TOUCHET — Laughter rang through the halls on the Touchet School District campus last Tuesday as students made their way to classes. It might have looked like a normal school day if students weren’t wearing masks and keeping their distance from one another.
At one point, two girls walking outside got a bit too close to each other.
“Don’t forget your 6 feet,” Superintendent Robert Elizondo called out to them.
“Sorry,” one of the students called back while stepping away from her friend.
While several school districts across the Walla Walla Valley prepare to make the switch to a hybrid schedule — or have recently done so — Touchet got a jump start before the rest.
The K-12 school switched to an a.m./p.m. hybrid schedule Sept. 28, becoming the first school in the area to test the new approach to education in the pandemic.
Shortly after, the Waitsburg and Prescott districts followed suit.
While the joy in students was evident last week, so too was the fatigue of teachers providing a full day’s worth of education in half the time — twice daily.
That’s because, as first-year Principal Dusti Crenshaw pointed out, an a.m./p.m. schedule does not mean students just receive a half-day of instruction.
“Even though they are only here for about two and half hours, they are getting a full day’s education,” said Crenshaw, who was a teacher at the school for six years before being promoted. “They are in person for part of the day. And then we are still using Google Classroom to complete extended learning.”
The education assigned online for the rest of the day is still organized, assigned and graded by the teachers.
Third grade teacher Teri Lesmeister — who is in her 32nd year as an educator — said the schedule is working, but is unlike anything she has experienced.
“It has been challenging, to say the least,” she said. “But we seem to be making the adjustments.”
Crenshaw said the district’s roughly 200 students are divided into two groups. The morning group attends in-person instruction from 8:05 to 10:30 a.m. while the afternoon group attends from 12:35 to 2:50 p.m.
Elementary students on the morning schedule are expected to go online after their in-person sessions and participate in extended learning on Google Classroom. Their assignments are based on what they learned that day while physically at school.
For the afternoon students, the schedule works a bit differently. Their extended learning assignments take place in the morning and are based on what they learned in class the day before.
Crenshaw said sixth through 12th graders follow a similar structure based around their six class periods.
The school calendar divides the first semester into 45 “A” and 45 “B” days. On A days, students receive in-person instruction for their first three classes. On B days, they focus on their second three.
An a.m. completes extended learning assignments from that day’s in-person lessons. A p.m. student completes extended assignments on those same three periods the next morning.
This, Crenshaw said, is where confusion can occur about whether students receive a full day’s worth of education. While it’s true that instruction focuses on three periods a day, Crenshaw said the additional work outside of class dedicaes twice as much time as usual on each period during the day.
“They aren’t learning less,” Crenshaw said. “That’s not how it’s working. They actually get more time to work on each period each day.”
Lesmeister said the strategy with at-home learning has been working, mostly.
“It’s been going pretty well,” Lesmeister said. “They actually respond better when they are in person for class. But we are getting quite a few of them turning in their (extended) work (from home), too.”
She said she doesn’t have any students who aren’t even attempting their extended learning. However, she said using technology has been difficult for some students and that leads to assignments not being completed.
Nevertheless, Lesmeister said she prefers the system to the alternative of all-day distance learning.
“I love the hybrid, in terms of getting to see the kids,” she said. “I think their learning is double what it would be if we were just doing virtual learning.”
Tenth grader Brayan Orozco agreed the schedule is far better than the full distance learning with which he started the school year. Still, he said it could be better.
“It’s been pretty good,” Orozco said between classes. “I mean, three hours is not as much as I would like for an education, but it’s better then looking at a screen all day.”
Orozco, who attends school during the afternoon session, said he works each morning at Wagoner Farms with his father before doing his school work. Because of this, he said he only has about an hour each morning to spend on the assignments for all three periods. So far it has been enough time, he said.
“I was worried about keeping my grades up doing distance learning,” Orozco said. “Overall, I’m very happy that we had the chance to come back to school.”
Not all families have opted to send their students back to school.
About 12 students, or 6%, are continuing with distance learning. Among them is student body President Omar Martinez.
“I felt like I was getting the same amount of learning at home than if I was going to school,” Martinez said over Zoom, noting that his mother wasn’t comfortable with him returning in person.
Students learning from home follow the same structure as their peers on the hybrid schedule. But instead of in-person learning, they attend live classes over Zoom at the same time as the in-person students.
This means teachers are simultaneously focused on in-person and at-home students during class. Lesmeister said this has been a difficult juggling act, but it helps ensure equity among in-person and distance learners.
Elizondo, who was the principal at Garrison Middle School in the Walla Walla School District before accepting the Touchet superintendent job last year, said the return to school, even part-time, is important for student engagement and learning. However, he said safety remains the district’s top priority.
“Our students are responding to our safety plan very well,” he said. “They are adhering to the 6 feet of social distancing and are wearing their masks and face shields.”
Elizondo said he holds out hope that at some point this school year, students will be able to return to class full-time.