COVID-19: Families wait for district direction while simulating school, keeping kids busy

By TED TAYLOR
CENTRAL OREGON DAILY

Kelly Kearsley is a writer by trade; a teacher by necessity.

“I just got off a conference call, and I’m now multiplying fractions with my 4th-grader,” she said Wednesday afternoon.

Home is school now across the state of Oregon.

Parents last week braced for a roughly two-week, COVID-19-forced closure that included a week of Spring Break they’d already planned for.

But on Tuesday, Gov. Kate Brown ordered schools to remain closed until April 28th, sending many parents into a state of panic about what to do next.

The decision also sent school districts across Central Oregon scrambling to make sure parents are adequately equipped to shoulder the new challenge of serving as both child care provider and teacher – all while many try working from home.

“I am hoping fervently for some sort of online distance learning that at least establishes some parameters for what needs to get done,” Kearsley said.

Reese and Brennan Johnson read and do some math while passing time at home.

Help appears to be on the way as districts plan to rollout “Continuation of Learning Plans” that will serve as a tool for parents to help guide their kids through some sort of simulated schooling.

Redmond Schools Superintendent Mike McIntosh unveiled EngageRedmond in a letter to families on Friday evening, saying he recognizes the activities and lessons doesn’t replace classroom instruction but will help keep kids’ minds sharp.

“Some of these resources include learning with devices and technology, while others do not; similar to the student experience during a typical school day,” he said. “They are intended to be opportunities and resources, but are not mandatory.”

Bend-La Pine Schools Superintendent Shay Mikalson said Friday parents can expect to hear from teachers on March 31. Teachers will have instruction for picking up materials in person or receiving materials electronically.

He said materials for K-2 students will be primarily paper packets, supplemented by teacher videos, etc. while materials for students in grade 3-12 will be primarily digital.

“These are unprecedented times, to be sure,” Mikalson said in a letter to parents. “All of us will do the best that we can, recognizing none of it will be perfect. It’s important that we all give ourselves and each other some grace.”

In Crook County, families will be able to access the district’s “Learning from Home” option both digitally and through paper packets. The district’s technology department was working this week on options to best equip students and families with the technology needed to continue their learning at home.

The district also plans to launch a new helpline for parents to make sure they can get connected to someone to discuss continuing education at home.

Even before the districts release their coordinated plans for moving on with the school year at home, local teachers are using all kinds of methods to stay engaged with their students.

Gym teachers are leading online fitness classes while others lead story time and directed drawing exercises via Facebook or the Seesaw app.

Julie White, a kindergarten teacher at Juniper Elementary, said using the app to connect with her students was helping her get through all this as much as anything.

“For me, keeping that personal contact since we can’t be in person together…them seeing my face and with some of the kids messaging me back pictures, it totally makes my day,” she said. “It’s just a tiny bit of time to spend with them, but I hope it’s making their day too.”

Elk Meadow Elementary School 3rd-grade teacher Brenna Frost created an entire website to help parents come up with ideas.

“This site started as an idea list for friends and family,” she says on the site. “I wanted to share ideas with loved ones who are now unexpectedly home with their children during the current state of emergency.”

State school leaders said it was crucial for parents to not see this mandated closure as an extended vacation.

“Engagement is paramount,” said Oregon Department of Education spokesman Marcus Siegel. “ODE recommends districts encourage students and families to stay engaged in informal or supplemental learning by creatively utilizing online and offline resources. While school may not be in session, school districts and educators can be a vital community resource for students and families.”

Suzie Vance does some school work at home during the state-mandated closure

But that engagement doesn’t necessarily have to come in the form of school work.

Jackie Vance, an early childhood educator at Central Oregon Community College, said parents should give themselves some grace and not stress out if they don’t have or follow a structured lesson plan for their younger kids.

Vance, who also works at Juniper Elementary in Bend, said early on she excitedly posted on Facebook a simulated, structured “school” schedule for parents.

“Very quickly I felt overwhelmed,” she said. “It didn’t fit for my family so I backed off.”

Instead, she’s promoting a lot of play time with some reading in the morning and math in the afternoon for her daughters, Suzie, 6 and Helen, 8. There’s also baking and games sprinkled in throughout the day.

“One of the bonuses of this whole thing is that we’re slowing down,” she said. “We’re eating together, playing games together and doing things together. They’re getting that language and interaction.”

Kearsley said she’s trying to maintain a schedule for her two kids, 9-year-old Reese and 11-year-old Brennan. She and her husband Justin are self-employed and often work from home, but “juggling shepherding kids’ school and learning with my own work is difficult,” she said.

The best part of the day?

“I’m teaching PE every day at 3:30!”

Jamie Bowles is the mother of four; 4-year-old Jack, 10-year-old James, 14-year-old Melanie and 16-year-old Kai. She’s also a wildlife technician with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in Bend and is still going into the office each day.

“From now until April 1, we will be utilizing Kahn Academy. Older kids are asked to help younger kids,” she said, adding that her 14-year-old is running the show. “We’re really trying to remember to get outside and into the fresh air. Also, making sure that the home “school” day is shorter than an actual school day, to accommodate the inability to move about and be active with friends.”

Local school district officials are bracing parents for the possibility schools could be closed into May – or beyond.

Vance, though, said parents need to remember this isn’t an academic crisis.

“It’s two months of a 13-year career in school,” she said. “I don’t think the kids aren’t going to go to college because of this.”

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