By Starla Pointer • Staff Writer • 

A few glitches, but teachers in McMinnville happy to see students again

She said it was “really fulfilling” to see “solid teaching and learning” in progress again.

There were some technological glitches as 2,200 high school students began attending online classes, but the start was “better than expected,” she said.

And reviews of the first week were positive. “Parents said having more structure” than in spring was helpful, she said, and they appreciated the synchronous learning, with students and teachers in class at the same time.

Fast said she saw that technique working in her own home, as well.

The format used in spring, after schools suddenly shut their doors because of the then-new coronavirus pandemic, created a lot of work for parents, she said.

Now, when she monitors her daughter and son, “my kids are in their classes and the teacher is right there to address questions and needs,” she said. 

Education is at its most effective when teachers and students are working together, Fast said. “You need the human element, the relationship, the humor,” she said. 

Mac High is continuing to offer a full schedule of classes, including many that usually entail students working side-by-side in the same room with teachers, such as welding, music and drama.

In some cases, students now watch as the teacher demonstrates a technique or an experiment, or, in classes such as the Engineering and Aerospace Sciences Academy, they have tools at home to build a model, Fast said. The faculty continues to discuss how some courses could occasionally meet in person, as allowed by the Oregon Department of Education.

The school also has arranged methods for counselors to meet with students to alter schedules or discuss personal matters. Virtual college visits are planned. And, to address social and emotional needs, a virtual calming room is available with suggestions for how students can relieve stress or worries.

One of Fast’s favorite facets of this school year is having Grizzly Nation advisory groups. Each adult at Mac High has about 15 students with whom they meet regularly, helping them with technical and scheduling issues, monitoring their grades and attendance, and ensuring they feel a part of the school. 

“We’ve really wrapped our arms around our kids,” Fast said. 

When in-person classes are in session, she goes into the hall during passing period, greeting teens as they move through the building. Now, she said, when she walks the halls, they are quiet.  

“It’s so strange,” she said. “I know school is happening, but I don’t see it. I miss the kids.”

The 2020-21 school year originally was set to begin Sept. 8, but the McMinnville district, like many others around Oregon, moved the start back to Sept. 14 to provide staff more time for training and preparation for distance learning.

Next the beginning was delayed for another day because heavy smoke from wildfires made the air quality dangerous. Even though students are working from home, some teachers planned to teach from their buildings, and the delay gave them time to set up home offices instead or avoid commuting in the hazardous air. 

The smoky skies reminded many of the beginning of the 2017 school year, when skies were also obscured because of wildfires. Most students remained inside for recess during the first few days that September.

This time, though, there were no students in the building, just a few teachers and other staff members. Yet as Principal Kim Price walked the halls of Memorial Elementary School, she almost thought it was business as usual. She said she could hear teachers’ voices behind closed classroom doors, delivering synchronous lessons via the internet.

“You wouldn’t realize there were no kids in those classrooms,” she said.

Knowing the children weren’t there in person was “weird,” but Price said she was very pleased by how many were attending the online classes. She frequently joins Zoom to monitor what teachers and students are doing.

Seeing 20 or more students in a class session is a good thing in many ways, she said, not least because the state Department of Education requires schools to take attendance this fall. That wasn’t the case last spring, Price said.

“We really listened to parent feedback” about distance learning, as well as to state rules, the principal said. That included adding shorter, but more frequent, synchronous lessons and time for students to get to know their classmates.

Students also see each other at virtual assemblies. The Memorial Bulldogs take part in “pawsitive” activities that promote good behavior. And on Mondays, when Price sends out a video to the entire student body, they follow clues to discover where Buddy, the Bulldog mascot, is hiding each week.

Comprehensive distance learning this fall also gives students an hour in the middle of each day for lunch and step away from their screens, as well as time for P.E., music and watching videos recorded by the school librarian. Synchronous classes also may include breaks and pauses for movement time.

“Teachers know when kids need to get the wiggles out,” Price said. 

Youngsters really want to move, said Lance Trantham, who teaches physical education to about 500 students at Buel Elementary School.

“Elementary kids don’t want to be sitting. They want to join in and do activities,” he said. Especially now, during the pandemic closures.

“They’ve been so sedentary,” he said. “They’re excited to be active again.” 

Trantham was nervous about starting the year with comprehensive distance learning; worrying about how to teach P.E. online kept him up at night.

The first few days of distance learning have been the most stressful start of a school year he’s ever experienced, he said —and that includes his first couple years, when the recent Linfield graduate was teaching in a temporary gym following the loss of the old Columbus Elementary School to the 1993 Spring Break Earthquake.

He never planned to be a video star, and he’s still not comfortable with the format, but he said he’s learning to make videos, and his synchronous lessons are working.

In the first week, he found he couldn’t see his students well enough on his small computer monitor. So he bought a 65-inch TV set for $100 from a Facebook user, and set it up in his office next to the Buel gym.

Now he can see his students and ensure they see him as he gives instructions and demonstrates exercises.

Still, teaching P.E. remotely is difficult, Trantham said. He can’t stand next to them to demonstrate how to do something correctly, and they don’t have the equipment available at school. 

His first video offered students ideas for making sports equipment from items they have on hand — a ball made of rolled-up socks, a ball-and-cup catching game made from an empty yogurt tub and a wad of paper, a paddle made from a Frisbee or a Tupperware lid, a soccer ball made from multiple layers of crumbled paper.

The makeshift equipment has to be usable inside the house, he said.

“I can’t have them go outside,” he said. “No internet.”

Memorial third-grade teacher Kiana Tabor said distance learning this fall is working better than in spring.

“We had no preparation,” she said, “This time, at least, I know some of the technology.”

Her students also have more experience with remote learning. And she knew some of the third-graders on the first day because she’d taught them in first-grade in 2018-19.

On the positive side, she said distance learning leads to more collaboration with families. “They see what their child is doing,” she said. “We’re more of a team.”

Still, Tabor said, the new format remains “very challenging.” It takes a great deal of time transferring materials and assignments into a digital format, she said. 

Tabor, in her sixth year of teaching, enjoys the live Zoom classes and finds them productive. But when the leave her virtual classroom to attend other classes, she wonders how they are doing.

The hardest part of distance learning is not being in the same room as her class.

“I see them in Zoom, but it’s not the same as getting to interact with them in person,” she said.

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