth grader as well, said learning at home is “pretty good,” for the most part.

“I miss school because there is no friends at home and no playgrounds at home,” he said. “I miss seeing them.”

“I like learning at home – it can be nice and kind of stressful at the same time,” said fifth grade student Adelynn Franks. “I enjoy visiting with my class on Zoom and feeling like my teacher is right there if I need her.”

Distance learning, although far from perfect, has at least enabled students to continue their studies. School officials said they will continue to work on problem solving to make this transition as smooth as possible for staff, students and parents as they tackle the challenges that lie ahead for the next several weeks.

“The magnitude of the transformation, the emotional toll it has taken on students, families and staff, the sheer ambiguity of how long this will last, the impact on families trying to juggle home and the provision of remote instruction; it is all very challenging,” said Moccia.

“The biggest challenge remains the unknown,” said Gibbon. “The pandemic is a dynamic and constantly evolving situation. There have been countless times that our team has had to show flexibility and be willing to pivot with the new directives being handed down to us by the Governor and Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.”

Perhaps, said Hackler, now is a good time to practice grace under pressure.

“Give yourself grace and everyone around you,” she suggested. “This is hard for every single person. Giving that grace to each other, understanding everyone is doing the best they can with the situation can go a long way.”