At first glance, it looks like an ordinary classroom. A math teacher at the board, writing formulas and talking through the process with a student. Except the Joseph Charter School classroom is lit only by sunlight coming through the windows, and there aren’t any students sitting at desks. The student’s disembodied voice emanates from a laptop on Joseph Charter School math teacher Jim Hite’s desk.

Welcome to education in 21st century, COVID-19 style. School districts, parents, and students are getting their sea legs after being suddenly set adrift on a virtual ocean of COVID-19-required technology.

“I don’t think any teacher at any grade level would consider this a replacement for the daily interaction they have with their students,” JCS high school Principal Sheri Kilgore said. “But it’s kind of forced everyone to use more technology to interact with their students in and out of the classroom.”

Educators have had these tools at their disposal for awhile. That includes smart boards that record what is written on them, Charter School and a program called Google Classroom that, similar to ZOOM, allows everyone to see and interact with one another. But now they are essentials for everyone.

For JCS, middle and high school online education occurs on a schedule similar to regular classes.

“As of April 13, the first official day of distance learning, we went back to a set schedule,” Kilgore said.

High school students know that, for example, at 9 a.m. they are in English class, at 10 they go to their math class, at 11 their science class starts. Many teachers do the classes from their regular classrooms where they have access to their materials.

More teachers are putting videos of their lessons online — a practice that will likely continue, Kilgore said. In the past, this practice has helped students who are traveling for athletics or FFA keep up to speed. They can watch it when they have time, and they aren’t falling behind.

In the primary grades, teachers must touch base with each student once a week. Most are in contact more often. So there’s been a lot of phone calls, a lot of Google Classroom, and other academic software.

Parents are working closely with their kids because ”… a kindergartner really can’t get on the internet for a class all by themselves,” Superintendent Lance Homan said.

“I really appreciate the time that their parents carve out of their schedules to make that happen,” second-grade teacher Courtney Lyman said.

At JCS, every student with the exception of the six elementary students in Imnaha and one family who is out of range of both cell service and internet, has access to online classes, courtesy of school–owned Chromebook laptops and “hotspots.”

A hotspot, Homan explained, is like a phone, except that it is internet-specific. So if you have cell service, you can connect your computer directly to the internet. They work most places in the county.

Still, some families want their students to learn via tried and true paper and pencil technology. For those students, the buses that deliver 145 breakfasts and lunches are also an academic lifeline. They take student work back to the teachers, and deliver the teacher’s comments, corrections, assignments, and assistance to the students, providing nourishment for both body and mind.

Are students keeping up academically with where they would be if they were in a real classroom rather than a virtual one?

“Without the face-to-face daily contact, I think that is impossible,” Kilgore said. “The opportunity for rigor is there if they want it. But when we go back to classroom learning in the fall, we’ll be taking into account that we have had the two extremes of learning and everything in the middle. Luckily, the state suspended testing, so they are acknowledging that a lot of learning has been missed plus we had the fire,” she said. “We will have some catching up to do for sure for but we are up for the challenge.”

Homan summed up the thoughts of pretty much everyone.

“If we could just get back to school next year, it would be nice,” he said.

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