BENTON — Ron Winemiller and his wife and two children start their mornings with the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by morning announcements.
On Thursday, from the kitchen, Winemiller, in his best announcer voice, reported that the daily lunch would be ham sandwiches, and the PE game of the day kickball — much to the delight of his 5-year-old, Malone. Afterward, his second-grader, Maysen, started in on her online homework. Winemiller and his wife, Whitney, are trying to create a routine that provides some normalcy as the days under a “stay-at-home” order stretch on and schools turn to remote learning.
“It’s new for everybody,” said Winemiller, who is also teaching the classroom portion of driver’s education remotely. “It’s an unfortunate situation that everybody’s in, but you just do the best you can with what you have and keep pushing forward.”
Across Southern Illinois, pre-K and K-12 school administrators, teachers, parents and students are treading into uncharted waters as they attempt to navigate continued learning with schools closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
By executive order, Gov. J.B. Pritzker shut down schools on March 17 -- and he has since extended the closure until at least May. Ten days later, the Illinois State Board of Education announced that schools would be required to start remote learning.
Tuesday marked the first day of the mandate. State Superintendent of Education Carmen Ayala said the decision was made to continue education, despite uncertainty that students will return to the classroom this year.
“To not provide something for our children to engage with would have been a disservice,” she said. But this decision comes with steep challenges, as not every student may have the tools they need to learn well at home. Some parents are still working, and children may be in daycare. Older children may be asked to watch their younger siblings so that their parents can report for essential work.
The ISBE has acknowledged these concerns, and said in its recommendation to teachers and districts that a “first priority” for schools during this unprecedented time should be “keeping children emotionally and physically safe, fed, and engaged in learning.”
Ayala said students will likely lose some retention of skills, but said it is important that school districts make efforts to continue educating students. That said, the state — and local school districts — are trying to maintain a balance during this difficult time. In its guidelines, the ISBE said, “the emphasis for schoolwork assigned, reviewed, and completed during the remote learning period is on learning, not on compliance.”
Ayala said the board isn’t expecting full days worth of learning for students. She said that is recognizing the wide spectrum of home environments of students across the state. The state’s guidelines also said that students should have the opportunity to “redo, make up, or try again to complete, show progress, or attempt to complete work assigned prior to the remote learning period in that time frame.”
‘We miss you’
One of the biggest hurdles teachers and students have in Southern Illinois with the push for distance learning is access to technology and high-speed internet. Some teachers are turning to web-based platforms such as Zoom meetings and Google Hangouts — but not every child can participate. Some families can’t afford internet service. And in some rural areas, the service available is adequate. Parents say this is especially true if they have several children trying to work online at once.
For this reason, schools in the region are supplementing their online resources with paper packets.
Daniel Booth, the superintendent of Carbondale Elementary School District No. 95, said this experience has “really highlighted many of the inequities in the state.” Booth said his school has made paper packets a focus.
“Our goals at this point are not to introduce new knowledge,” he said. “We really don’t want our kids to lose what they have (learned).”
Vienna High School Superintendent Josh Stafford said his district covers 300 square miles. Reliable internet access is a serious concern throughout remote parts of Johnson County, he said, and some teachers have a hard time even getting cell reception at home. So he, too, had teachers focus on paper packets. The district is also taking steps to help more families access online resources.
In an email to the district and the media, Stafford said hotspot buses would be parked at Vienna High School, Fellowship Baptist Church in Vienna and the city’s McDonalds for students and families to use.
All this is secondary, though. Stafford said making sure students and families have access to food and childcare for those still needing it comes first. Then, they can zero-in on student learning.
Stafford, Booth and Cairo schools superintendent Andrea Evers said communication between teachers and students and families has been — and will continue to be — key throughout this process. The discussions aren’t centered on “have you been answering every single question on that worksheet,” Booth said. Instead, he wants it to be: “How are things going? We miss you.”
Evers said her district’s teachers are getting creative to maintain a connection with students. For instance, she said one of her third-grade teachers has been holding three-way calls with students in order for them to read to each other.
Matt Donkin, the superintendent of Frankfort Community School District No. 168, said he has looked to California schools as examples for how to navigate the situation. He said the wildfires last year were both traumatic and disrupting.
“How were they able to pick up with all of those students with that trauma,” Donkin asked. His teachers' efforts have not been unlike other districts — paper packets with online supplements and lots of teacher contact. Donkin said the district is doing its best to help students through this time, though he also has concerns.
“How much are we getting accomplished and how much are we extending the achievement gap,” he said.
‘I’m already beat down’
Kim Young, a mom to three young children enrolled at Giant City School, worries about that, too. Young and her husband are both still working during the day. She’s employed by a real estate company in Carbondale, and is working from her isolated office in town. Her husband is employed as an IT specialist with a local school district, and is currently working from home. That doesn’t allow either of them a lot of time to help their children — who are in the fourth, sixth and eighth grades — navigate their daily lessons.
Typically, they try to squeeze it in after dinner. But Young said it’s not easy to find the motivation after a long day of work.
One of her children has an individualized education plan because of a learning difference, making it extra challenging. It’s harder than simply helping them go over their homework based on lessons they learned at school during the day, she said. The Youngs have internet access at their rural Jackson County home, but it’s not fast or reliable for downloading documents. Because of this, she's been picking up the paper packets. But Young said the district asked them not to return the paperwork for safety reasons.
Instead, she said the district instructed her to take photos of her children's completed work and text them to their teachers’ cell phones. Young said she and her husband are trying, but it feels like too much to juggle.
“I’m already beat down and practically broken just with the stress of everything going on,” she said. Young said her personal frustration with the process is also unsettling, as she worries her children might fall behind. “There’s a phrase that’s coined called ‘mom guilt,’” she said. “It’s a legit thing.”
Winemiller, the Benton High teacher, said he recognizes that every family is in a different situation. He and his wife are at home now, and they like the structure the lessons provide. Winemiller said his second grader loves learning and excels at school, and hasn’t encountered many problems with online assignments. He said her teacher has done a good job of staying in touch with students and parents to answer any questions they have.
Teaching his students remotely comes with unique challenges. Winemiller said that driver’s education is the only class for which the state has not relaxed requirements on remote learning. He’s able to continue teaching the classroom portion of driver’s education that students take prior to applying for their permit. But the “stay-at-home” mandate doesn’t allow for instruction time behind the wheel.
Before they can obtain a driver’s license at age 16 or older, students must have had their permit for nine months and logged six hours driving with an instructor over a four-week period, and 50 hours with their parents.
“I’m going to do everything I can to get them their license on their 16th birthday because I know that’s a big deal to kids,” he said. “That’s a milestone.” But Winemiller said the disappointing reality is that some may have to wait a few extra months.
‘Grit and perseverance’
While it’s challenging not to solely focus on the here and now, looking ahead to fall, administrators and teachers saw opportunities for both themselves and their students.
“Our goal whenever we return to school is that our students will come back with grit and perseverance,” Stafford said.
Booth said the experience of having to completely rethink education midstream has highlighted for many, including the governor and ISBE, the inequity he and other educators see every day. He and Donkin both said they hope there can be a bigger push for infrastructure to close some of this resource gap with students and families.
Stafford said every problem presents an opportunity and he, along with many others, said the COVID-19 pandemic has reminded people just how important schools are in a community.
“All across the state of Illinois right now the two stable forces are the health industry and the K-12 (system),” Booth said.
Donkin reiterated one question many have been asking: “When will we be back to normal and what will normal look like?”
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On Twitter: @ismithreports / @MollyParkerSI
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