Parents, students, schools adapt to online learning

Sitting with the class pet, a bearded dragon named Sandstorm, Haylee Nobles, 11, left, and her brother, Gabriel Bloodworth, 11, do schoolwork at their home in Summerfield.

Online learning has been a learning process for teachers, students and parents at The Villages Charter School. But two weeks after it began March 25, the technology is getting easier, although teachers, students and administrators all miss each other.

The state first extended spring break an extra week and has since ordered all schools closed until May 1. “We had no idea when we left for spring break how different this would be,” said fourth-grade teacher Diane Zentko, the mother of a sixth-grader and a ninth-grader at the charter school.

Districts throughout Florida scrambled to order more computers for students to use to continue learning, while students at the charter school and in Sumter County School District already had school-issued Chromebook computers.

Elementary students’ families only had to pick them up from school.

 “It’s going pretty good,” parent Kariann Nobles said Monday. “The charter school is very organized.”

She said her son, Gabriel, in sixth grade, and Haylee, in fifth grade, are both self-disciplined, motivated and get their work done, although they do miss their classmates.

Haylee brought home the class pet, a bearded dragon lizard named Sandstorm that she shows classmates during video conferences at lunchtime.

“They do miss their classmates,” Nobles said. “They miss their teachers.”

Several teachers at all grade levels have been planning “lunch bunch” video conferences for classmates who miss the social interaction.

Maintaining that social connection has called on teachers’ creativity, Villages High School vice principal Teresa Alvarado said.

“What we’ve learned  … is there’s something so important about the human connection,” Alvarado said.

Some teachers have had virtual school spirit weeks when students dress up and send pictures.

Zentko said she has a Google Hangout video conference for her students every Friday.

“We spend 15 minutes just talking with one another,” she said. The computer program allows users to see each other’s screens, and students show their dogs and cats before she asks them to all mute their microphones, tells students they have been doing a great job and talks about their work for the week.

Alvarado acknowledged that getting some students to pay attention to the instruction and turn in all their work has been a struggle for some, but said more students are getting more work turned in. The charter school started online learning almost a week before Lake, Marion and other surrounding counties,  which started March 30. Some families may not have realized online learning started at the charter school sooner or knew that parents could find all their children’s assignments at the school’s Online Learning Hub, and some may have scrambled to find internet connections.

“They’re doing what it takes,” Alvarado said. “We’re here to help if they just let us know.”

Many teachers are also sending both students and parents weekly lists of assignments and class activities, she said.

Alvarado said she is hearing fewer complaints from teachers about students’ not turning in work and hears more are understanding online instruction.

Administrators and teachers are finding that online teaching is more work.

“This has been a period of exponential professional growth,” said Vice Principal Sandy Nielsen, who oversees the elementary school’s Intermediate

Center of second- and third-grade classes.

Teachers are collaborating and working through new technology. They’re planning lessons in teams so they can share instructional videos of themselves or others by subject so elementary teachers don’t have to record or find videos for every subject every day.

Teachers say they miss the immediate feedback of teaching a lesson in front of their students.

They can’t look at students’ faces to see if students understand, so unless a student asks questions during one of daily class video conferences, teachers don’t necessarily know until they receive students’ work and grade it, making comments and returning it to students.

When students don’t ask questions and turn in incorrect work, teachers are learning to reach out to the students by email.

More parents are learning to be diligent about checking Skyward, the online gradebook system the charter school uses, Alvarado said.

Buffalo PRIDE, for Parents Responsible In Developing Education, also planned a virtual meeting online for Tuesday evening to help families.

School counselors are also contacting parents to ask for students’ cell phone numbers, which they school had not previously collected, as they try to schedule students classes for the 2020-21 school year, Alvarado said.

“We can’t change the world,” she said.

Students can learn to control their own motivation and learn to get their work done, Alvarado said.

Online learning “brings some normalcy to our kids,” she said.​

Staff writer Dayna Straehley can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5408, or dayna.straehley@thevillagesmedia.com.