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Local schools ahead of e-learning curve

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Teacher's adjust

In her home work space, Edison Elementary teacher Sara Van Donge created a video lesson this week for her youngest English-language learners. “I’m singing a song that teaches them how to do greetings,” she said.

Washington school districts in some places have stumbled in what to do since Gov. Jay Inslee’s order March 13 to close facilities.

Without a map for the COVID-19 pandemic landscape, a number of superintendents in the state’s nearly 300 school districts seem unsure of how to add up education, equity and empty buildings to equal serving students.

“Initially, state education officials urged schools to muddle through to the best of their abilities,” according to an article by the Seattle Times.

“So far, instruction during closures has been a patchwork of uneven efforts across the state.”

That’s not the case in the Walla Walla Valley, however.

Staff at schools here quickly put together starter kits for distance education, tailored to serve the children in their district.

On Monday state education officials made it clear for all schools— they must provide some level of instruction for stuck-at-home students during the pandemic.

College Place Public Schools and Walla Walla Public Schools were already well into the effort, and this week fully launched learning systems to meet the challenge of teaching at a distance.

For younger children, that meant sending home packets with enough material to last about a week. For middle school and up, classes became a mix of mediums, much of it online.

While doing the majority of the school day this way can seem new to many families, it’s been around for years, said Lisa Chamberlin, director of e-learning at Walla Walla Community College.

“It is just now being acknowledged as a useful platform for the masses and on a grand scale and in a very short timeline that keeps shifting,” she said.

“If we can put a man on the moon with the tech that is now in my cell phone, we can educate America with all the technology now available to us.”

Chamberlain has been working in the online education field since 2003.

There’s a system of online academies in place in every state, she said, both as entire K-12 schools and as districts creating a venue for students at home for illness or other factors, she said.

She’s found that how well a school district can shift into e-learning comes down to individual teacher skills and the priorities of administrators.

“As an outsider looking at Walla Walla Public Schools, they did some heavy lifting in that flip. The scale they had to do it in was phenomenal,” she said. “They took some time to take a breath and make a plan.”

Superintendent Wade Smith actually took that breath a few weeks ago, upon “an inkling” the pandemic storm was coming.

Led by the district’s technology director, Forrest Baker, staff began surveying students to suss out who needed what technology to learn at home.

Once the order to close schools was issued, WWPS teachers spent an additional week in the buildings.

Elementary educators assembled packets — each sent off with “beautifully-handwritten notes to students,” Smith said. Middle- and high-school teachers collaborated to build their online learning onto the Google classroom platform.

The enthusiasm was incredible to see, Smith said Tuesday.

Nearly every department has at least one person who already understands Google classroom and is using it in some way. They became the de facto experts in leading other teachers into converting to online curriculum, Smith said.

For Lori Dohe, an English Teacher at Walla Walla High School, the curve is still steep.

Her students in honors and advanced placement classes are completely prepared to jump into e-learning. But at 61 years-old, Dohe said, “I am not of the right generation to feel very comfortable.”

Steps bound to become muscle memory are, for now, challenging to put in place, she said.

“I’ve been on this computer since about 8 this morning, and I’m still here,” Dohe noted at 3:15 p.m. Tuesday. “I’ve worked harder than I have in a long time.”

Dohe said she normally draws energy and ideas from interacting with students in the physical classroom.

While she now anticipates getting emails from students seeking help with assignments, that day-to-day relationship will be missing.

“And it makes me sad,” she said.

Teacher Sara Van Donge said there’s a lot to be thankful for in a tremendously tough situation.

She works with children at Edison Elementary School who are learning to use English. Although her students received printed work packets, the district’s broader use of technology is revealing some hard truths.

“A lot of my students will be the only students whose parents don’t even have an email account,” Van Donge said.

“It’s become clear to me it’s not as easy to contact their families. They have phones, but it’s really showing the disparity between those who have plenty and people who don’t have what they need.”

Supporting those children echoes what Van Donge has experienced from WWPS administration.

“It’s very comforting to know they have our backs. They’re concerned about everyone’s health and safety ... And they have respected our professionalism, which I really appreciate,” she said.

“There’s no micromanaging of our time, they know we are doing our best, preparing materials and keeping up with the latest information.”

This moment in history, minus the coronavirus, is the one Meghan Droog has been waiting for. She teaches history at College Place High School, where she’s been integrating technology and traditional modes of learning all along.

When pursuing a masters degree, Droog learned her college offered the program online.

She made the jump and hasn’t looked back, she said.

“I discovered online learning is very beneficial for my life. You can do your work, check in ...have (video) to do meet-and-greets.”

With the exodus to online only, Droog is seeing some students re-engage with history lessons.

“Kids who were disenfranchised are starting to do their work,” she said. “They can do it at night if they’re a night owl. They’re bored and ready to work.”

Structure and clear expectations in the virtual classroom are more important than ever, she said. As are the “21st-century” skills this moment in time is forcing on students.

For starters, there’s typing — Droog has found herself shocked at how slowly high school kids type, despite all the texting going on, she said.

Teaching teens to be effective communicators and critical thinkers also comes into clearer focus online, Droog added. In their home classrooms of one, students are having to learn to directly ask for help and advocate for themselves, important tools to take into the adult world, she said.

This moment might be a turning point in education, Droog speculated.

“We’re realizing some of it can be online, so we’re not spending time in class doing the reading or watching the video, so that in the classroom you can work on the project.

“Maybe we don’t need to be at school all those hours a day. It can become more manageable for a kid, the kids who have to work and help out their parents. Schools are all about community, but that community can be online. It’s all about the approach you take.”

Wade Smith said he recognizes even if educators are getting more fluent in e-learning, families can still be struggling.

The district has established a help desk for technical and other questions, and is working to stay connected to families.

“The family role is critical in this …,” Smith said. “Not every student has the level of support in the home and we’re offering support.”

He said he’s “extremely proud” of his staff’s efforts.

“We need to step up our game statewide, across all 297 districts.”

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Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 509-526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers health, social services and city government in Milton-Freewater, Athena and Weston in the Walla Walla Valley.