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Tuesday, May 18, 2021

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The Pandemic & Education: How Area Public School Teachers Adapted on the Fly

Virtual learning during COVID-19

The coronavirus extended its tentacles in every part of our lives last March, and one area that’s been turned upside down is education. Computers have replaced schools, and wherever students log in is the classroom.  

Fredericksburg area teachers shared their thoughts on virtual learning and what they’ve found in this unique situation.

Elementary School

The first reaction to virtual learning for Christina Koerper, a Virginia Preschool Initiative/Pre-K teacher at Riverview Elementary School, was panic, worry and sadness for her students. She worked with them all year to build connections and relationships, and they were making wonderful progress. 

When schools first closed, she thought it meant a few weeks to a month.

Since then, Koerper has had to learn how to use Google Classroom and Meets. She’s had to be creative and work harder to build working relationships with parents, since she’d be counting on them to do what she couldn’t in person.

“I don’t think virtual learning is for everyone,” she says. “Some students may do better, while some don’t. It’s difficult with preschoolers because they need an adult to sit with them at the computer and guide them when doing asynchronous work.”

For Koerper, the experience has increased her technology ability, particularly because she had no choice but to learn so much in a short time. She will never take in-person learning for granted because some things are hard to teach and experience virtually, especially with preschoolers where there’s a lot of hands-on exploring and learning. 

Middle School

Dave Yablonski, science teacher at Dixon Smith Middle School, says in the virtual classroom he and his colleagues are discovering, sharing and implementing an array of technological opportunities. 

“I’ve had to video some of the demonstrations I’d normally do during class to solidify students’ understanding of them, and virtual labs had to replace hands-on ones,” he says.

Yablonski uses collaboration for a third or more of his class. The opportunity for students to work together on warm-up questions, labs and assignments is gone. Even the best platforms, he says, just don’t engage everyone. 

While he understands the need to be virtual, Yablonski says he doesn’t like it. He finds it hard to get to know his students and believes that building relationships with them is the foundation for successful teaching. It’s especially hard when video is muted, and he can’t get a student to participate in a virtual activity. The transition times, such as homeroom, where teachers get to know students outside the classroom, are gone.

Yablonski knows all sides of the situation—the teachers and students—are doing the best they can, but virtual learning is just not meaningful like in-person learning. He feels that students are missing out on a lot more than academics.

High School

James Noll, a Courtland High School English teacher, was just a little surprised when schools closed because of coronavirus, but he thought it would be the entire school year. 

“Face-to-face instruction is hands down the best way to teach and learn,” says Noll. “While online assignments are a good stop-gap method, they’re in no way equal to interaction between students and teachers.”

Amy Hamm, a U.S. History and Sociology teacher at Stafford High School, was first overwhelmed by the number of new systems and programs teachers had to learn in a short time. Once she learned the basics, it became rewarding. It led her to make a conscious decision to be positive about the situation.

Knowing what the coronavirus numbers were and listening to news reports, Hamm knew school wouldn’t be back last year. However, she thought students would be back with a hybrid model in August.

By tweaking her curriculum to make it “online friendly,” Hamm switched from using worksheets to Google Suite so students could fill work in online.

“I’ve tried hard to maintain my personality through online learning, which is much different because students often don’t interact,” she says. “It feels much more like I’m center stage reading a monologue. It’s taken time to get students comfortable enough to write ‘I don’t know’ in the chat, because usually I can tell on their faces.”

Communication with students is different virtually. Hamm finds she’s emailing much more often than she imagined at many different hours. She wants to ensure students and parents get the information and answers they need, so her day doesn’t stop when she walks away from the computer. Hamm tries to let her students and parents realize how much she cares about them, just as if they were back in the classroom.

“I’ve noticed students who are successful in the virtual environment are the ones who typically are successful in the in-person classroom,” says Hamm. “Students who are self-motivated tend to work better in this setting. Those who struggle with organizational skills have also done much better because they don’t have to find a specific piece of paper. They can find everything they need by searching their Drive or Canvas.”

The new way of teaching has shown resilience in students, teachers and parents. Hamm says she’s amazed by how much has been tackled and overcome in a short amount of time, completely overhauling education as we know it. She’s able to see what a change, when necessary, can do to provide an equitable learning environment for all.

Natalie Griffiths, World History and Government teacher at Stafford High School, found it surreal when she was told to pack up classroom materials in March. She initially thought it would be an extra week of spring break, which seems laughable to her now that she knows about coronavirus.

Griffiths was lucky to have a set of Chromebooks at school for classes, and most of her materials had a digital version plus hard copy. The transition to virtual learning has been less about creating new materials and more about finding new ways to increase engagement and how to migrate from the Google Classroom platform to Canvas.

While she loves virtual learning, Griffiths says she’d prefer to be in the classroom with students.

“My students are getting to explore history in new ways we may not have thought to try until we were thrust into this setting,” she says. “They’ve gone on virtual field trips, listened to lectures from historians and created their own empires. The big thing is they’re willing to try new things and are open-minded with this new experience.”

While it isn’t ideal, the virtual setting has allowed students who rarely participate in class to shine. It’s removed many distractions of brick-and-mortar teenage drama. While students may lose some socialization, they’re connecting through virtual clubs.

“I’ve seen a lot of hope and kindness in this environment that these age groups weren’t willing to express face to face,” says Griffiths. “They’re making the best of it by bringing the things they love about their homes into the virtual classroom, such as pets becoming class mascots.”

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