One thing educators never learned in school was how to teach during a pandemic.
They’re having to figure it out as they go. It’s an evolving process that is imperfect but reaching reasonable levels of success in the Sealy Independent School District.
“All in all, it’s going as well as it can,” Superintendent Bryan Hallmark said.
When students left for spring break in March, they did not return until August. And not all of them came back for in-person learning. Many have stayed home to attend classes online, similar to the way they did last spring. The main difference is the school district had months over the summer to prepare for remote learning rather than just two weeks in March.
Armed with better programs and better preparation, teachers are overcoming the barriers of distance and technology to provide an education to students in front of them and online. According to Hallmark, there are some teachers who only teach in person, some who only teach online, some who do both, and a few who do both at the same time.
“There’s just not a consistent way to do it across the board,” he said.
At Sealy Junior High, eighth grade science teacher Jennifer Sanders will record a lesson and upload it with any instructional videos and assignments to Google Classroom for her remote learners. She teaches classes all day and during seventh period from 2:25-3:20 she gets on Google Meet to help her online students.
“What I’m seeing is what I would see in class,” she said. “Some could do better if they were in class … They’re working at a level that doesn’t surprise me.”
She said she has an advantage in that this is her third year working with the same students, so she knows them and the expectations she has for them.
Sanders said one of the keys to making remote learning work is to make any assignments or documents as editable as possible, meaning she uses a lot of portable document files (PDF).
Most of her students are in class, but her classes are full. Her classes average 20 students. Her smallest in-person class is 16, but there are 10 online students as well, making it 26. Inside the classroom, things work a little differently than they did prior to the pandemic.
“When I’m direct teaching I wear a face shield so kids can see my face,” Sanders said.
The rest of the time she uses a neck gaiter pulled up over her nose and mouth. Between classes she sprays down each desk with Viruscide.
“They each take a paper towel and wipe down their desk on the way in,” she said, adding that each student must also use hand sanitizer as they enter her room.
If computers are used, they are each wiped down with a technology spray afterward.
Students must also be masked at all times in class.
“Do I have to remind them constantly? Yes,” she said.
Sanders said no one likes wearing face coverings but for the most part it’s become habit.
“I don’t have anyone who outright refuses to wear them,” she said.
At Sealy Elementary School, masks are required for fourth and fifth grades, but most of the children wear them in the building at all grade levels. So far there have been very few problems with the facewear.
“The kids are doing great, a lot better than expected,” said third grade teacher Amber Shupak. “They’re very responsible about it.”
During lunch, the children take their masks off to eat, but they are separated with plexiglass barriers between them. As one group leaves lunch, the staff wipes down tables and barriers before the next group comes in.
For the teachers, the experience of teaching during the pandemic has been educational.
“The best thing is we’ve learned so many new programs and so many new skills,” said Leilani Matts, a fifth grade teacher.
At the elementary school, teachers will provide in-person instruction for half the day and online instruction the other half while their partner takes over in the classroom.
“We’ve grown as a team. We’ll come to each other with ideas, advice, and concerns,” said Kelly Wilson, a fourth grade teacher.
Another advantage has been improved involvement with the parents.
“Parent partnership his huge,” said Principal Sarah Winkleman.
“The parents are great. If something doesn’t work, they’ll send me a picture of the work,” Shupak said.
Matts said that parents have taken an active role in making distance learning work.
“They’ve taken a lot of initiative without us asking,” she said. “I haven’t had one parent get upset that something hasn’t worked right.”
Winkleman estimated that there are just under 500 children attending school and about 200 learning from home.
“A lot of people were out of their comfort zone initially,” said Assistant Principal Shawna Peterson said.
Having to provide lessons online had caused teachers to change the way they present the materials.
‘I’m breaking concepts down deeper to the kids at home can fully understand,” Shupak said.
“Some of the students are grasping these concepts very well,” noted fifth grader teacher Anne Tohill.
Between preparing recorded lessons to upload first thing in the morning to being available for parents and students in the evening, the teachers are all putting in long days.
“I’m not putting in more hours but I’m definitely putting in more effort,” Tohill said.
Learning to adapt – often on the fly – has made the teachers better at what they do.
“There won’t be a teacher here who says they’re not a better teacher after this year is done,” Winkleman said.
One of the challenges this year is keeping attendance. Online students are not in class all day. Most will get their assignments and work offline. To assure daily participation, the district asks them to report on what they have done for each class each day.
At the junior high, Sanders said it helps that the administrators have taken the burden of attendance off of the teachers. Because the remote learns have more autonomy with their schedule, she often has problems getting work turned in on time. She also makes sure that tests are administered to everyone on the same day so those at home don’t have an advantage.
Naturally, cheating on tests and assignments is a concern.
“They very easily could be Googling all the answers,” she said, noting that they are relying heavily on the integrity of the students and their parents to make sure things are done correctly without cheating.
Overall, Hallmark – who is in his first year as Sealy’s superintendent – said things are going better than expected, especially when it comes to the kids following all the new rules.
“The kids have been fantastic, absolutely unbelievable,” he said.