Area schools finding ways to keep students connected — and learning

Western second-grade teacher Delanie Casto used “guest readers” read to her students online last week as a way to stay connected and keep learning while the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down Illinois schools. | Submitted photo
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Mar. 22, 2020 12:01 am Updated: Mar. 22, 2020 12:06 am

MENDON, Ill. — Joy Zanger found out last week that her Unity Middle School writing students like some weird food combinations.

Like sugar and macaroni. Or ranch and pancakes.

She also learned, surprisingly enough, that her students would rather go without internet than heat and air conditioning — and they could use their writing skills to defend their position.

The COVID-19 pandemic may have shut down Illinois schools, through April 7, but area districts are finding ways to keep students connected, and still learning, outside of the classroom.

Unity is a one-to-one district, with one computer for every student and "with an elearning plan in place, so the transition, although abrupt, was maybe a little more seamless," Zanger said.

Students use online tools like Google Classroom on a daily basis — and already had three elearning days this school year during snow days, where they use school-issued computers at home to continue classroom work — so it was easy for them to access from home the grammar, creative writing and argumentative writing options provided by Zanger.

Group discussion questions for her students included "what is the weirdest food combination you like" while "would you rather" writing prompts gave students a chance to express and support their opinion.

"I've been giving them daily feedback through Google Classroom and made fun little digital stickers to put on their assignments. Even as eighth-graders, it's fun for them to see my teacher looked at it and gave me a sticker," Zanger said.

"To me, it's not just about the learning. There's a new responsibility being a role model, trying to keep some normalcy, being someone that can give them a positive connection and help them stay connected with their peers."

Middle and high school students are using digital learning, while Unity's pre-K through fourth-grade are using learning packets developed by teachers and the class dojo communication system.

Although not true e-learning, because assignments aren't graded based on Illinois State Board of Education guidance, "our goal is to keep our students engaged, motivated and learning during this time that we're closed," Superintendent Scott Riddle said. "We're really trying to review basic content, bolster the fundamentals so that when they do return, we hopefully will not have seen too much regression."

Another 1:1 district, Western, jumped into ?elearning on Tuesday, and "it's going really well. We're seeing some amazing things," Superintendent Jessica Funk said.

"Our goal is to remain in contact with every kid ... to continue where we are at, at whatever pace we can," she said. "It's never going to replace one-on-one with the teacher in the classroom, but we do the best we can to provide support."

Teachers are available online for students from 9 a.m. to noon and from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. "Kids jump in when they have a question, jump out when they're done. Some teachers are scheduling meetings with maybe a whole class or certain groups of kids," Funk said.

Funk held online staff meetings, and principals do a daily check-in with their staffs

The district had learning plans in place through Friday and was already scheduled to be on spring break this week.

"It's a great time for our staff that have worked so hard to gather things and support kids in learning," Funk said. "That will give them a week to recharge, but I do think many of them will spend quite a bit of their time planning ahead to what this looks like, how we can provide elearning opportunities. They are reaching out to one another and helping one another as never before."

Pikeland students are using learning packets — picked up a week ago in a drive-thru at school buildings — to stay engaged in learning.

"It is not necessarily tied to what they would have been doing had they been in school, but we want to keep kids doing something," Superintendent Paula Hawley said.

The district is 1:1 for grades 6-12, not for younger students, but has not tried elearning.

"Our difficulty is getting internet access for our kids. A pretty good number of families don't have internet access at home or can't even get it because of where they live," Hawley said. "Even if we give out hot spots, our people still couldn't take advantage of it. They couldn't get the access."