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Internet gap affects remote learning across Waldo County

By Fran Gonzalez | Apr 20, 2020
Photo by: Fran Gonzalez A Mount View High School sophomore works on homework remotely April 17.

Unity — Remote learning is suddenly the new normal for Waldo County district schools, and while the shift is dramatic for all schools, some are experiencing more growing pains than others.

What students say

In response to survey questions we sent to some Waldo County students about their experiences with remote learning, a sophomore at Mount View High School writes: “Remote learning wasn’t going the greatest at first, but now that they’ve announced that we’re not going back to school for the rest of the year, the workload has decreased significantly. “I don’t really like how we seem to be getting more school work during “Coronacation” as some students have begun to call it, than we would be getting during normal school. What I am kind of struggling with is, I always end up spending all day trying to make one assignment perfect instead of getting multiple assignments done. “What I miss most about in-person learning is seeing my friends everyday, I also really miss band.”

A junior at Belfast Area High School writes: “For me, remote learning has been a challenge. It is much more difficult to communicate with teachers if you have questions on remote assignments, and I have struggled with teaching myself the curriculum. “I enjoy spending more time at home, although as we are in stressful times it is not as enjoyable. Social distancing and quarantine has been most challenging for me, as a big part of succeeding in school for me is being able to socialize with friends and teachers. The absence of these interactions has made it difficult to stay positive and become motivated to accomplish my school work “The thing that I miss the most about in-person learning is the interactive aspect of it. I guess I never fully realized the value of being able to easily ask questions or have the help of peers easily available when I need it until I had to experience remote learning without these luxuries. “I can also see some teachers finding remote learning difficult, as they are not properly used to the technology they are now forced to use; in turn, students are left confused, with poor communication about some assignments.”

At an April 15 school board meeting, Regional School Unit 3 Superintendent Charles Brown said, “Teachers are trained to be brick-and-mortar teachers. We are not trained to be a virtual academy,” and added that after being thrown into this situation in March, “we are figuring it out.”

One of the biggest obstacles facing the far-flung rural district, he said, is the availability of reliable internet. Having equitable learning opportunities for all students, regardless of where they live, is a challenge when “a third of students don’t have adequate internet in their homes.”

A stopgap measure of creating internet hotspots around the district will help some students get online. Assistant Superintendent Dawn Pray has been working to install wireless internet at all district schools and updating student devices so they may have the ability to access the internet with login credentials from a vehicle parked outside any of six schools.

For students who are unable to connect to the internet, printed learning packets are still being distributed and coordinated individually through the schools.

Another aspect of education that has become more difficult in this uncertain time is grading.

At the April 15 meeting, the RSU 3 school board approved a pass/incomplete grading model for high school students through the remainder of the year. Students passing as of March 13 will receive course credit. Students with an incomplete grade can work with teachers to improve their standing.

For all students in grades K-8, third trimester grades will not be recorded and all will advance to the next grade automatically, Brown said.

In an April 17 press release concerning grading, Brown said during the period of March 30 to May 1, “Student work and learning opportunities are optional.”

Brown told The Journal April 21 the policy is about providing equal learning opportunities across the board. "Almost a third of students don't have adequate internet access and some kids are taking care of siblings," he said. "Some students just can't do it.

"Now that the district knows we will be learning remotely for the rest of the year," Brown said, "we can shift to prepare for fall. It's going to be a challenge, having to shift our expectations of where kids should be."

Brown said thoughts have also been shifting to what to do for seniors in lieu of a formal graduation ceremony.  "We will be recognizing seniors somehow on graduation day" and will plan a future event for later on in the year.

Glen Widmer, principal at Captain Albert Stevens elementary school in Belfast, said access to the internet is generally not an issue at his school, but “things like snow storms sometimes get in the way.”

Students in grades 3 through 5 at CASS have laptops, he said, as well as all students at schools in Regional School Unit 71, including the middle school, high school and four elementary schools. The district has also created over 100 internet hotspots for families that either do not have a connection or whose connection is limited.

“Teachers are doing a remarkable job figuring out, with no warning before this all happened, how to conduct remote learning,” he said.

Initially, Widmer said, teachers were asked to just maintain student learning. “We didn't expect students to necessarily learn new material, but wanted to ensure they didn't lose important skills and concepts.”

Now he said, the school is shifting to a more directed model for the six weeks following April vacation, yet still keeping everything manageable for both the teachers, to whom this is all new learning, and for the students and their families, as it is also very new to them.

“Our main goal is to ensure that students are fed and keeping healthy habits by exercising and getting outside,” he said.

The learning packets for students in grades K-2 went out four weeks ago, Widmer said, when this all began, “but we have not been able to get other packets out, as school is effectively closed; materials and copiers that the teachers would need to do another round of packets are not accessible to them.”

K-2 teachers have had a great challenge getting around this obstacle, he said, but have done so by checking in regularly with the students and their families, in some cases individualizing students' plans. “It has been a struggle, but ultimately one that is drawing us closer together, at least figuratively,” Widmer said. “We may have to stay at home, but we are alone together.”

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