There are many ways you could describe the current school year, but it’s certainly not routine. And it has, at times, meant remote learning for students.
In the Chamberlain School District, sixth- through 12th-graders were in remote learning for four days in late September. For the Watertown School District, ninth- through 12th-graders learned remotely for nine days at the end of September. COVID-19 was the culprit in both cases.
“We actually ended up over 40 positive cases and close to 300 close contacts just at our high school alone,” Watertown School District Superintendent Jeff Danielsen said.
“It was actually because of cases among staff,” Chamberlain School District Superintendent Justin Zajic said. “We had about 26% of our six through 12 staff, about eight people, that were not able to be here either because they had a positive diagnosis or because they had a family member in quarantine, a younger kid or somebody that they had to attend to.”
Remote learning didn’t come out of nowhere.
“We kind of worked from day one with the idea that at some point we’re going to have to go remote learning, and so our teachers from day one had their kids log in to their online classes,” Zajic said.
“Our teachers had prepped for the possibility of, the term we kind of used is a rolling blackout, that what we had hoped that we would be able to do is rather than the whole district have to go virtual, we would look at it by a site-by-site basis,” Danielsen said. “And so we did the prep work ahead of time, and our teachers, so our teachers were kind of ready to go for that moment.”
“When we did have to transition to remote learning, we didn’t have to take a day or two to introduce them to the platforms, it was all already done, and so we just kind of moved on with the day, and really didn’t lose any instructional time,” Zajic said.
Connectivity was one of the challenges.
“The longer it went on … probably the first week was probably pretty sharp with regards to keeping everybody on time, on task, some of that,” Danielsen said. “And then, of course, the longer it went, it became a little more, just, it loosened a little bit from the student end.”
“The biggest challenge would have been making sure that everybody was connected to the internet. We did a survey this summer which told us about 8 or 9% of our district did not have reliable internet at home,” Zajic said. “So as soon as we made the announcement to go to remote learning, families started to connect to us and say ‘Hey, we don’t have internet.’ We worked with our local ISP, Midstate Communications, and they had really everybody hooked up within 24 hours that we needed to be.”
These two educational leaders have drawn their own lessons.
“You walk into a school this year, and every teacher is like a first-year teacher trying to just stay a little bit ahead,” Zajic said. “If you’re not familiar with how a school runs, throwing e-learning on top of it basically has doubled every teacher’s workload.”
“We can put up physical barriers, we can have people wear masks, but if they only do that during the school day, they certainly have other lives going on outside,” Danielsen said. “And so I think we’ve all kind of made some adjustments maybe in our personal lives that have helped us so that we can just keep the whole system going.”
Around 3,850 students are in the Watertown School District, while the Chamberlain School District has about 870.