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Educators Talk Stark Realities of Distance Learning

IMPERIAL COUNTY — Corralling kids and pressing parents for cooperation, all from afar, is the new reality for teachers like Brenda Castillo, who instructs fourth grade for Holtville’s Finley Elementary School.

When schools across the state ended physical classes in late March due to the COVID pandemic, so did the sense of normalcy and accountability that comes from daily face-to-face interaction, Castillo said.

“When we first shut down, students weren’t doing the (schoolwork) packets we sent home. It was like a five-week vacation for them. I chose to do Google Classroom so I could monitor my students,” Castillo said, explaining Holtville school administrators gave her the option to teach using take-home packets, live online classes or Google.

“I am not able to teach live classes because kids wake up at random times. I have a Google Classroom, where students can log in and do the assignments at the same time. I decided not to have live classes for different reasons. Everyone is on a different schedule,” she said.

In general, distance learning has been a mixed bag for teachers, clearly showing more initial pitfalls than promise, as the list of challenges are many, said Richard Rundhaug, superintendent of the Brawley Elementary School District.

“For (younger, elementary-age) students I believe the most difficult transition is not having the daily personal contact with their teachers. The element of human support is definitely diminished, and a lot of research has been done which upholds the value of human support and how much human interaction supports learning. Students are having to adjust to that support in new formats,” Rundhaug said.

But the pandemic might have just introduced modern education to its new reality moving forward, the superintendent said.

“Distance learning may become a permanent part of our future. We are trying to plan for that. On one hand, we are planning for our traditional school year, which may or may not exist as we know it. At the same time, we are planning for how we will execute an online presence,” he added.

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Concerns for Holtville; Ground-Level Teachers Elsewhere

For Castillo, dealing with the disappearing act from students and parents at the onset of stay-at-home orders was a test.

“April 20th was a trial week. Only half of the students showed up. We harassed parents to the neck. The principal and teachers’ aides went and did home visits distributing technology to students who did not have it. I have a teacher’s aide and she is doing that for me,” Castillo said.

Scheduling and procrastination have become major issues for all teachers. Finley requires that teachers meet with each student at least once a week in a video chat. This was the first week Castillo has met with all her students in one-on-one meetings.

“Students weren’t getting their work done so I started holding three meetings a week with students in groups of five to six to do assignments and go over each student’s project. One of the three days we do an art project together. I also have individual meetings with each studently weekly to express students’ concerns,” she said.

The work can be daunting, Castillo said, reporting that one morning she spent two hours texting 22 individual messages to parents about what assignments their child was missing.

Parents’ responsibilities have also increased during this transitory period, Castillo explained.

“Parents are overwhelmed. Sometimes they have more than one student at home. They do not know how to get their children to do their work. The kids will not listen to them. It’s like the kids are bossing the parents around.”

Castillo agrees with Rundhaug’s assessment that distance learning is toughest on elementary-age students.

“Because I get to see how kids are spending their time working online, I can see that it’s not really working out. Even as adults we procrastinate. A 9-year-old doesn’t have the skills to juggle all the responsibility,” she said.

Although there is a sense of inevitability creeping in for the future of distance learning, Castillo does not believe the present education system can thrive under online classes.

“Packets or online classes is not a suitable replacement for these children’s education in the future. They are not taking it seriously. There are English Language Arts standards children must meet. The state determines the math standards. We need to make sure we are targeting the common core,” she said.

Although adherence to state standards has been suspended for this school year, it’s still unknown what will happen next school year.

Further Dissecting Distance-Learning Issues

Rundhaug sees getting up to speed with technology as a major hurdle in education, from a student, teacher, and administrative perspective.

“For teachers, many have had to go through training and use resources they never had to use before like Google Classroom and Zoom. It is easier to plan to cover a certain amount of work from a textbook. But to say, ‘you need to get this point in the electronic format’ is a challenge,” he said.

“For administrators, we have to hold nearly all our meetings electronically. This has been an interesting transformation. For instance, setting a meeting in WebEx is a new skill we have all had to learn,” Rundhaug added.

“Boundaries between each other is less defined. I believe we are working longer hours because we each feel more entitled to call each other at nearly all hours of the day. We are also working longer hours because none of our tasks are repeated tasks,” he said of his fellow administrators. “Much of what we are doing, we are doing for the first time and having to figure things out as we go along.”

Students, however, are who might be experiencing the most sea change, even though they can acclimate to technological shifts more quickly.

“Younger students have advantages and disadvantages. The greatest disadvantage is that they probably are in greater need of that human support I mentioned. … However, younger students also tend to be more flexible and less driven by tradition,” Rundhaug said.

Brawley Elementary School District has taken steps to help students overcome hurdles presented to their education by distance learning with a focus toward the summer.

“My greatest concern right now is the gap in learning that students most likely encountered as a result of them not reporting to our facilities on a daily basis. We have initiated a summer online academy to help make up the difference in the that gap. However, this could be a gap that takes years to fill in,” he said.


This story is featured in the May 21, 2020 e-Edition.

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