With little time to prepare for school closures, elementary school teachers in the Edmonds School District faced many challenges converting their curriculums to online learning. Staff and faculty also had to find creative ways to stay connected with their students.
“Our instructional coaches said that teaching during the quarantine is like trying to build a plane, and fly it at the same time,” said Jennifer Anderson, who teaches fifth and sixth grade students at Edmonds Elementary. “I also added that there are no instruction booklets for how to do that, either.”
On March 13, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee proclaimed that a state of emergency continued to exist in all Washington counties due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and that schools must remain closed until noon on April 24, 2020.
“It was very surreal,” recalled Kristina Narruhn-Labore, kindergarten teacher from Seaview Elementary. “Some of us got teary-eyed, you know, we couldn’t believe it was happening.”
Then when the governor announced the extension of school closures for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year, teachers and staff at the Edmonds School District were put into another spin cycle, and forced to put together new lesson plans for their students.
Narruhn-Labore said that she and her colleagues wondered how long they could keep afloat with the learning materials they had initially put together for their students. The closure was only supposed to go on until April 24.
Teachers worked as quickly as they could, while also trying to manage their own quarantine circumstances at home. Lessons were stripped down to what Anderson referred to as “power standards,” which is just to teach reading, writing, and mathematics.
“Forget the science, forget the social studies, forget the art, forget all that stuff. It’s just now down to the basics,” said Narruh-Labore. “And even that we’re having to streamline.”
While students in grades as low as the third grade might be savvy enough to navigate technology, K-2 primary grade level students are still learning how to read and write. With so many obstacles, teachers look to small victories for progress now that their classes are online.
Danielle Adams, a kindergarten teacher at Spruce Elementary, said that virtual learning is very unnatural for 5- and 6-year-olds. She had difficulty asking her students to sit for 30 minutes and look at a computer screen.
“My kindergarteners right now are just really excited because they just learned how to unmute themselves,” Adams joked. “That’s where we are right now is celebrating that they can mute and unmute themselves.”
Students with learning disabilities have also faced many challenges after the school closures. Taylor Arbuckle teaches special education to students with moderate to severe disabilities at Mountlake Terrace Elementary.
A lot of Arbuckle’s lessons were created to be hands-on in small groups of students, and many students have special education plans focused on teaching social, or emotional skills and behavior.
“Teaching those areas gets a little tricky because so much of it relies on social interactions,” said Arbuckle. “We are doing our best to create daily opportunities through daily class Zooms.”
With the school district nearing the end of spring quarter, teachers and students have gotten more familiar with their new curriculum, which they refer to as “continual learning.” Teachers have found creative ways to keep their students engaged.
For her kindergarteners at Seaview Elementary waiting for their birthday poems, Narruhn-Labore mailed out birthday cards to their home address. She has also continued her “star of the week” exercise where she chooses a student in the class to be highlighted.
At Spruce Elementary, Adams is working to see if she and the other kindergarten teachers can put together some kind of graduation ceremony for their students this summer.
Arbuckle has continued her tradition of “Friday Funday,” where her class does something fun, like cook, or play games, or make things like slime or forts. Now, instead, they all meet via Zoom to do it.
“So far we have done charades, a pajama dance party, and an art lesson,” said Arbuckle. “Next week we will do a scavenger hunt. It gives students something to look forward to at the end of the week.”
Jennifer Anderson created a writing and art assignment for her fifth graders where she printed little bitmojis of herself, mailed them out to her students and called it, “Anderson Adventures.”
“One of my girls showed me today,” recalled Anderson. “She said, ‘I worked all day and turned you into a mermaid.’ And she showed me the little picture and I had a little mermaid tail. And one of my other boys built a LEGO castle on wheels, and I’m like on top of the castle. They’re making all these fantastic stories and I cannot wait to read them. They’ve made videos and it’s awesome.”
So while COVID-19 is keeping schools closed at least until the end of the academic school year — and perhaps changing the landscape of classroom learning altogether — Edmonds School District teachers are doing what they can to keep their students educated and engaged.
“New technology is being learned by both educators and students,” said Arbuckle. “Many of the things we are learning and spending our time creating will be useful tools in years to come, and can be used both in person and remotely.”
— By Raymond Alfonso, University of Washington News Lab