Rising to the challenge

With school districts closed for the rest of the school year due to COVID-19, educators innovate to keeps students engaged and connected 

By Brett Auten

Suspicions turned to facts last week.

As a result of Governor Mike Parson’s directive, all Missouri school districts will be closed for the remainder of the school year.

The decision was deemed necessary to protect the well-being of students, staff, and community, and to minimize the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19). These closures include all preschool and after-school care, as well as all athletic events and activities, are canceled for the remainder of the school year, and facilities, fields and playgrounds will not be available until further notice. Districts are not anticipating holding their traditional summer school and summer camps.

Already a few weeks in, learning via Alternative Methods of Instruction will continue during the extended closure.

Area educators have become more adept with new programs and technologies. Apps that many had never heard of before, like Zoom Flipgrid and Screencastify are becoming daily devices. While staples like YouTube and Seesaw are becoming more and more useful. Through this technology, students view lessons in real-time (or can watch later) as well as chat via video with their teacher to check-in for understanding or to just say hello. Apps like FlipGrid allow students to provide feedback on various topics by recording a quick video clip, adding a drawing, or even share their writing.

Jennifer Thies is a kindergarten teacher in the Wentzville School District, where she has worked for eight years.

“I have loved using Zoom to hold virtual meetings with my class,” Thies said. “We’ve had a virtual art lesson, show and tell and even a scavenger hunt. There is so much technology available out there for teachers. I am probably most eager about learning new platforms to connect and engage in learning with my students. I am welcoming the challenge of bringing my excitement and passion for learning into the homes of my students”

Beth Wehmeier, a third-grade teacher, at Coverdell Elementary school, has taught in this district for 18 years.

“Many teachers are using Zoom to have virtual meetings with students and colleagues,” Wehmeier, a St. Charles County native, said. “We are using apps like ClassDojo, SeeSaw and Google Classroom to reach out to parents and kids. Many online programs are offering free use to schools right now. It’s wonderful.”

Wehmeier praised the encouragement that district leaders have given during this time and added that past training has made the adjustment a little less rocky.

“We have been given a lot of professional development resources to help us build our tech skills,” Wehmeier said. “I have loved learning tech tips from my colleagues in our district. Our district has one major goal and that’s we’re in this together and we’re trying our best in these uncertain times.”

Melissa Andersen has been an elementary teacher in the St. Louis region for 16 years.  Andersen currently teaches sixth grade English Language Arts at Francis Howell Middle School. She grew up in the St. Charles area and has all three of her children in FHSD schools.
 
Andersen has been able to record her class read-aloud for the students to listen in and follow along just like they would in class, and they can add their responses to my questioning via video recordings or text. Occasionally, a middle school class will join in as “Mystery Readers” to not only mix things up but with hopes of continuing to grow and foster relationships.  

“My classes have also really enjoyed our informal virtual chats where we just get to discuss what our new normal looks like and how we are adjusting to this change,” Andersen said. “I am excited about trying out some new ‘virtual field trips’ as well as digging into some of the creative writing projects that speak to the experiences and emotions students are feeling during this time.”  

Andersen has drawn inspiration not only from her local compatriots but her national brethren as well.

“I have seen so many inspirational moments on social media,” she said. “Teachers caravanning around their district to say hello from their cars to their students, as well as coordinating virtual dance parties or poetry slams, and staff members delivering meals to families during these uncertain times. It fills my heart with pure joy to see so many gather together to support kids and families. For many kids, school is their safe place and we don’t take that lightly. Teachers will find a way to be there, even if it looks a bit different than before.  

Educators are used to adjusting and working with what they have. This latest bump in the road, while undoubtedly significant, will not detour them.

“Teachers are naturally problem-solvers and caretakers,” Theis said. “We will do whatever it takes to make sure our students and families feel loved and supported throughout this period of extended learning. Although this has been a stressful time for educators as we navigate these new waters, it has also been an uplifting time. I have seen countless teachers rally around one another and offer tips, support, and resources for free.”

CUTLINE: Submitted photos Educators across St. Charles County have been forced to find new ways to instruct, inspire, and engage with local students since the arrival of the Coronavirus (COVID-19). What’s new is the new normal, for the time being, as a result of Governor Mike Parson’s directive, all Missouri school districts will be closed for the remainder of the school year.