Schools take on a digital reality

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Per Governor Steve Bullock’s March 15 directive ordering the closure of all Montana schools, Sweet Grass County High School and all rural Sweet Grass County schools have shut their doors, but teachers and students are still hard at work.

As of March 16, all classes have gone digital at SGHS. All classwork has become homework. A typical classroom environment affords students a chance to raise their hand and ask questions, but now it’s become much harder; students and teachers correspond much more on an individual level.

“Our teachers are actually putting in far more hours than they were in the classroom. They’re busier than ever. They’re glued to their computers,” said SGHS Principal Eric Gustafson. “Now they have to manage all these kids emailing and texting them. They’re having to communicate on an individual basis where they used to be able to handle it all in a classroom setting. And that’s six periods of students. It’s really monumental what our teachers are doing.”

Fortunately, the students and staff at SGHS were actually prepared to conduct classes digitally, so the coronavirus hasn’t entirely disrupted the education process.

“Last year, our teachers did a workshop on Google Classroom — that was pure serendipity — we never realized or thought something like this would cause teachers to actually use it,” said Gustafson.

In addition to teacher training on digital classrooms, every single student at SGHS had previously been issued a Chromebook from the school, according to Gustafson.

On March 16, after Bullock issued his directive closing schools, the SGHS administrators arranged to have all of the students come to the school between 10 a.m. and noon to collect text books, Chromebooks, band instruments and any other items they may have left in their lockers.“At that time we asked all of the kids if they needed school breakfast and lunch,” Gustafson said.

Any student needing breakfast and lunch can still get food from the school, though they are not permitted to enter the building.

“Our cooks are still providing breakfast and lunch to any student that needs it. Right now we have somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 students (collecting breakfast and lunch). It’s grab and go,” Gustafson explained. “They come to the back door of the cafeteria knock and grab their food. They never enter the building. It was actually our cook’s idea to include the next day’s breakfast when they pick up lunch for the day.”

The day after the directive took effect, the school reached out to see if all of the students have internet access, and nearly everyone does. For any student lacking internet access in the home, or students who have a disruptive or unsafe home environment, SGHS has them covered.

“We requested that Triangle have our Wifi sent out to the parking lot so that students can sit in their cars and work on assignments,” Gustafson said. “Triangle sent us this thing called a ‘ubiquitor.’ I really like that word, which transmits our internet signal out 600 feet into our parking lot.”

Additionally, Gustafson explained that students can access free internet for the next 60 days in their home.

“Because of this crisis, Spectrum has offered 60 days of free internet to anyone that doesn’t have it. That’s truly awesome of them to do that during this time,” said Gustafson.

As far as the schools go, this process hasn’t cost as much money as one might expect.

According to Jessica Todd, guidance counselor at SGHS, “there are a lot of programs giving schools services free of charge at this time, like Zoom and Google Meet. Zoom looks like the Brady Bunch intro,” Todd joked. “Its a screen full of thumbnails with live feed footage. Everyone can still see and hear everyone else, giving the teachers and students a needed sense of community.”

In the modern day, it can be a challenge for students to work from home. In today’s world, young people have access to endless television shows to stream, advanced gaming consoles, and the endless time suck we call “the internet.”

“That’s really the big obstacle we have to compete with,” Gustafson said. “modern opportunities for distraction.”

Different teachers have taken different approaches to teaching remotely with respect for the differences in subject matter and differences in teaching styles.

Janice Novotny teaches six different math classes at SGHS, two of which are advanced placement, and she is taking two different approaches for AP and non-AP classes.

“What I decided to do is utilize Kahn Academy for four of my classes (non-AP). I can assign work on that platform and I can pick and choose what’s important. I’m spending a lot of my time watching videos and trying to find appropriate assignments for my different classes,” Novotny said. “For my two AP classes we’re just doing review for the AP exam via video conference.”

Surprisingly enough, AP exams will still happen this year and will be made available to take at home.

“I did get verification from AP that they are going to have their exam, but it will be accessible at home and they will all be graded remotely as well,” Novotny said.

Novotny explained that the challenges posed by this sudden thrust into remote teaching has taken a lot of time and patience on her part.

“It’s kind of crazy,” she added. “Challenge is a good word for it. This process has truly been exhausting. I’ve put in way more hours than usual, to the extent that my husband told me I had to put it down and leave it alone.”

Remote teaching redefines full-time work. Novotny has to sacrifice much of her personal time to respond to emails and texts.

“I’ve put up my personal email for students to call and I’ve been emailing back and forth. It’s really all so new,” Novotny said.

Novotny shed light on an unforeseen difficulty posed by remote learning.

“I’ve come to realize that for families with multiple kids we have to be more flexible because sometimes not everyone can access the internet at the same time,” meaning different students are forced to fight over who gets to have class when, Novotny explained. “In that case I just record my lesson and send it over for them to watch later.”

The challenge of remote learning isn’t purely technological. Gabryelle Perkins, an English teacher at SGHS, says one of the biggest challenges is isolation.

“I really miss my face to face time with my students,” Perkins said. “I’ve gotten a lot of emails from students saying they miss me and even that they miss school. Our new normal is this online forum. These are unique times.”

These are unusual, unprecedented times, and everyone has been forced to adapt to the changes. Jeni Lannen, an English teacher at SGHS, admited that, despite occasional kinks here and there, all the teachers can do is their best.

“We’re not meeting every single day since some of the students have family obligations. We set a schedule and meet at that time,” Lannen said. “If this continues we’ll make it a more regular daily schedule. This is a transitional time for them (students and parents).”

Beyond day to day teaching, the school also has to focus on signing students up for next year’s classes, providing incoming freshman with a freshman orientation and helping seniors get scholarships for college.

Todd has been working with students remotely to cover all of those bases.

“I have students signing up for time slots to meet with me via video conference. We’re signing students up for classes that way,” Todd explained. “As for eighth grade orientation, I’ll be filming that and sending it out to all of the parents and students. Scholarships are also a big part of my job at this time of the year. It’s mostly been a lot of bugging the seniors to finish stuff up because our deadlines are rapidly approaching.”

The special education department is on board with remote education as well.

“Our special education department has been finding ways to serve all of the students,” Todd said. “Right now she’s (special education teacher Kim Baker) been calling and texting students about assignments. She’s also been working with them using Google Documents where the teachers and students can access the same document and work on it together, simultaneously.”

Despite the wacky, unprecedented approach to learning, SGHS administrators are working hard to give students the educational experience they deserve.

“These are obviously weird times, but I think we’ve really got a good system down to make sure the kids aren’t losing out on their education,” Todd said.

The rural schools weren’t quite as well equipped to deal with a sudden event like the coronavirus, but County Superintendent of Schools Susan Metcalf says the McLeod, Melville and Greycliff schools all have effective plans in place.

The teachers at the rural schools were too busy to comment for this story, according to Metcalf.

“They (rural school teachers and administrators) are very busy getting materials ready and responding to students,” said Metcalf.

Greycliff and Melville have completed action plans for remote education, and McLeod is completing its plan. According to Metcalf, the three plans are “almost identical.”

Melville’s action plan states that “certified and classified staff will be on-site at scheduled times (at school) or teleworking (offsite) providing instruction to students through the following mechanisms: online courses, Google Educational Suite, video chats and conference calls.

The plan goes on to say that “hard copies of textbooks, workbooks and instructional materials will be provided in increments of two to three week units. Textbook guides will be provided to parents to endure that expectations of learning can be met. Direct tutoring of these hard copy materials will be provided via video lessons.”

The rural schools had not previously issued laptops to each student, but Metcalf said that every student without the means to access a computer from home has “checked out ipads, laptops or Chromebooks, so fortunately all of the rural students do have access to technology.”

Melville’s plan includes a section “to ensure that all students have access to online coursework. The district is providing ipads, Chromebooks and laptops to students who don’t have necessary devices at home.”

“All of the (rural school) boards are meeting this week in a special meeting to approve these plans so they can be approved by OPI (Montana Office of Public Instruction),” Metcalf said.

As for SGHS school board meetings, Superintendent Brad Moore said they will continue to meet remotely.

“We have to continue to meet. We still have business to run but it’s all going to be remote through Google Meet,” Moore said. “All the information is on the front page of the school web page. If you don’t have computer capabilities you can access meetings by phone and listen in.”