Friday, March 13th was the last day of regular classes at Vinton-Shellsburg for the 2019-2020 school year. In Iowa and around the world news of the COVID-19 virus had become increasingly worrisome when on Sunday, March 15th, Iowa’s Governor Kim Reynolds recommended that schools close until mid-April. What schools would be doing for the remainder of the school year was suddenly up in the air as teachers accustomed to teaching in classrooms were without students.
Brandon Farmer, the district’s Information Technology Director, shared that the principals and superintendent Hainstock came into the school late that Sunday night to work on a message to families. “We began establishing a priority list right away on Monday morning. We prepared first for a building closure of two weeks. Next, we began working on what an extended period of a few weeks might be like, and finally what we might need to do if the buildings were closed the rest of the school year.”
Before the first lessons became available online, administrative support staff and Brandon were working to quickly identify which students were missing technology devices or service they would need to continue learning. The first challenge for the school district was to assess which students were without a computer or without the internet connection needed to participate in distance learning.
“We initially sent a request through school messenger asking the families of high school students about their needs,” explained Brandon. “We reached out to them first because we believed their coursework would be mandatory if we were dealing with an extended closure. Our first priority was making sure seniors could get their work done for graduation. The teachers followed-up by calling many families to make sure we knew how to help their students be connected. We used the same process for middle school students as well. It was important to reach out to families with students in eighth-grade Algebra because it is a high school course that earns credit toward graduation, so even though most middle school students were not under the mandatory attendance policy, middle school students taking algebra were.”
The Vinton-Shellsburg district provides computers for students to use and take home for grades nine through twelve. The district also has a computer for every student from grades two through eight that remain at school. About 40 students in high school or eighth-grade Algebra didn’t have internet access at home, but the equipment they needed was sold-out everywhere the district looked. Fortunately, EcoVision, Inc., the authorized U.S. Cellular dealer in Vinton and three other Iowa locations, donated cellular routers.
The planning that began March 16 paid off when the closure was extended and the state of Iowa required all school districts to submit learning plans for students. The plan submitted by the Vinton-Shellsburg district, and approved by the state’s department of education, was to provide voluntary educational opportunities for grades Pre-K through 8, and mandatory participation for classes earning high school credit.
“I have been very impressed with our entire teaching staff and how they’ve adapted,” says Brandon. “I am also confident that if we encounter a school closure in the fall that we’ll be in a much better position to provide instruction for students. This was difficult because it was so unexpected.”
Nathanael Brandt, a fifth-grade teacher in Shellsburg, has helped many colleagues with technical issues while also providing instruction for his own students. For Nathanael, a typical Zoom meeting starts with an activity on the student’s screen. “It could be a “Where’s Waldo” picture or some kind of a word puzzle, or it could be something funny, or something to get them thinking. Once each student has an opportunity to share their idea, we’ll find Waldo or go over some of the words. We follow that by a short reading activity, or we will review a few math problems.
“I’ve enjoyed the humorous parts of our meetings, like the time one of the kids seemed slightly embarrassed while explaining to their dad that they weren’t on mute, or the many pets we’ve heard about during the year but now have met because of distance learning.”
Shelley Haisman, a fourth-grade teacher in Vinton, has been impressed with her students and her team members. “The kids have been so resilient. They have been real troopers even though a big part of their world has been turned upside down. They seemed to not miss a beat when it came to learning remotely.
“My whole fourth-grade team (Emily Sexton, Sara Jorgenson, Josh Meyer, Jaimie Walker, and Michelle Holland) has been wonderful when it comes to planning what we assign to kids each week. Every week each team member is responsible for selecting the students’ work for a particular subject area. We put this work into an online folder and then discuss it at our weekly Zoom Team Meetings. When we are all focused on one subject it really lightens everyone’s load.
“One challenge we have tried to overcome is figuring out how to get all students equal access to the same materials. Every family is dealing with a unique situation during this pandemic. Many parents are working outside the home, some are working from home and need to access the internet for their job—so an internet connection sometimes isn’t always available for the student. Other families have multiple children at home and are also juggling multiple school assignments. I cannot praise the families enough for the tough job(s) they have had to figure out during this time. They have been absolutely wonderful to work with.”
Patricia Lough is a special education teacher who serves some students who are non-verbal, and others who are blind. For her, the strategies used by other teachers wouldn’t work.
“I worked with Monique Smith of Grant Wood Area Education Agency, who has been extremely helpful,” Patricia says. “I struggled, in the beginning, to work out how distance learning might work best for my students, and I eventually developed more of a virtual coaching scenario. Instead of trying to work directly with students, I gave parents several books and activities I used with their students. I scheduled several phone and/or Zoom conferences with them to explain how they could use these manipulatives, activities, and books at home in a way that would be familiar to their students, and yet be comfortable for the parents to use.
“I always read a familiar book to the student during zoom meetings so the parents can see a demonstration of how to use a technique known as shared reading. I have arranged drop-offs of additional manipulatives to use with activities I described to the parents during our videoconference meetings. Through all of this, I feel that the parents of my students and I have worked out a good rapport and are working on building relationships that will continue throughout their entire time at Vinton-Shellsburg.”
Almost all teachers and staff members can see positive things coming out of the experience. For Megan Albertson, a physical education teacher at the middle school, it’s learning again how much she loves interacting with students in school. Jane Stolen, an early childhood special education teacher at Shellsburg, says she has enjoyed watching parents participate in their child’s education and seeing them watching their student interacting with peers and teachers during learning activities. For Katie Busch, who teaches third grade at Tilford, it’s seeing the students grow in their use of technology.
“A positive I see coming out of this,” says Brandon Farmer, “is that that in the future students who are homebound won’t need to miss school. Teachers understand Zoom, the students are used to it, and there won’t be any reason the student can’t continue to participate and learn.”