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Shannon Shaw’s third-grade class had never used Google Classroom or any other online teaching tool before the coronavirus pandemic.
Then, schools shut down in March and had to shift abruptly to remote instruction.
For Shaw’s 15 students at Abraham Lincoln School in Bangor, how they’ve learned remotely has changed as the closure has stretched from an initial two-week period to the remainder of the school year. Instruction started with hard-copy, take-home packets with worksheets designed to help students merely maintain the skills they had already learned. Two months later, learning has shifted mostly online and Shaw’s class is back to learning new skills.
While Maine schools’ remote learning strategies have become longer-term and more digitally oriented as school shutdowns have continued, teachers and school district leaders agree that public education overall is more pared down than it was in the classroom, and will remain that way until schools can reopen.
Shaw is finding creative ways to teach online a group of younger students who are used to learning experientially, from being around teachers and peers. For a recent math class, she recorded herself pointing out different quadrilaterals in her own kitchen, such as cabinet doors and picture frames. Her students’ assignment was to find and list quadrilaterals in their own homes and try to name each one.
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“The biggest change has been obviously not being able to physically be with my students. The majority of my communication is with their parents,” she said. “Helping and supporting parents and teaching them how to help and support their child has been a really big shift from being able to work directly with students in person every day.”
The Maine Department of Education allowed school districts to develop their own remote learning plans, so they’ve looked different district to district, spokesperson Kelli Deveaux said.
Schools in Bangor, for example, largely waited to shift instruction online until the district had raised money to buy mobile hotspots for 350 families without internet access. And even now that teachers are uploading lessons — including videos and other materials — to Google Classroom and teachers are holding online office hours, they’re not holding scheduled online classes in which all students have to participate.
By contrast, in neighboring Regional School Unit 22 — which serves Hampden, Winterport, Frankfort and Newburgh — teachers switched directly to online learning after schools shut down and the district learned most students had internet access. Teachers are allowed to hold online classes at scheduled times. And students without internet access can receive paper versions of their lessons.
“We definitely know that learning is compressed. So while we’re making the effort to continue to offer new material, we know that is not comparable to in-person learning,” Regan Nickels, RSU 22’s assistant superintendent, said. “We have certainly built up our ability to use technology both for staff and students and I’m pleased with that. But there have been challenges for both teachers and students that we have yet to address.”
Some challenges for teachers include checking in with students and keeping them engaged, accounting for disparities in internet access, and balancing work and home lives especially when many teachers, like Shaw, are also responsible for helping their own children learn remotely.
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“I think this is almost universal among our teachers, that we feel we are working harder now to consistently connect with our students than we ever have before,” Geoffrey Wingard, chair of the history department at Bangor High School, said. “All of a sudden we were trying to take everything that Bangor High School has done really, really well in a brick-and-mortar place for 50 years and throw it on a laptop, and that has been tough. I think we’ve worked hard to do it, but there have been hiccups along the way.”
Teachers have adapted their approaches as the school shutdown has continued and they have learned more about what works with remote learning, Wingard said. When the coronavirus pandemic forced school closures with little warning, Bangor schools distributed hard-copy packets to students, mostly with worksheets students could complete to keep their skills fresh. Teachers checked in with families either by email or phone.
“The packet was sort of a learning process. It was a learning process for students and it was a learning process for us,” Wingard said. “And it was really a way for us to gauge how we would engage with our students.”
Now, more schools are relying on the internet as more students have gained access to it. The Bangor School Department raised more than $60,000 in April to provide WiFi connections to 350 families. Then, the Department of Education earlier this month used federal funds to buy devices to help 24,000 students across the state connect to the internet. Those devices were supposed to arrive at Maine schools this week, Deveaux said.
Some students are well suited to online learning while others, including some who did well in the classroom, have been struggling, Wingard said. Whether it’s their preferred learning style or not, 79 of Wingard’s 80 students are at least participating in the new format.
A key difference for Bangor students is that teachers aren’t holding scheduled online classes in which all students participate, even as teachers upload lessons — including videos and other materials — to Google Classroom for students to complete and hold online office hours.
“We’ve chosen not to do synchronous [online] classes because that, in effect, is another barrier to learning,” Wingard said. “You can’t tell some kid who is living in a home with brothers, sisters, extended family and sharing resources that it’s make or break that they log on at 9:50 in the morning every day.”
Bangor middle- school and high-school students were already familiar with Google Classroom, an online service to which teachers can upload videos, documents and other class materials. But for elementary school students, parents have had to play a larger role in getting their kids familiar with learning online.
Shaw and other teachers at Abraham Lincoln created a learning menu from which students can choose the subject they want to study on a given day.
“In this time I think a lot of people and especially children don’t feel like they have a lot of control, and there can be some real value in them being able to have choice and control the activity that they do,” she said. “And then within those activities, we’ve decided to only post things that students can do at home with the resources that they have at home.”
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After more than a month of working simply to maintain students’ skills, Google Classroom allowed Bangor teachers to start teaching new material again.
“Now that everyone has access, teachers are now developing essential lessons for new materials that are generally in our curriculum from the end of March to the end of this school year,” Bangor Superintendent Betsy Webb said. “We have plans when we return to assess where [students’] knowledge is with those skills so that we can do an appropriate review and catch-up time period before getting right into the next year’s curriculum.”
Another district-by-district difference could be how this semester appears on students’ transcripts. While Bangor has adopted pass-fail grades for middle- and high-school students that won’t factor into grade point averages or class ranks, RSU 22 has kept its letter grades in place.
“Grading is a way of getting significant feedback to students to help them produce a better product and to help them know how to engage in the assignment that they’re given,” Nickels said. “And it also is an incentive to keep students wanting to strive for their best. We felt that feedback was important to continue.”
Watch: What does returning to normal look like?