Teaching In The Time Of Coronavirus

By Linda Caricaburu

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Let me tell you a story about teaching in the time of coronavirus.

Great Falls High anatomy and physiology teacher Amber Lloyd knows she’s fortunate. The kids taking her honors classes are among the brightest and most driven in the school. And she has under 100 students, far fewer than some of her peers.

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Nonetheless, it’s an effort to keep them engaged as she teaches from her home and they learn from theirs. She sees even the best students struggle and offers one poignant example.

For over two weeks after the stay-at-home order began, Lloyd spent a lot of time urging students to get their work in. After all, they already were used to submitting assignments online – the norm for her classes. So she was disturbed by one particular straight-A student who was always engaged in class and never missed assignments. She had gone radio silent: no assignments turned in, no communication.

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Lloyd knew something was off. She called, texted, emailed, tried to reach parents. But nothing. Finally, the student contacted her and admitted she was unable to do any work. She didn’t have a computer at home – only a cell phone with almost no data. She just couldn’t swing schoolwork.

After determining the school couldn’t loan the student a laptop – she had no access to necessary wi-fi – Lloyd personally bought a gift card that gives the student unlimited data so that she can catch up with schoolwork on her phone.

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That commitment to students, in a nutshell, is why I support Great Falls Public Schools and why I will vote for the school mill levy next month.

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As a Kids Education Yes volunteer, I offered to write a short story about how teachers are innovating while unable to teach in person. I contacted six teachers, three elementary and three high school. No surprise, they all are putting in long hours in front of the computer and on the phone as they gamely work to convert a face-to-face system into a long-distance one.

And yes, they’re doing that innovative teaching. But what really struck me was when I asked each: “What concerns you?” The heartfelt responses poured out.

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One elementary teacher – I won’t say which, to preserve student privacy – was deeply troubled that while home one of her young students came upon the body of a (naturally) deceased family member. The teacher knows the student is traumatized and likely won’t learn much the rest of the school year. But she also knows that if the student was in her class, she’d be able to provide a lot more support than she can now.

“So many of these kids have so much trauma … “ she said, her voice trailing off.

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There were more individual stories – the anxious high school student who reaches out to his teacher every single day on Facebook because he just needs that contact. The student worriedly calling to know when the next food box would come. The family with four kids, one computer and a parent with depression.

Mostly, though, the teachers expressed a more general concern.

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“Lots of my students suffer from depression and anxiety,” said CMR High newspaper and yearbook teacher Beth Britton. “I don’t hear from some of them, they’re not getting much work done, and I’m so worried about how they’re getting through all this.”

Her peer, CMR theater and stagecraft teacher Chris Evans, agrees: “Think of this from the kids’ perspective. They’re stuck inside, away from school, away from friends and they’re being told there’s a deadly disease outside your window. It could kill you or someone you care about. What does that do to a young mind? That thought bothers me every single day.”

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All three high school teachers – Lloyd, Britton, and Evans – spend a good chunk of their day just checking in with students trying to keep them engaged. They use Zoom video chats, phone calls, texts, however, they can make contact. Lloyd used a Google program to do check-ins, asking students how they’re doing and what they need.

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Students admit to being overwhelmed, scared, struggling to stay motivated.

“My heart really goes out to the seniors,” Lloyd said. They’re missing the fun traditions that typically end their high school careers. But many are also knee-deep in family struggles with jobs and money. The traditional support school provides is gone, the future is a question mark, and anxiety is soaring.

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The elementary teachers worry about the huge gap in learning facing their young students.

Most distressing, says Lewis and Clark Elementary teacher Laurel Anderson, is that as hard as everyone is working, the students will not finish all the traditional fourth-grade work.

“Knowing these kids will go to fifth grade behind in some areas is killing me,” she said. “We’re doing as much as we can, but I just wish we could do more.”

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At Valley View, fourth-grade teacher Julie Stenzel usually has classes of 30 to 32 students. By chance this year she has only 20 – “an absolute delight” she says in that she can spend far more one-on-one time with students. At least until recently. Now she spends her time maneuvering between teaching the six who have online access and the others doing homework packets. She worries about a growing achievement gap between students who get help at home versus those with little or no support.

“When we jump back into the classroom, whether this spring or next fall, all these kids will be at different places based in large part on what was happening in their homes and with their families,” she said.

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“It could impact them for years.”

At Meadow Lark, second-grade teacher Billi Bergman is maxed out at 24 students. Fortunately, she introduced them to Google Classroom at the beginning of the year, so they know how to access online content now. Her students have supportive parents and most are engaged online. But she knows that parents are stressed, and even her three small-group sessions on Zoom each day and constant communication aren’t enough.

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“Online learning is simply not the same. I need to see their faces to know whether they understand the material. I need to look into their eyes and read their body language to know what I can do to help,” she said.

“I have to make peace with knowing they won’t learn as much, and we’re all in this together.”

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Our teachers are hard at work teaching. They are learning new software and new instruction methods. They are reaching out to parents more than ever. And supported by what Anderson called “phenomenal” district leadership, they are innovating with video storytelling and lectures, creative do-at-home assignments, and online sessions that allow students to engage with classmates.

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But teachers are acutely aware that online learning isn’t the same, and that schools provide structure and support that many homes lack. They all have students who come from what they call “hard places” and who need one-on-one contact with an adult who makes time to listen and offer guidance.

I am impressed by the Great Falls Public School District’s response to the challenge of teaching in the time of coronavirus.

But it’s the profound and heartfelt work of teachers who care so deeply for their students that leaves me in awe.

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Our schools are stretched thin, and our teachers are stressed out. Now more than ever they need our support. Please join me in voting YES for the school levy May 5.