While distance learning may not be the most loved scenario among students and parents, teachers at Healdsburg High School (HHS) are working to make the experience as effective and enjoyable as possible, and based on their experience teaching summer school this year, teachers Jamie Atwood and Riley Nilsen are confident that they can work to make at-home learning as fun and productive as possible.
The two teachers shared their thoughts and ideas on distance learning at an HHS town hall that was held for parents and students on Aug. 10 via Facebook Live to address online class schedules, technology access and the ins and outs of distance learning.
HHS students will get their individual online class schedules later this week prior to the start of school on Aug. 19, and while the district will reassess the situation around Sept. 14, distance learning will be in place for some time, according to Healdsburg Unified School District Superintendent Chris Vanden Heuvel, who believes it’s highly unlikely that the county will be off of the state’s coronavirus watchlist by September.
Depending on the current health and safety conditions at the time, the district would like to transition to hybrid learning in October, if at all possible.
Earlier this summer, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued guidance stating that public, private and charter schools that reside in a county that’s currently on the state health department COVID watch list must begin the year in full distance learning.
According to the mandate, schools must remain in distance learning until their county has been off the state’s list for 14 consecutive days. While a handful of Sonoma County schools, mostly private or small schools, have applied for a waiver to reopen, the process is long and arduous and has seen a delay due to a state data glitch.
Many schools were planning towards a hybrid model of learning but then had to quickly pivot to working towards a plan for full time distance learning, which HHS administrators have said will have different characteristics and elements than the at home learning that was implemented last spring.
“This is a very unique and challenging time for us. And all of our personnel are here to support you through this process,” HHS Principal Bill Halliday said before announcing the details on distance learning at Monday night’s meeting.
The face of distance learning
Students will have a robust synchronous learning schedule similar to that of a normal school day schedule that starts at 8:30 a.m. and ends at 2:40 p.m. with time for breaks and virtual teacher office hours.
“If you look at the schedule you’ll see that our periods one, three, five and seven are going to be on Tuesdays and Thursdays and our two, four and six periods would be on Wednesday and Friday so we’ll have even and odd days,” said HHS Assistant Principal, Connie Marx.
In a distance learning model students will be held accountable for their work and will be graded accordingly instead of being “held harmless,” for their grades. Halliday said distance learning will have increased structure and support, student accountability, increased virtual intervention, weekly schedules and communications with parents and students, and interactive work to break up time spent on Zoom.
To that end, Nilsen, an agriculture science teacher, and Atwood, a math teacher, discussed what distance learning methods they’ve used and will use to break up the monotony of Zoom and to keep students active, engaged, creative and productive.
Atwood said going into summer school they were worried about two things, understanding and learning effectively and connecting with students.
Atwood said she was, “Pleased to discover that we were able to do that and our students did well over summer school,” with distance learning. Atwood added that she was proud of her students for learning to use materials such as email, whiteboards and other distance learning tools.
For summer school distance learning Nilsen said there were three strategies for working online that worked well, providing materials for student projects at home for personal discovery, creating interactive experiences and modeling, and utilizing Zoom breakout sessions.
“I had the ability to send home materials at the beginning of each session, which made a huge difference because students were able to learn at home with these materials, conduct experiments on their own and it was an extremely equitable way to make sure that every single student had the same experience,” Nilsen said.
She said having her students conduct at-home experiences allows for personal discovery and learning.
“They were able to explore concepts on their own and see what was happening in various different experiments that they conducted. For example, we dissected a lily to learn about the anatomy of a flower, the fertilization process and to introduce mitosis,” she said.
Nilsen also had students do presentations together on Google slides, propagate succulents and grow three different varieties of pumpkins, create their own hypothesis and write an agri-science research paper all from home.
“I also utilized Zoom break-out sessions to have them peer-review each other’s work to reflect on each of their papers they were writing before they submitted it,” Nilsen said. “The last example that I wanted to touch on for a strategy that I used in my class is modeling. Students were able to model their learning at home.”
Nilsen had sent materials home with students so they could make models of DNA for instance, as a way to learn about different concepts in biology.
“By no means were we perfect in everything that we did, but we did learn a lot and we grew from this experience... I was able to build genuine relationships with the students. There were a lot of conversations going, great dialogue, questions being asked and we were also able to learn about each other,” Nilsen said. “This is doable and it can be enjoyable. We had a great time during summer school and the students were excited to be there.”
Atwood said after the summer session they surveyed students and many said their favorite part of the summer learning was being able to interact with teachers, seeing each other’s faces and watching their experiments grow.
“Our students grew so much,” Atwood said of the summer distance learning.
At the start of the school day students will be expected to be ready for class with all of their necessary materials, to be appropriately dressed and to turn off any background music or TV.
In terms of access to technology, Marx said all students have a Chromebook and hotspots will be provided for those who need it prior to the start of school. She added that other school supplies like pens and calculators will be provided when needed.
All special education services including mental health, occupational therapy, speech and language therapy and IEP (Individual Education Plan) meetings will be held online virtually, according to HUSD Director of Special Education, Diane Conger.
Instead of a one-size distance learning fits all approach, HHS will create distance learning plans tailored for each special education student.
“It will be tailored to the student themselves, not a global sort of distance learning plan,” Conger said.
To view the HHS town hall in its entirety, visit: https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?v=299704434799549&ref=watch_permalink.