Kindergarten teacher Tracy Eiser has her classroom at A.K. Suter Elementary School in Pensacola all set up — colorful charts and posters adorn the walls, a sign reading “I can tie my shoes!” with space for students to write their names underneath hangs at the front of the classroom and a “world’s best teacher” plaque sits next to her desk at the front of the room.
But Eiser, who has been a teacher for more than 20 years, won’t have any kindergarten students actually in her classroom this year. Instead, all 10 students on her roster will be at their individual homes, sitting behind their computers and watching Eiser teach in her classroom through a Google online learning space, as part of the Escambia County School District’s remote learning option during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s very sad,” Eiser said Monday, the day when teachers officially started the school year and one week before students will return Aug. 24. “I’m a very hands-on, half-mommy, half-teacher, and this is going to kill me. I’ll be ready for them to come back, when it’s safe.”
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Eiser’s 10 students will be among the 14,055 Escambia County students who have chosen remote learning for the upcoming 2020 school year, according to data made public by the school district Friday. That’s a whopping 37% of the district’s students who will learn from home, instead of coming back to in-person classes.
Less than half of the district’s student population — 17,753 students, or 47% — opted to return in-person. Another 2,646, or 7%, chose Florida Virtual School, which is different than remote learning, and 3,279 (9%) were not able to be contacted by school officials or had not submitted their choice by last week’s deadline.
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For comparison, in neighboring Santa Rosa County, 82% of the district’s students will return to brick-and-mortar school. Another 10% chose remote learning and 8% chose Florida Virtual.
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Two key differences that may explain the discrepancy in numbers are that in Santa Rosa County, remote learning wasn’t available as an option for parents until the end of July. The school board only approved remote learning after parents demanded it be an option for their children. Escambia County, however, had remote learning as an option from the get-go.
Also in Santa Rosa County, the curriculum for remote learning is based heavily on Florida Virtual School, while in Escambia County, remote learning is essentially an online version of in-person classes. Remote teachers in Escambia County will teach from their classrooms, and the curriculum, materials and homework will be identical to what the student would be experiencing if they were attending brick-and-mortar school.
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“The groups that have the lowest attendance coming to school are probably elementary school, and that doesn’t surprise me, because I think a lot of those early grade parents are concerned about sending them back to school,” said Escambia County Superintendent Malcolm Thomas. “They’re also probably going to be the ones who find remote learning the greatest challenge, because the kindergartners and first graders are not going to be able to be independent with technology. They’re going to have a lot of support from parents and the teachers will help as much as they can.”
Challenges of remote learning
The challenges of remote learning will be especially acute for the younger age groups, especially kindergartners like the ones Eiser has on her roster, who have never actually been to school before.
“I won’t be able to just walk across the room and help them with scissors and help them write their name,” she said. “How am I going to keep one group focused and working independently when they haven’t been in a classroom and worked independently before? As much as I need to depend on the parents, they can’t do it for them. They’re going to have to find a fine line between how much struggle is enough, and how much is too much. When I’m in a classroom, that’s something I can read. But it’s going to be different.”
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To help the kids, Eiser has take-home kits she will give each student when they come to pick up their district-issued Chromebook laptop that’s pre-loaded with the Google classroom software the kids will need to learn remotely. The kits include flash cards, charts about how to behave in a classroom and individualized packets of homework and materials for each day of the week.
It isn’t clear yet how many of the “unknown” students are going to show up for school next week, show up for remote learning or not show up at all — Thomas said they’re going to assume the unknowns are opting for traditional brick-and-mortar education, but he thinks many of the unknowns have moved out of town or moved away during the summer due to job issues associated with the pandemic and economic downturn.
Eiser has 16 kits prepared, six kits more than the number of students currently on her roster, just in case.
“I’m trying to be prepared for anything,” she said.
Remote learning: Students can switch during the school year
At A.K. Suter, one teacher per grade level shifted from in-person to remote learning. Across the Escambia County School District, no teachers have been laid off, and the district offered remote teaching options first to those with health conditions or those who are over the age of 60. If not enough teachers volunteered to do remote teaching, the school’s principal made decisions about which teachers to shift over to remote teaching.
Importantly, students who chose remote learning can opt to go back to in-person schooling, or vice versa, at any time during the school year. The schools will shift teachers between remote learning and in-person learning as needed.
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“We don’t want to have a student stuck in a scenario where they’re going to lose a whole year of education or fail,” Thomas said. “Ultimately, our mission is to provide quality education, and we’re going to try to support our students as best we can. There are going to be some students and some families that the remote and virtual turns out not to be a good fit, but they wanted to try it. Or if something happens and the virus gets dramatically better and people are feeling more comfortable and want to go back to school, we’d be able to accommodate that, too.”
Several teachers who are currently in-person teaching are still training for the possibility of having to switch to remote learning, in case there’s a virus outbreak and they have to go online or in case the majority of their students switch from in-person to online learning.
Anna Harageones, a first-grade teacher, spent her first Monday back with some of her fellow first-grade teachers learning how to do remote teaching in the event she has to switch at some point during the school year. Her students will go through similar online training during the first few weeks of school so that if they have to switch to remote learning, they’ll be comfortable with the Google classroom and the technology.
“It helps us to grow and become stronger teachers,” Harageones said. “It helps us to expand with the technology and helps us to adapt. We’re blessed to work at a school where our team is so collaborative.”
According to district data, 3% of students, or 1,274 students, said they don’t have internet connectivity at home. The district says it has enough internet hot spots to cater to all of those students and then some, if the need arises.
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In-person learning: No more student errands, plexiglass protectors on desks
For the students who will be returning to in-person schooling Aug. 24, social distancing is going to be the name of the game.
Thomas said it’s actually a good thing that less than half of the students will return to school.
“It’s a good thing, because those that are coming back face-to-face, we’re able to social distance much better than I thought we would when we rolled out our plan on July 6,” Thomas said. “At that point, I really thought the vast majority are going to send them back to school. … These rooms are not going to be overcrowded for the most part.”
The district has implemented cleaning and social distancing protocols, and each individual schools also has its own policies in place. At A.K. Suter, for instance, students essentially will never leave their classrooms, except to go pick up food in the cafeteria.
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“We have the most beautiful music and art room, but the music and art teachers are going to be coming to their classrooms, instead of the kids going to the music and art room,” said A.K. Suter Principal Russell Queen. “In the past, students have run errands for their teachers during the day. We’re doing away with that. They would take papers to the office after morning announcements, now we have clipboards on the outside of the door that an adult will come around and collect in the morning.”
Students will still have recess and physical education classes, but they will be kept in their individual classes and won’t be allowed to mingle with students in other classrooms. Teachers and staff will also check their own temperatures every morning, and the school will encourage parents to check their child’s temperature at home before they get to school.
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One kindergarten teacher, Heather McWethy, had her husband, Scott, make individual desk screens out of plexiglass and cardboard that she put on each socially distanced desk.
Harageones, the first-grade teacher, said she has been personally affected by the coronavirus, and has known people who have died from the illness.
“I’m not scared (to go back to school), but I just want to make sure that I’m being safe for my family and that I’m doing my best to make sure the students are safe for both themselves and their own families,” she said. “I’m excited to be back, and just to be able to have that collaborative environment for our students.”
Annie Blanks can be reached at [email protected] or 850-435-8632.