Teachers struggle to reach kids amid virus closure

TACOMA, Wash. (AP) — At least 40 percent.

That’s how many of her students Nichol Everett, a teacher at Jason Lee Middle School in Tacoma, says she hasn’t heard from since Washington Gov. Jay Inslee shut down public schools in response to the coronavirus more than a month ago.

Everett says she’s sent emails, made phone calls, tried to utilize social media and even mailed postcards. During the first weeks of the school closure, she created a website full of resources.

In total, Everett — who teaches sixth graders and eight graders — says she has 158 students, and participation even among those she’s managed to reach is scattershot.

Many have responded, in some capacity, to daily online check-ins, she says, but few are completing the assigned work.

“About 20 students have turned in any work in the last six weeks,” Everett says. “On the assignments — the academic work — (participation) has been very low.”

At least anecdotally, Everett’s experience has been shared by a number of teachers in Tacoma. Roughly six weeks into the school closure — with many more weeks to come — teachers from neighborhoods across the city describe similar challenges.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced Tacoma Public Schools teachers to adapt, essentially overnight, to the new reality of distance learning and instruction from afar. Some say that various impediments — including students’ access to technology and the task of motivating kids to complete what amounts to ungraded work — have often made the transition difficult.

District spokesperson Dan Voelpel says Tacoma “teachers are doing some amazing work under difficult circumstances,” while also acknowledging the challenges.

“School as we know it is about routines, structure and supports that we’ve meticulously built to give kids the best shot at learning —and we indoctrinate the kids in it starting in preschool and kindergarten,” Voelpel says. “Those routines, structures and support disappeared in the blink of an eye. Everyone here has been doing the best they can to reengage with students in new yet meaningful ways to keep the learning going.”

That process has been “really, really hard,” according to Kevin Zamira, who teaches honors English and AP Human Geography at Lincoln High School.

Typically, Zamira is in front of his classes. Now, he says he has “a desk job,” where he spends most of his time sending emails, making phone calls and scheduling meetings.

Zamira says he’s trying to provide students with roughly three hours of work per week. He has sophomores working through the novel, “Things Fall Apart,” while he’s helping his AP human geography students prepare for this year’s exam, which is scheduled for May 12.

Like administrators and school board members, Zamira is keenly aware of the district-wide disparities. At home, he knows some of his students don’t have access to the internet or a consistent way to access it. He also knows COVID-19 and the economic disruption it has caused has created additional financial uncertainty for many families.

He’s trying his best to “put stuff in front of them that’s engaging, challenging … and also equitable,” he says.

Zamira’ has 140 students. He says he “hasn’t heard back — at all — from about 40 to 45 of them.”

“They either haven’t called me back or emailed me back or logged on to look at their assignments. I don’t know where they are, or what’s going on — so it’s been a real challenge,” Zamira says. “I definitely think there’s a technology gap.

“I also think a lot of it is that (students) heard school is closed, so they’re kind of moving into this wait-and-see approach. Do I need to do this work? Does it affect my grade?”

Recently, Tacoma Public Schools announced an updated policy that will limit middle and high school students to A, B, or C letter grades through the end of the school year.

“It’s hard to say anything definitive about why students aren’t participating, since … they aren’t participating.”

Weeks ago, when Tacoma schools undertook distance learning, teachers were instructed to inform students that they could only improve grades through distance learning schoolwork.

In other words, Zamira says, some students see little reason to do the work, and it’s having a predictable effect on participation.

“I just think there’s a lot of uncertainty, and it doesn’t create an environment where they’re going to go and seek out these learning opportunities,” Zamira says.

Carinna Tarvin, who teaches 10th grade AP world history and 11th grade U.S. history at Lincoln, says she’s “wary” of some of the “underlying assumptions” people have about students at the high-poverty high school.

Disparities exist, she says, but lowered expectations carry their own risk.

In Tarvin’s AP world history classes, there are 86 students. She says 66 have viewed or attended an online class, and 28 have turned in an assignment.

Of the 52 students in Tarvin’s U.S. history classes, 10 have turned in an assignment, she says.

Tarvin says she knows many of her students are “MIA because of stress, family responsibilities and a lack of technology” — she has one now working 40 hours a week at McDonalds, for example — but she also believes many simply “don’t have any real incentive to do schoolwork” right now.

“It’s hard to say anything definitive about why students aren’t participating, since … they aren’t participating,” Tarvin says.

Across town, at Tacoma Public Schools’ Science and Math Institute (SAMI) in Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, Matt Lonsdale says he’s having many of the same issues.

Lonsdale spends his days trying to connect with students and creating curriculum that’s accessible, he says.

Teaching upper division natural sciences courses — largely to juniors and seniors — Lonsdale says he knows at least half of his students are getting his emails.

Very few are completing assignments, he says.

More than anything, Lonsdale is concerned about what else is being missed when schools are forced to go virtual. There are important interactions that happen at school, and without that, he worries about the impact it will have on students who might be struggling.

“The biggest challenge or shift for me was really the loss of being able to connect with the students, and check in with them. Those conversations that happen all the time that are not academic based — just checking in with the kids and seeing how they’re doing,” Lonsdale says. “The loss of that, and trying to recreate it in some digital way, has been difficult.”

That’s precisely the challenge for kindergarten teachers like Point Defiance Elementary’s Kelly King.

Unlike middle school or high school teachers, the learning that happens in kindergarten and elementary school is often tied to the “family atmosphere” of the classroom and dependent on human interaction, King says.

When the in-person school year abruptly ended, King says she spent the first week “in a state of denial and sadness.”

“There were lots of tears, and that ache for my students. It took me maybe over a week to realize I needed to adapt,” King says. “What that looked like for me personally is that I had to start rethinking everything I do as an educator.”

King has been a kindergarten teacher at Point Defiance for the last decade. Before that, she spent 25 years teaching at Boze Elementary on the Eastside.

Over the course of a lengthy career, King developed a teaching style that had to be quickly re-calibrated, she says. The pandemic school closure forced her to embrace new technologies and return to the fundamentals of education.

King says she tries to reach out to each of her students’ families once a week, and so far has had overwhelming participation from the kids and their parents.

“It’s a whole new way of looking at teaching, but this is our reality now, and we are going to make it work,” King says.

“We have to. We have too much on the line to give up.”

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