June 30, 2020
PEP Talk - Reflections on Virtual Learning
CUW students in the trenches share their observations on virtual learning in the era of COVID-19
Jessica Koepp
I am a 5 th grade teacher at Messmer Saint Mary Catholic School in Milwaukee. At the start of the Stay at Home order, around March 13 th, our school was just entering spring break. Our amazing administration, thankfully, had a week to plan how we were going to handle online learning. They willingly gave up their spring break so we could all be prepared for what was coming next.
Most of our grades (K4-8 th) are using the Google Classroom format for online learning. Each week, packets are also put together by teachers to either be mailed home or at school for parents to pick up. These packets are for the students who do not have access to internet or do not have a device to work on. At the beginning of April, we started distributing Chromebooks to families who did not have technology devices to work on. We have even delivered these Chromebooks to the families who are unable to make it to school to pick them up due to their jobs.
Not only are we mailing and distributing packets and Chromebooks, but we are also delivering and handing out meals 3 times a week to families in need. I am sure it has been a lot on parents to feed their children when they used to get 2 meals for free at school 5 days a week thanks to the free and reduced lunch program.
I could dwell on all the negative parts of this “quarantine” but I like to focus on the positive. I am able to see my students with Zoom conferences. Most of my students are completing and turning in work. Everyone gets to spend more time with their families. And the best part for both teachers and students? We get a pajama day every single day. 
Elizabeth Winiecki
Educators are amazing because they do whatever it takes to teach their students, even if
it means unexpectedly adopting their entire curriculum to an online learning format. I, like many
other educators, felt completely overwhelmed at the thought of virtual learning, but knew I would
be able to tackle the challenge with the help of my colleagues. I am a fifth grade teacher from
the Waunakee Community School District, and I have learned a lot in these past few months of
transitioning to online learning. Here are some suggestions for online learning based on my
experience:
1. Make it a priority to underwhelm students, families, and staff. We are in the middle of a
pandemic, and it is, therefore, important to show families that we are there to support
them, not to cause them further stress. A great way to do this is to ease students into
online learning. If your goal is to have students eventually do three to four hours of
online learning per day, slowly work them up to it. Start with one or two hours. Also, try
to keep the use of technology platforms to a minimum. Commit to using Google
Classroom, Seesaw, or Schoology, but do not use them all at once, so as not to
overwhelm families.
2. It is important to continue to promote equity. Therefore, when possible, choose
asynchronous learning options over synchronous ones. Asynchronous learning means
that students complete assignments at times of their own choosing. Synchronous
learning means that all students complete assignments at the same time. It will be
challenging to ensure equity if students are all expected to be online at the same time.
3. Make connections a priority. It is always important to make connections with students
but especially right now when students may be feeling isolated. Some ways to stay
connected involve writing and mailing letters to students, sending emails to students,
and holding virtual meetings — all for nonacademic purposes. Virtual meetings could
even be over lunch. When holding virtual meetings, make sure to greet kids by name.
Regularly check up on how students are doing and be especially intentional about
checking up on students who have not interacted much online.
4. Work as a team. Collaborating is very important to teaching and all the more so now.
One teacher can make a video modeling a lesson and this video can be sent to all
students. Or every teacher can take a chapter reading aloud a book and make a video
to send out to all students. Working together will make tackling online learning more
manageable for educators.
5. Provide activities that students can do offline to balance screen time. Students could
write in a journal, do a science experiment at home, or do a workout in the living room.
6. Communicate regularly with parents. Parents may be anxious and will feel better if they
are kept in the loop in regard to any updates. Even if you do not have a fully fleshed-out
plan, they will appreciate knowing that there is a plan or that one will soon be
communicated.
7. Celebrate. Find the advantages of online learning and make sure to celebrate them.
Students will grow in creativity, perseverance, and resourcefulness. Some students will
be more successful with virtual learning than in-person learning. Let students and
families know about these celebrations.
8. Take care of yourself. You will need to take breaks. You may be taking care of your
own children during the day. Do what you need to do and resist the urge to feel guilty.
We are all doing the best we can and that is enough.
Samantha Poleon
Unless they are working for a virtual school, virtual, distance, and online are not words any
teacher thought they’d use to describe teaching in their career. At Wilson Middle School in Manitowoc,
WI, teachers are working diligently to make the most of the experience for their students. With two days
to prepare before online learning began, as many teachers across the country experienced, there was little time to be fully trained in any aspect of online learning. The focus has always been students, but even more emphasized now is the need to take care of students. Our administrators have talked about the importance of taking care of all parts of the student, not only their education, and connecting with them in any way possible as frequently as we can. We want to make sure that mentally and emotionally, they are thriving the best that they can because, without it, it would be difficult for students to focus and engage completely in their distance learning. As teachers, we are working to connect with each student weekly in any way we can, whether it be Google Meets, emails, letters home, or phone calls.

Each teacher created and added students to a Google Classroom if they did not have one already
running for their class. Core content area teachers post daily lessons for students to engage in their class. Electives or classes that would meet every other day or on a three day schedule post lessons for the days that they would have typically seen the specific group of students. The lessons are typically twenty minutes in length; each students’ school work for the day should take them approximately three to four hours. Once assignments are submitted, teachers can choose how to give feedback to students. The
feedback can be in individual comments, whole class notes, video recorded whole class comments, small
group/individual Google Meets, or whichever means the teacher thinks is most effective for students.
Many teachers have Google Meet weekly schedules for the students to view live lessons, ask questions,
receive help, interact with their classmates, or get any support they may need. Specialists are able to
support their students by creating their own Google Classroom, working with students through a core
teacher’s Google Classroom, or through Google Meets scheduled with the students they service.

To ensure that students are not falling through the cracks, the Student Support Team, made up of
administrators and counselors, created a contact document that is editable to all teachers in the school. In the document, teachers notate any communications or attempted communications with students and
families to discuss issues with engagement in distance learning. If teachers’ communication attempts are
unsuccessful or there are many notes of communication to one student from teachers, the Student Support Team also begins working to contact the student and their family along with the teachers. In this way, we are reaching out to families and students in a variety of ways and from many different staff, checking in to make sure that they are doing well and determining if they need anything to help be successful in this time of distance learning.

Teachers at Wilson are relying on their teams and other staff members more than ever;
conversations are constantly being had about lessons, engagement, student contact, parent contact, and
next steps. We have continued the professional learning community (PLC) weekly team meetings,
allowing teacher teams to maintain the work that was being done while we were in physical school. In
these collaborative meetings, we are ensuring that students are being provided with the best possible
instruction that we can give them during this time, that we are working to maintain learning, and that
students are being connected with as much as we can. While many teachers did not expect to become virtual instructors in their career, it is safe to say everyone is making the most of it. Teachers at Wilson Middle School are working diligently to ensure that students are learning in a variety of ways during a difficult time in our world. They are not only ensuring learning for students, but connections with students; teachers are making sure that students know that we are here for them and support them through each connection that is made.
Mary Wagner
When Governor Tony Evers mandated the closure of Wisconsin schools on March 18 due to the coronavirus pandemic, most districts immediately began preparation for virtual instruction. Few, if any, administrators, educators, parents or students, however, really knew what “school” would look like for the nearly one million Wisconsin students during that time. Although the district in which I teach has always been innovative, it is safe to say that none of the administrators or teachers--or parents--could truly conceptualize the reality that we were facing.  

In our school district, school was dismissed for spring break the week before the official closure was to begin throughout the state so we had a little extra time to prepare. Although students had been sent home with computers on the last day of classes before the break, the district knew that families would need more than just a device to really begin. Thus, this time was used to disperse hot spots to those without adequate internet access and to distribute packets containing tips and tricks about the computer along with information about how to navigate the google classroom platform. Families of students in the 4-K program were sent a collection of age-appropriate learning activities and community members were invited to pick up free breakfasts and lunches for any children under the age of 18, along with basic school supplies such as notebooks, pencils, crayons, markers and glue sticks, if needed, which would continue throughout the duration of the Safer at Home order.

Our first week of virtual schooling was dedicated to the simple idea of familiarizing families to the process of online schooling, but as is often the case in education, simple often doesn’t mean quick or easy. For the teachers, it involved exploring google classroom, google meets, and setting up virtual class meetings.  Much time was also spent exploring a barrage of free programs by well-meaning (and smartly-marketed) companies, commiserating with colleagues about how to teach concepts that had been so easy to manipulate in person but seemed impossible to do online, and meeting with administrators who were continually warning about the importance of moving slowly into this new virtual teaching world. For the parents, it often meant using a computer for the first time, learning how to make a plan that would accomplish all that was needed, and managing the ever-present needs of a child--or multiple children--at home with them for more hours in the day every day than they had previously been accustomed. For all the sitting at home that was done throughout week 1, teachers and parents sure were tired!
  Week Two brought the reality that it was time to get started on the academics. Teachers met together frequently to consider how instruction could, should and would look and took their administrator’s suggestion to work together as a grade-level team to provide it. They discussed who would teach what, how often and in what way and they investigated the most effective way to post assignments to ensure student participation. Face-to-face class meetings continued several times a week with increased student participation (yay, parents!) and teachers assigned students to log back onto familiar programs that had been used in the brick-and-mortar classrooms such as i-Ready, RAZ-Kids and Bookflix. Concerned that students may not have ready access to appropriately-leveled reading material, teachers also researched online text options such as those made available by Pioneer Valley, Flyleaf, Epic, Audible, Libby and LearningAlly. In addition, they made plans to purchase book sets that would be sent directly from the publisher to the homes of children who were struggling readers and/or those whose families lacked the ability to navigate the online platforms. This new level of activity, of course, required even more parent participation. Those who struggled with it in Week One were under even more stress during Week Two, while others who were more familiar with technology, had more time and/or greater organizational skills handled the responsibilities without as much difficulty. Parent participation in a survey sent at the end of the week was huge--and so was the contrast between responses. The number of families who indicated comfort with the virtual program was matched by the number that didn’t. Some were excited about the opportunities for their children but some were utterly overwhelmed by them.  
 
By Week Three, teachers began to feel calmer about online instruction. While this was a comfortable place for many to remain, others sought new ways to do the old things that had been previously part of their daily schedules. Reading interventionists again began meeting 1:1 with struggling readers and connected them with programs to build their skills. Physical education, art, music, guidance and mindfulness specialists prepared weekly routines. English-language specialists provided additional support for those in need, guidance counselors and other school personnel planned 1:1 meetings with children who were demonstrating social and/or mental health needs and regular-classroom teachers met with small-groups of readers. While so much had changed, the most important parts of everyone’s days were replicating days gone by.
 
Week Four of virtual instruction brought a sense of routine for many that hadn’t been experienced for some time. Most, however, still hoped that the governor’s order at the end of the week would involve a return to the school building before the end of the school year. Perhaps no one felt more strongly about this than the teachers who had, only a month before the March 18th order to close the schools, submitted their letter of resignation after a long and satisfying career in the classroom. Many of these teachers were overcome by the thought that they would not be able to mark each step closer to their final day in the classroom by doing many of the things they had loved to do “one last time” with the children. Instead, the “one last time” had already occurred a whole year prior; come and gone without an opportunity to consciously cherish the experience and without the smiles and laughter of the children they loved.
 
Whether Governor Evers would or would not cancel in-school instruction for the remainder of the year is no longer a mystery, but many questions remain regarding how students will be affected by the situation, both immediately and in the long run. Will teachers be able to advance students more than just a fraction of the distance to their typical end-goal? How much and for how long will the students’ overall scholastic development be stunted by this significant instructional change? What about academic equity--how can the district ensure equal opportunity for all when so much depends on others beyond their reach? And does any of this really matter if the students, the teachers and/or other adults in the community are unable to effectively cope with the stress, isolation and overall readjustment so prevalent during this time of uncertainty and social distancing? These are the issues that must now be addressed as the district moves from its short term “survival” plan to one that is significantly more permanent and consequential. Certainly, the impact of the decisions made by school districts throughout the state, country and even world will have far-reaching effects. May they be made with creativity, clarity and care.

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