“You don’t know the impact of what a school day is until you can’t have one anymore. It’s a shock,” said Aaron Hopper, superintendent of the Panhandle School District.
All four school districts in Montgomery County, as well as the parochial schools, Zion Lutheran School in Litchfield and St. Louis Catholic School in Nokomis, are now entering their third full week of remote learning, as students remain in their homes to minimize the spread of COVID-19. Originally, the governor announced schools would be out of session for two weeks, but that has since been extended as Illinois families have been ordered to shelter-in until April 30.
School districts were made aware the first full week of March that school would likely be out of session due to the pandemic, which left districts scrambling to put a remote E-learning plan into place.
Hopper said his district had actually begun to look into the concept of E-learning in February, with the idea of rolling it out next school year on snow days. But the increasing spread of COVID-19 sped up their plans a bit.
In Litchfield, Superintendent Dr. Greggory Fuerstenau said as they monitored other states closing schools, they sent a team to the Regional Office of Education on March 11, and began to draft what an E-learning plan would look like.
All of the schools would eventually have less than one week to craft a plan for students and teachers to be out of school indefinitely. Most have created packets of work and assignments for students that are either picked up at the school or delivered to their homes through meal delivery.
“Each grade level publishes something each week from pre-K through 12 on the district website,” said Hope McBrain, curriculum coordinator at Hillsboro High School. “Those activities are mirrored on paper, especially for the younger grades for at least two weeks at a time.”
She added that the district is also finding ways to provide special education services to students with an IEP, including physical, occupational, speech and language therapy and social work.
And even though the school day lasts eight hours, the Illinois State Board of Education is recommending much less time on remote learning. At the pre-K level, they recommend 20 to 60 minutes per day, and kindergarten students are recommended to have 30 to 90 minutes per day.
The recommendation for first and second graders is 45 to 90 minutes, while third through fifth grade is recommended at 60 to 120 minutes. At the middle school and junior high level (grades six through eight), they are recommended to have 15 to 30 minutes per class per day for a total of 90 to 180 minutes per day. High school students (grades nine through 12) are recommended to have 20 to 45 minutes a day per class for a total of 120 to 270 minutes per day.
In another guideline, the Illinois State Board of Education recommends that no student be harmed educationally during the remote learning process, as not all students have the same access to the internet and other resources when they are not at school.
McBrain said the ISBE is looking at a pass or incomplete type system, where a student would either pass a class or be given an incomplete for their work. In Nokomis, Superintendent Dr. Scott Doerr said they will be doing grading on assignments and work provided remotely, but will give kids every chance to complete things or meet with teachers online for additional instruction.
“As long as we are giving kids the opportunity to move forward in the learning process, things will work out,” Dr. Doerr said.
As districts as a whole have made the switch to E-learning, teachers are finding new and unique ways to teach their students from a distance. Many use Google Classroom or Zoom to connect with students.
“Learning should be all the time,” Hopper said. “Even as adults we should try and learn new things, but that’s been challenging in a new environment.”
Litchfield Middle School teacher Jennifer Fleming, who teaches eighth grade language arts, said the whole thing was shocking at first.
“Our district did the best they could to get information out as soon as they could, but it just changed so rapidly,” she said.
Their middle school, as do most county middle schools and high schools, offer a one-to-one ratio on electronic devices, meaning that each student has one he or she can take home for remote learning.
“However, we know that not all have access to the internet,” she said. “We have been talking about how we can provide work with the tools they have and figure out the needs of our kids to match the content and keep them learning.”
Fleming said she video chats with her students, and that she’s proud of them for figuring out technology challenges at home. After polling her students, she was surprised to find that many of her eighth graders (more than 95 percent) prefer the traditional school setting to remote learning.
“They miss the interaction,” she said. “And teachers miss their students terribly and are anxious to get back into classrooms to see them daily.”
At St. Louis Catholic School in Nokomis, teacher Rose Young said teachers are working on weekly learning packets for students and also meeting with them on Google Classroom when they can. Some classes are even practicing handwriting by writing out Bible verses.
“It has not been easy, but our parents have been supportive,” she said.
And parents are extremely grateful for the work put together by teachers for remote learning.
Megan Beeler of Raymond has four daughters ranging in age from preschool through fifth grade that attend Zion Lutheran School in Litchfield. She said they sit down at the table together starting at 9 a.m. for a group devotional, which is how they start their morning at school. Then she checks in with each of them to go through their work and see where they need help.
“I’m really thankful to the teachers for preparing packets for students, rather than me having to come up with something,” she said. “We’re really grateful to have something.”
Beeler said she has family members outside the county who weren’t provided any guidelines for remote learning and that it’s been a struggle.
She added that when her second and third grader get done with their work, they often are delighted to help her youngest preschooler with her activities. Preparing lunch has also become a school project, and that they try to be done with schoolwork by lunchtime.
While LMS teacher Jennifer Fleming is working with her students online, she’s also helping her own kids at home. She said that a routine each day has helped them adjust and keeps them focused, and she also appreciates the packets of work prepared by teachers. One of her kids’ teachers is reading a chapter book online to students, and music teacher Patrice Corso sings a new song every day on Facebook.
“Everyone is trying to make it work,” Fleming said. “And I think as long as you love your kids and you’re trying, that’s all any of us can do.”
Brandi Christian of Hillsboro said that while E-learning has been an adjustment for their family, her three kids were ready to try it and have enjoyed it. They have had the chance to talk to some of their teachers online or by phone.
“The teachers have all been amazing at making sure they are available for anything the kids need whether it be academic or anything else.”
In addition to the remote learning, school districts have also gone above and beyond to provide meals for students who need them.
Hillsboro has provided 253 students with breakfast and lunch by delivery five days a week.
“Our bus drivers and cooks have really stepped up to make that happen,” she said.
In Litchfield, Dr. Fuerstenau said they are providing 1,300 meals each day, including breakfast and lunch that students pick up at the middle school/high school complex. They don’t serve meals on Friday, but do double meals on Thursdays.
Dr. Doerr said they are providing 300 meals a day at seven designated spots in the Nokomis School District for food delivery.
“Our goal is not only to deal with the educational component of remote learning, but the social/emotional component as well, and making sure our students are fed,” he said.
Hopper said the meals they provide continue to grow each day. Right now they are providing meals to more than 115 students for breakfast and lunch on four bus routes and pick up at the school. He said that the Panhandle Third Day Project has also been providing additional meals for students during this time.
The shuttering of schools this spring has also meant cancelling lots of annual activities, like spring sports, musicals and operettas, Proms and even graduation, although most are hopeful some of those events will be held at a later date.
“I sent a letter to the seniors in our district that we are working on a place for a graduation ceremony and even Prom,” he said. “We have to see how this thing pans out, but we hope eventually things will get back to normal. We just don’t know when.”
Until then, everyone is encouraged to keep learning, even at a distance from their teachers and friends.
“Teachers are learning, students are learning and even administrators are learning,” said Fleming. “We’re all in this together.”