Last spring when schools were forced to close as COVID-19 swept through the state, most everyone believed school would resume as usual in August. By July, it was clear that the pandemic would change the way the 2020/2021 school year began.
There were virtual open houses, restricted schedule pick-ups, classrooms with seating arrangements to allow space between students, and mask guidelines just to name a few. And now, three months into the school year, educators, students, and parents across the county continue to navigate socially distant classrooms and virtual learning curricula as the pandemic rages on.
To fully understand how things have changed in the classroom, I spoke with educators, parents, and students asking them about challenges they have faced this year.
Amber Allinder, a teacher at Locust Fork Elementary School, said this year posed challenges for both she and her students, but there have been some positive things that have developed from the unusual school year as well.
“I would have to say figuring out the logistics of a socially distanced classroom and navigating a brand-new technological learning platform would be the biggest hurdles of this school year,” Allinder said. Her students, she said, “Have adapted well to the changes. They have been so resilient, most of them were just happy to be back in the building with their teachers and friends!”
“Social distancing has changed the way we structure our day, that is for sure. But regardless of the new normal, we have tried to make this year as close to a regular school year as we possibly can,” she said.
On concerns and parent feedback, Allinder said that most parents are juggling their professional careers as well as assisting their children with schoolwork. Still, with all the changes and challenges, she has found some positives. “I think communication has become much stronger between parents and teachers. We have really leaned on each other and it’s forming stronger partnerships between families and the schools,” she said.
Many parents have similar feelings about the changes. Jessica Walker, parent of an elementary school student, said that reliable internet has been a big issue for virtual learning. She feels her daughter is learning and completing her work, but that she is not retaining the information as well as she does in a classroom setting.
While she is concerned about her young daughter contracting the virus, she does feel that she needs the social environment that school offers. Many parents echoed those concerns as well as expanded on the challenges they and their children have faced.
Younger children are struggling with the inability to comprehend that “at home learning” is still a requirement and schoolwork must be completed. Zoom and Google meetings have helped bridge the gap of disconnect between the classroom and the students at home.
Some children have enjoyed the responsibility and the freedom to map out their schedules themselves while learning at home, which has allowed for some creative classroom settings: outside on the trampoline, in the living room, at the picnic table, and in homemade forts.
Oneonta High School senior Richard Camarillo said he much preferred the split schedule that OCS implemented for those who chose traditional learning at the start of the school year. The split schedule, or hybrid learning plan, allowed students to work remotely from home on Mondays with students in sixth through 12th grades split into two groups based on the first letter of their last name; A-L were in class on Tuesday and Wednesday, while M-Z attended classes on Thursday and Friday.
This allowed for smaller class sizes to slow the chance of spreading the virus. OCS has since returned to in-class instruction four days a week for traditional learning students. For Camarillo, virtual classes have been quite challenging.
“Now the virtual learning is something I will never do again,” he said. “Personally, it is too difficult for me because I am having to learn and do all the work by myself. I would much prefer to go to school and have a teacher in front of me to help me throughout my courses,” he said.
Camarillo also spoke on the reason for the virtual learning and the importance of being mindful during the pandemic. “I think I speak for everyone when I say that this virus has ruined everyone’s lives; and if you want it to go away, you need to be careful, cautious, and smart. Don’t try to keep living your social life too much because that’s the reason that the pandemic is lingering.”
COVID-19 has posed both challenges and hardships, but has offered a unique opportunity to create alternative learning for the students in Blount County and Oneonta City schools. Educators want to utilize every tool possible to ensure that their students are learning and being nurtured, parents hope that their children are learning the curriculum and gaining important knowledge, and students are concerned about progressing and being successful in the classroom.
Through all the chaos and the ever-changing landscape of the classroom during COVID-19, it is vital that everyone work together to lessen the burden. Teachers and school administrators are, in most cases, going home to assist their own children with schoolwork, parents are working outside of the home and coming home to do the same, and students are at times feeling overwhelmed with the uncertainty of it all. Working together has never been more vital than it is now.