Alexandria students, educators agree school year has taught resiliency
Although area teachers agree that less academic content has been covered, they also point out the other ways students have grown amid shifting learning environments.
Jada McAdoo, a fourth-grader at Voyager Elementary School, started her second quarantine of the school year on Monday after her brother tested positive for COVID-19.
Since classes began in the fall, she’s been tested for the coronavirus six times.
Her father tested positive in the fall, and she can still remember the moment she stepped off the bus and her mother shared the news.
“I had a lot of emotions at that time,” Jada said.
And she’s not the only one.
The 2020-2021 school year has been one of constant changes and back-and-forth rhythms, yet Alexandria area students and teachers have navigated various learning models and discovered other lessons in the process.
In a University of Minnesota analysis of the new Minnesota Safe Learning Survey, educators, families and students agreed that students did learn this year, but the amount of material was perceived to be less than pre-pandemic times.
Researchers found some challenges that remain, such as engaging students, supporting students’ needs from home and supporting the mental health needs of students, families and educators.
In Jada's quarantine experience, she was sometimes motivated to focus on her schoolwork. Other times, she wanted nothing more than to see her friends.
Although she was able to keep up because of the extra time in her schedule, Jada noticed there was a key aspect of school missing during distance learning.
“I think that an element of school is socializing with other people, and that was taken away,” Jada said. “It didn’t feel that much like school.”
Jada's fourth-grade teacher, Beth Melrose, said she has set aside more time this year to ensure students feel connected, talking with them about how world events are affecting them, whether they’re at home or in the classroom.
During Jada's first quarantine period in October, Melrose called her daily to see if she had any questions about the lessons.
“Building relationships with our students has always been important, but during a pandemic when life feels lonely and uncertain, it has been even more important than teaching academics,” Melrose said.
Natalie Travis, a sixth-grader at Discovery Middle School, enjoyed the hybrid model to start out. She still got to see her friends, and she had more opportunities to relax at home.
On the days she went to school, even the smallest passing interactions, sharing a joke or waving to a friend, would brighten her mood.
“But on the contrary, when I was at home I wasn't able to interact with my classmates as much,” Natalie said. “I felt disconnected and lonely.”
Struggling for virtual engagement
Jon Hennen, Natalie's sixth-grade teacher, has found it both challenging and rewarding to provide class content to distance learners.
Although technology support has minimized this issue, there have still been times when Hennen has felt helpless when those learning remotely experience technology problems.
Melrose said that one of the best parts about the in-person learning model is engaging with students in full-class discussions about course content.
When a few students were in quarantine, Melrose looked forward to including them in live lessons through GoogleMeet. During a two-month distance learning period, fourth-graders could join the video call at various times throughout the day similar times to their in-person schedule for subjects.
Keeping everyone engaged was more difficult over video call though, Melrose said, because everyone would need to have their microphones muted and wait until they were called on, creating unnatural, long pauses.
This led to students missing opportunities to speak up or ask for help, Melrose said. Even those who did, she couldn’t see what they were working on through the screen. Writing was the most difficult for Melrose to teach virtually, so she would usually just wait until they were back in class.
With group work in sixth grade, Natalie said using Zoom breakout rooms took extra time to set up and allowed for students to get off topic without the teacher being able to supervise.
Though she never felt behind on her schoolwork, Natalie found that it was much easier to get distracted by other things at home than during allotted homework time in the classroom.
Keeping up with class prep
Rey Fuglestad, Spanish and physical education teacher at Alexandria Area High School, said the most difficult part about the school year for him were the transition periods between hybrid and distance learning.
Melrose echoed this challenge, saying it would take her extra time to upload assignments for students at home to complete so she could view their work. At school, they hand in worksheets and workbooks. But from home, taking pictures of workbook pages is difficult to read, so assignments had to be created in an online submission form instead.
“It just was much more time consuming than if all students were in the classroom,” Melrose said.
Although the elementary school never officially entered a hybrid learning model, Melrose said it felt like it when several students would tune in online during quarantine. Of the 23 students in her class, 18 went through at least one quarantine period.
Beating the learning gap, acquiring resiliency
Melrose lost teaching time because of a change in the schedule: 20 extra minutes of lunch and recess and a staggered end-of-the-day release of 10-15 minutes.
“I believe my students learned a lot this year, just like every year; however, I do feel that they may have not learned as much,” Melrose said.
Fuglestad also noticed this gap in learning but commented that students have been developing other important skills instead.
“I would be lying if I said that COVID hasn’t impacted learning,” Fuglestad said. “I know that I haven’t covered as much content as I would in a normal year in my classes, but students have been given an opportunity to learn a lot of other life skills as well.”
Empathy, collaboration, self-direction and resilience are a few of the characteristics he’s seen emerging among his students. He said these aren’t necessarily a result of class content but rather through adapting to the circumstances.
Hennen added to this, saying he also noticed these growth areas in his sixth-grade students.
“While it is certainly possible and understandable that students did miss out on some learning this year and last spring, they were also able to gain some very valuable skills,” Hennen said. “Students were forced to be more independent and responsible, needed to self-advocate, and became more efficient with technology. All great life skills.”
Moving forward from this year, teachers have been reaching out to students on an individual basis to check in on their plans for the summer, said Rick Sansted, Alexandria Public Schools superintendent.
Natalie plans to take private lessons for French horn and attend Challenge Academy. Jada will participate in a week-long program that involves solving mysteries.
Melrose will be offering a new program for her students: Summer Surge. It’s similar to summer school with an academic focus, but Melrose has the flexibility to choose what and how she wants to teach. Students will come three days a week to work on math, reading, writing and social skills. For the students choosing not to attend, Melrose said she hopes they stay connected to classmates and keep their brains active in a different way.
“Whether you’re a student, a teacher or a parent, the COVID experience has been exhausting,” Sansted said. “I really appreciated that commitment of staff, the recognition and willingness to dedicate some extra time to students that may need some additional support over the summer.”
Whether in academics, mental health or social connections, Sansted encourages parents to reach out to their child’s teacher or the school office for resources.
“This is an important piece of the puzzle,” Sansted said. “I just want to make sure that families are aware of the options.”