Parents, schools apply fall’s lessons to January return

In a year of strain for K-12 schools, the questions have changed from week to week — in-person or online? Do our kids have internet access? Why aren’t students engaging in class anymore? The answers keep changing too.

As schools paused for holiday breaks, the Dayton Daily News asked parents and school officials what they learned from school amid the COVID-19 pandemic this fall, and what changes they hope for in 2021.

“I’ve always held out hope for a silver lining, that our response could change education for the better,” said Jason Curry, history teacher at Miamisburg High School. “I think coming out of the pandemic, schools will recognize that there are many more ways we can reach the different learning styles and preferences of our students.”

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Curry and several other educators said the need for flexibility and patience was possibly the No. 1 lesson learned this fall, as each student, family and school had unique circumstances working through this COVID-19 year.

Parent Tracy Rowland emphasized that there’s no “one size fits all” in education. She withdrew one daughter from Beavercreek schools in part because of medical concerns and put her in an online curriculum. But her daughter who attends Dayton’s Stivers School for the Arts was frustrated she couldn’t stick with in-person school when DPS closed just before Thanksgiving.

“Schools, especially Beavercreek, were good at planning and communicating, but they communicate one thing, then the health situation changes, and two weeks later, you have to change again,” Rowland said. “You can’t fault anybody for that.”

Parent experiences vary

Jenny Moore, whose daughter is a Centerville High School junior, argued for keeping kids online until a COVID vaccine is given. But she acknowledged that online learning has had some issues.

Her daughter says math is much harder to learn remotely than in a hands-on classroom mode, even though the teacher is good. And students who are struggling may be hesitant to ask for help during a whole-class Zoom session.

“Kids are afraid to ask questions because they’re afraid people will make fun of them,” Moore said. “It’s not like you can grab your teacher (on the way out of a classroom) and quietly say, hey, I’m having problems.”

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Matt Savage is happy that his daughter’s elementary school, Incarnation in Centerville, has remained in-person, saying he believes the educational benefits outweigh the risks for her. But he takes health guidance to heart, so that has meant only visiting with her grandparents and uncle outdoors, while masked and at a distance.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

Savage said the best thing schools can do is focus on communication, especially while some students are in school, and others are out quarantining.

“Communication from the teachers and school has been much better in the fall than it was in the spring,” he said. “We feel it’s better to over-communicate, even if it means we receive several emails a day.”

Rowland agreed with the communication issue, saying when her daughter had to quarantine before leaving Beavercreek, one teacher was excellent at keeping her involved, while other classes were like a lost two weeks.

Jameka Parker has an eighth-grader in Trotwood schools and a high school junior in Dayton Public, both of whom learned from home this fall. She said teachers in both districts have gone above and beyond, and she thinks online school could be a permanent option for her kids. But she still had ideas for that platform.

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“If we’re concerned about the social-emotional (wellbeing) of the children, then we need to set up times for the kids to be able to talk to their classmates outside of the schoolwork time,” Parker said.

That’s been a growing desire nationwide, according to Education Week, as online students miss the simple social time before homeroom, in the hallways, at the lunch table and more. Some teachers are adding loosely overseen Zoom sessions for small-group social time when students meet certain goals.

Parker said she has cared for other families’ remote-learning kids this fall when the parents had to work. She said some parents wish the schools had an evening help hour, as younger students struggle to explain what the teacher said online hours earlier.

Schools keep adjusting

Several schools say they will continue to emphasize building relationships with students, because that process is harder when they only see the kids half as often in hybrid models, or only through a screen online.

“Getting to know kids, talking to families and finding ways to connect and meet students’ individual needs is so important,” Kettering assistant superintendent Dan Von Handorf said.

Chaminade Julienne leaders also talked about the need for an individual approach, presenting students and families with multiple opportunities to connect, because people engage in different ways.

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Von Handorf said while teachers have done well at reaching families, Kettering hopes to go back face-to-face soon, because “our kids and teachers … if at all possible, need to be in school together.”

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Yellow Springs schools have been online all school year, and will continue that way until late January, but Superintendent Terri Holden told her school board this month that when they did bring some students into school on Wednesdays, it was a success, adding that both the students and the adults need that connection.

Mad River school therapist Lisa Otto said the less-crowded hybrid days allowed for more 1-on-1 opportunities with kids. And she found a silver lining to online time as well, as she got to know about students’ lives in a different way.

“Providing services remotely has given me a glimpse into the homes of students that I would never have had,” Otto said. “I have virtually met pets, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and even a mailman.”

But schools’ lessons were not limited to relationships. Vandalia-Butler is adjusting the school calendar to give staff training and planning time, saying they learned that employees were stretched in many ways this fall. Huber Heights also offered wellness sessions to school staff.

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Lisa Minor, Trotwood-Madison schools’ director of curriculum and instruction, said her district has found value in a blended instructional model (in-person and online), now that each student has a computer device to use. She said offering recorded lessons, which are presented in playlists and organized on online landing pages, is something Trotwood will keep incorporating.

Outgoing Lebanon Superintendent Todd Yohey said the district’s in-person fall semester gave him optimism, despite significant quarantine issues for students and staff. He cited a lack of in-school COVID transmission, as parents did well to keep sick kids home, and students and school employees met continued challenges. He also had a sense of humor after many stressful decisions.

“We learned that kindergarten students can, indeed, wear masks without losing their minds,” Yohey said.

Hard decisions

If COVID infection and hospitalization rates remain high, many schools will stay online.

But some things simply remain hard about online learning — hands-on science labs, occupational therapy and other therapy for special education students, and the basic task of focusing on school for kids who live in crowded homes or with disruptive family lives.

As online charter school leaders have said for years, e-school simply isn’t a fit for everyone. Beth Willis of Beavercreek said her sixth-grade son hated remote learning. She worried about the excessive screen time for kids, and said she doubted that much learning was going on those days.

“Those two weeks were terrible,” said Willis, who teaches in another school district. “My son struggled academically and socially and it was near impossible for anyone to help him during the days he was at home because both my husband and I work full time.”

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Tess Asinjo, principal at the Dayton Leadership Academies charter school, said when they’re on remote or hybrid models, a key is keeping kids on the regular school schedule as much as possible, mirroring regular classroom rituals to give a sense of normalcy.

They send texts at 7:30 and 8 a.m. on remote learning days, reminding students and parents about logging into Google Classroom. By 9 a.m., homeroom teachers email absent students’ names to the school’s attendance team, which calls, texts, or messages parents. Sometimes the answer is delivering a wifi hot spot or having them come in for technical support.

When a student misses multiple days, an attendance team member conducts a wellness visit to see what help the family needs.

Whatever form it takes, staying connected with students and families is key. Trotwood Superintendent Reva Cosby said parents are much more involved in remote learning, so it’s crucial that educators listen and understand their issues.

Curry, the Miamisburg teacher, said schools have always referred to students, families and teachers as a team.

“But this pandemic has put a great burden on parents, in terms of childcare and instructional support at home,” he said. “I hope we recognize that those challenges will still exist after the pandemic, and that we work harder to empower and support parents and caregivers as valued team members in the educational process.”

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