Going back into distance learning has added stressors across the Faribault school district: confusion and concern for parents, hard decisions for staff and teachers, and feelings of being overwhelmed for students.

Superintendent Todd Sesker empathizes with struggling parents, but knows the solution lies in bringing students back to school. But that's not an option now, so the question becomes, “What is the alternative?”

“I’ve been teaching and being an administrator for 35 years, I haven’t been in the spot of these teachers because I’ve never taught distance learning during a pandemic,” Sesker said. “… The mental struggles are real. It’s not a perfect model. This has been a pretty tough semester for all of us.”

What started out as a general presentation by Faribault High School Principal Jamie Bente on the school's distance learning methodology turned into a question and answer session Monday with board members voicing concerns from the community and district staff addressing the thought process behind those decisions.

Tracking attendance

Without a physical classroom, tracking the attendance of distance learning students isn’t the same as usual. While students are responsible for going online to indicate their presence, attendance has still dropped.

Students who forget to click the blue button but submit all their work are counted as present, FHS Assistant Principal Shawn Peck said. He said attendance is better earlier in the week than later, and while the level of student engagement is imperfect, the majority still earn credit for this semester.

FHS Assistant Principal Joe Sage, who has tracked the analytics around the online learning system, Schoology, said the number of students signing in each week has slightly improved in the past few weeks, but the dip at the end of the week continues.

Board member Carolyn Treadway asked why teachers don’t collect attendance daily during a specific meeting time called Connections.

For every class section they teach, teachers set up a 50-minute time in which they check in with students virtually. Connections are mandatory for students to attend, but with any number of factors interfering with students’ ability to log in at the scheduled time, there are no consequences for being absent.

Bente said tracking attendance during Connections is ineffective because not all students are there. He explained that somehow, based on some miscommunication that did not come from the administration or teachers, students developed the idea that Connections meetings are optional. The district has followed up with parents, sent text messages and emails and called homes to correct that misunderstanding, but attendance continues to fluctuate.

Board member Jerry Robicheau asked the presenters to clarify how teachers know if students are missing from specific classes without taking attendance.

During the early months of the pandemic, Peck said, distance learning came more in the form of “crisis teaching." Peck said staff devised a system in which teachers tracked every student’s login.

“They were honestly spending hours of their work week determining who was active online and who was following up,” Peck said. “I understand the current system is flawed, but at the same time, our teachers need to be freed up to teach, and spending hours on that task, we felt, was not conducive to effective teaching.”

Robicheau said his intention wasn’t to be critical of teachers’ work, but maintained that taking attendance shouldn’t be an “an insurmountable task.”

“I think we just need to know who those students are,” Robicheau said. “We can’t teach kids if they’re not there. I know they’re working very hard, and they have a significant challenge ahead of them, but a three- to four-minute process I don’t believe would interfere with their instructional strategies.”

Asynchronous vs. synchronous

The conversation on attendance led board members to speculate the model of the instruction in general.

Treadway reported that parents have told her they're dissatisfied with the current model. She surmised that a significant number of parents may want and expect their students to attend classes virtually from 9 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. each day, but the district can’t know for sure without conducting a survey.

Robicheau agreed, asking why teachers can’t livestream their lessons to all their students at one time.

According to Director of Teaching and Learning Tracy Corcoran, the administration team and staff had many conversations surrounding livestream learning but ultimately decided to go with a model that didn't include hours of lectures. Additionally, she said teachers reach out to every student who didn’t check in, and she’s heard from staff and teachers that the goal is to strive for engagement over compliance.

“Our educators are working very, very hard, and I know we have parents who are frustrated with this model, but we didn’t have a year to prepare for COVID,” Corcoran said. “The intent of not having them online in class all day long is because it’s not good for them … We’re well aware of the things we can improve right now, but I also want to think of what’s best for our kids during a global pandemic. Synchronous learning that whole time was not something we were going to mandate.”

A couple of the teachers present during the meeting described the ways they utilize the connections time as an opportunity to connect with their students in real time.

Laura Gehlhar, English Learner teacher, said while she does offer direct instruction during the connections sessions, the asynchronous model (in which instruction and learning occur at different times) can benefit some students who like to work at their own pace, as it offers more flexibility than a synchronous model.

Social studies teacher, Zack Roble, said his students had “the most successful first quarter” this year because they have equal access to material online if they miss a lesson.

According to the results of a recent survey, which the entire FHS student body was given and 10% completed, the clarity of expectations and assignments isn’t so much a problem for students as the workload itself. About 60% of students said they find the workload unmanageable, and none of the students said the workload was too manageable.

Robel, who has a background in psychology, described his findings on cognitive load theory, which states that the harder it is to learn something new, the heavier the load on the brain. That cognitive load of learning how to do distance learning, he said, is having a real effect on students. Even though he’s behind in his lessons compared to previous years, taking students out of their normal routine makes it difficult to stay on track.

The homework load hasn’t increased during distance learning, according to English and language arts teacher Elizabeth Daniels. Rather, teachers are working through a paradigm shift that puts the responsibility for learning in the hands of the students. However, she said, “I don’t think students and parents are quite there with us.”

Treadway pinpointed the problem with parents not understanding the meaning of asynchronous learning and encouraged the district to improve communications on what that means.

“We’re asking students and parents to measure our success on an old paradigm,” Treadway said “... we may want to blame parents and students for children not showing up, but they don’t understand what learning in this new age looks like. I try to explain it to parents, and they’re clueless. So that’s my frustration.”

Treadway has advocated for a parent survey on distance learning since October, and shared a few of the basic questions for a survey distributed at her grandson’s school elsewhere. The administration agreed to put together a survey to release as early as Friday.

Reporter Misty Schwab can be reached at 507-333-3135. Follow her on Twitter @APGmisty. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved. 

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