The school year has just started and already students in districts across South Dakota are testing positive for COVID-19. Many of those schools will switch to online learning much sooner than anticipated. There are a few versions of online learning – one iscalled hybrid – with some students in the classroom and others at home.
Tina Belden is the Computer Science teacher at Estelline High School. She is talking to a full class of students, although, it may not look like it. That’s because in her classroom there are only two students. One wears a blue surgical mask and sits in the middle of the room. The other student sits in back without a mask, working on her laptop. Belden stands in the front explaining an assignment.
The rest of her class, around 5 students, watches online. Belden sees them on her computer screen. She talks with them as if they were in the room with her.
Less than a quarter of Estelline’s 270 students are currently learning from home. The district started their hybrid learning model after two football players and their coach tested positive for COVID-19 right before the school year started. State health officials quarantined the entire team and that prompted some parents to keep their kids at home.
Estelline’s superintendent and high school principal Eric Bass says he’s glad they can give families this choice.
“The best thing for students to be is in the classroom but we also understand that families have fears. They may have medical concerns with their students or themselves, so they choose to go through that hybrid model. And for us, so far, it's worked out.
Bass says their hybrid model works because they already had an emphasis on technology.
All of their students have a portable device as a learning tool. Each high school student has a laptop.”
Bass says they applied for a grant to create internet hotspots for students who could not get internet at home. Connectivity has become an essential tool for online learning. Bass acknowledges nothing replaces in person instruction, but hybrid learning comes close.
“Basically the kids have a schedule that was set up for them. They have a class period that they have to be at, their regularly assigned class period. And then they just Google Meet in or Zoom in. Right now we are using Google Meet predominantly.”
One family that chose online learning even before the school year started was Will Schmidt's. Before one of his classes, Will and his dad Karl talked via video chat. Karl says they chose remote learning for this year partly because the district is encouraging but NOTREQUIRING masks.
“You know, I know it's difficult for schools to come up with a plan that's going to work for everybody. I know some people want to go to school. Some parents need their kids to go to school for various reasons.”
Schmidt says learning from home works for them this year.
“Because I work from home this seemed like an opportunity for them to stay home. And some of that had to do with how best do we balance their education with concern over COVID-19.”
Karl’s son Will says so far, he really likes learning from home because he can work at his own pace.
“In person school, you know, it's a set amount of time every day. You have to be there seven hours a day for five days of the week. Whereas, with online learning I can usually get most of my work done within a couple hours and do what I want for the rest of the day.
This hybrid learning model also seems to work fine for students in the classroom. Alexis Vomacka likes the fact that she can do everything from her computer. That includes submitting assignments and reading class materials.
“It's way easier because everything's online. Everything's on our computer so you never have to take home any books.”
Of course, for teachers, a hybrid classroom is much more complicated. They need to keep all their students engaged – and that can be a challenge. Amanda Saathoff teaches high school Spanish and English as a second language. She says online students can become distracted.
“Just keeping things active and moving in the classroom has really helped a lot. Along with just making sure I actively call on the kids that are at home and help make sure that they are also participating in the classroom.”
In her technology class, Tina Belden does the same thing with her students. Belden says another challenge is encouraging discussions between students.
“But if you use a discussion tool that may be where they put their thoughts. That may be where they put their main points or whatever they pulled from the lesson. So just kind of gearing it more towards the technological tool and then once you give them that tool then that's where they're going to express themselves. That's where they’re going to come to life.”
Belden says it's also important for teachers to have a plan b if they run into technical issues and can't connect with their online students.
“I think I've said a million times already this year, we're just going, got go with the flow and adjust as we need. Being flexible is the most important part. And, you know what, I think that's a learning experience in its own because kids need to learn how to be flexible and learn how to adjust in the moment and if something doesn't go your way your going to have to have to just figure that out and problem solve and move on to the next step.”
Belden and her fellow teachers say they will continue to problem solve as the year moves forward. For now, educators in the Estelline School District are pleased that hybrid learning can give their students a quality education - no matter where they sit.