Ladysmith School District teachers left for spring break this week, but not before first putting some unexpected extra homework into their bookbags.
After Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers issued a mandate ordering all public and private schools to close as the state attempts to stave off a growing virus pandemic, teachers spent the last few days last week in a crash course on virtual learning. They set up lessons that should allow classes to continue with teachers and students communicating over the Internet.
Many schools turned to Google Classroom, a free web service, developed by Google for schools, that aims to simplify creating, distributing, and grading assignments in a paperless way. The program’s primary purpose is to streamline the process of sharing files between teachers and students. It is a safe and secure network with access only through invitation-only, log-in names and passwords.
Teachers will teach through video lessons with morning and afternoon office hours, when students can log-in and chat live.
It’s already working, according to Ladysmith Middle & High School Principal Greg Posewitz. Teachers already are sending out invitations to students so they can log into the new virtual classroom environment.
“We already have kids accepting invitations and wanting to get started on their work,” Posewitz said.
Google Classroom combines Google Drive for assignment creation and distribution, Google Docs, Sheets and Slides for writing, Gmail for communication, and Google Calendar for scheduling. Students can be invited to join a class through a private code, or automatically imported from a school domain. Each class creates a separate folder in the respective user’s Drive, where the student can submit work to be graded by a teacher. Mobile apps, available for iOS and Android devices, let users take photos and attach to assignments, share files from other apps, and access information offline. Teachers can monitor the progress for each student, and after being graded, teachers can return work along with comments.
Some families do not have access to computers and high-speed Internet, according to Posewitz. He said district officials are still working with some families to make sure all children have access.
“We are going to work with those families. We are going to make sure one way or another their children will be able to continue their education,” Posewitz said.
Many schools are operating similarly, using a variation of virtual learning so instruction did not grind to a halt after the governor’s order to close schools indefinitely.
“I have been in communication with other principals in our conference. We have been bouncing ideas off each other about who is doing what and how any problems are being solved,” Posewitz said.
Posewitz called the spring break an opportune time to work out the kinks.
“The spring break has been beneficial,” Posewitz said. “It is going to be different, but I think it is going to be high-quality education.”
The teachers who recently graduated from college believe they have the advantage in the virtual classroom, having already used this software.
“I have taken classes that were taught like this in college so I kind of have an idea of how it will work,” social studies teacher Riley Langfoss said.
Choir teacher Lauren Wargin noted the new technology can make their more experienced peers feel like they are the ones who are fresh out of college.
“We have had lot more experience using this as students, so now we finally feel like we have a handle on something,” Wargin said.
When the governor’s order was issued classes were canceled, plans for tests were filed and teachers switched on their computers. For some it was a steep learning curve. For others, it was business as usual.
“Normally I am the one going around asking them how to do something, so the last few days I actually know some of the answers,” Langfoss said. “It is going as well as it can given how suddenly this has been dropped on us.”
“We have been scrambling to get ready, but I’d say everyone has at least one foot under them. We are in a good spot,” Langfoss said.
They were looking forward to the challenge, and making sure they were ready to go once classes resume on Monday, March 30.
“We’d rather spend the time to be as prepared as we can be so when the students all finally get online, doing work and submitting assignments we are prepared enough that we can get around to any issues that might come up,” Wargin said.
Langfoss was impressed by the staff to this point as teachers wonder how going online with instruction will affect student learning.
Just days into the school shutdown with no end in sight, teachers already are missing the energy young students bring to education.
“There is not a single teacher who doesn’t miss them,” Wargin said.
English teacher Samantha Williams agreed. “We already miss our students,” she said.
Spanish Teacher Julie Vollendorf also can’t wait for students to return.
“Now I am to the point where I just want the kids back,” Vollendorf said. “Teaching online is clearly not why I went into teaching.”
On a day when school was supposed to be in session, teachers sat in their classroom — mostly alone or in small groups seated 6 feet apart to prevent any possible virus spread — and worked at their computers. It was eerily quiet in classrooms that are normally filled with boisterous students during the school day.
Most believe the digital classroom cannot replace in-person teaching.
Teachers realize a lot of time will be spent after school resumes next week discussing students concerns, worries and fears about the virus and its unknowns. At this time, most have nowhere to go as stores, restaurants, theaters and almost every other hangouts have all been ordered to close to help halt the spread of the virus.
“If we had one more day, the students could be in the classroom and we could at least talk about what is going on,” Wargin said.
“I hope we get them back as soon as possible,” Langfoss said.
We all took jobs in a school for a reason,” Wargin said.
Teaching can be stressful, but Vollendorf and others were unanimous in missing the students. She believes students also want to return to the structure, routine, friends and networking of the school building environment.
“This makes me appreciate having kids in my room every day,” Vollendorf said. “We do appreciate it more now.”
Currently educational settings are exempted from the governor’s mandate, so teachers may work in the building or from home. Many are worried that this exemption might also be taken away, giving teachers no alternative but to work from home. In the meantime, custodial staff are busy cleaning and sanitizing every possible surface.
Wargin expects she will miss the social interaction that comes with being in a school setting.
“I really depend on everyone else here for ideas and help for when I am confused or don’t know what to do. When I work from home, I really am alone then,” Wargin said.
Teachers are bracing for the countless questions students will have once school resumes next week.
“How do you do that when you aren’t at ease either?” Wargin said.