Learning Through a Pandemic

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This article was originally published on December 30, 2020, in The Gettysburg Times.

When students and staff walk down the hallways and in and out of the classrooms in any of our five school buildings, the feeling is a bit different than previous school years as we continue to navigate public education during the ongoing pandemic.

Gettysburg Area School District, like districts from coast to coast, spent the spring grappling with this new environment, the likes we haven’t seen in decades. Most of the summer was spent planning how to bring students and staff together in the fall safely, while still creating a caring learning environment. It was not an easy feat as district administrators spent hundreds of hours planning, researching, hosting focus groups and implementing new procedures.

A Virtual Kindergarten

I had the opportunity to spend a few hours in Axa Jones’ kindergarten classroom this fall. Her classroom for the 2020-2021 school year is far from typical. When you take a peek around, you’ll notice that the usual classroom desks have been replaced with various stations she uses to move throughout the classroom. These stations are heavily focused on technology as she teaches kindergarten students from around the district remotely over Zoom video conferencing through a new program called GASD Online Learning.

A typical day for this virtual kindergarten classroom begins at 9 a.m. when students sign on with the help of their parents and guardians. In a typical in-person classroom, core instruction is broken down into several hours. Remote students learn core instruction in about two hours, with afternoons typically reserved for completing assignments and obtaining extra one-on-one support from Mrs. Jones and her paraprofessional, Mrs. Ford.

While this method of learning may not be ideal for all students, Mrs. Jones expressed how resilient her kindergarten students are. There’s no doubt that the first few weeks of school posed many challenges for teachers, students and families alike. To this day, for many, the notion of learning online is one that still seems very obscure as we continue to navigate through the pandemic. Some of the challenges teachers and students faced during the first few weeks were issues surrounding technology and internet connectivity as well as adapting to learning in a familiar environment, with many students Zooming in from home.

In March, when public schools closed, GASD implemented an asynchronous learning method, which means students learn on their own schedule and complete assignments when it works for them. Given the very short timeframe to implement remote learning, this was the best option during the rest of the spring semester.

As summer approached and the administration began to work on what learning for the fall would look like, it was imperative that a blend of synchronous and asynchronous learning for remote students was needed to help them learn at their best.

Beyond the technicalities of teaching and learning during the pandemic, Mrs. Jones emphasized the connections and bonds the students and teachers formed this year, despite being fully remote. She likened these bonds to those you’d find in your typical classroom and said despite the physical barrier between the students, she feels very close to these kids.

High School Hybrid

When you walk into Mrs. Spagnola’s classroom at Gettysburg Area High School, you’ll feel more at home with the traditional method of learning in person, with some modifications as a result of the pandemic. While desks and seating areas are normally flexible and close together to optimize collaboration between students, desks are now spaced six feet apart to comply with social distancing guidelines. One of the other shifts as a result of the pandemic is smaller class sizes. Students attend school two days a week in person at GAHS, while the other three days are reserved for remote learning.

In her second year of teaching, Mrs. Spanglola was quick to point out that she doesn’t have much experience regarding what a typical school year should look like. She’s met the challenges and demands of the pandemic without much hesitation in order to provide her students with the best possible education, no matter the method they are learning.

As with the elementary students, it took the high school students a few weeks to find their footing and how to adapt to collaborating in person just two days a week and the other three days remotely. Mrs. Spagnola shared that some students in her history and journalism classes are excelling at home while others need a slight nudge. Overall, she mentioned that the progression throughout the hybrid learning journey this year has been a success as both students and staff navigate through the uncharted waters.

In Closing

The COVID-19 pandemic has literally and figuratively touched all aspects of our lives. For students and staff at GAHS, they rose up to the unforeseen challenges of learning during an era of unconventional norms. While the pandemic and its accompanying changes are only temporary, the lessons learned are ones that can be used for a lifetime.