SOUTHERN INDIANA — School is back in session across Southern Indiana, and while in-person classes have resumed at local schools, many families have chosen to enroll students in virtual classes amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Each school district in Clark and Floyd counties has implemented a virtual learning model this school year, and even for in-person classes, some are still facing periods of eLearning as students and staff quarantine due to positive COVID-19 cases in schools.

As schools have reopened, the start of the school year has created an entirely different experience for teachers, students and parents as they adjust to the new learning models.

A NEW KIND OF TEACHING EXPERIENCE

For Tina Wallis, eighth grade science teacher at River Valley Middle School in Jeffersonville, teaching both online and in-person classes is almost like having a second job, and it has taken her three-and-half weeks to get into a groove, she said.

“I think the hardest part, when I think about it, is these first few weeks I’ve been trying to come up with processes and procedures to organize ourselves, because we don’t have any past experience to go back to and go, well, that worked well,” she said.

Greater Clark is offering both a virtual academy, or a separate online school, and a mySchool Online option including interactions and lessons with teachers within the district. 

Wallis is tired when she goes home, but then she has to complete more grading, prepare for the next day and answer emails from students and parents in the virtual program, she said.

“At 10:05 a.m., I get kids [in person] the rest of the day, so if I don’t have all of it caught up before then, it’s work after work. I already work after work, but now I have to work twice after work. So that makes it really difficult. Teachers are getting tired.”

Her virtual students do not have to report to class during a particular time except for bi-weekly Google Meet sessions. She sets up regular Google Meet office hours with her students so they ask questions about the lessons, she said.

“A lot of them don’t really have a lot of questions about the work — they just want to have someone to talk to,” Wallis said.

Online grading takes a long time, she said, and it is more difficult to get kids in the virtual program to complete assignments and follow instructions. In her own class, a number of families have switched their kids from in-person school to virtual learning or vice versa.

“They’re kind of jumping back and forth, so that makes it hard, and when they hear of another case in the news, then we get a mass exodus where seven to 10 kids will go online,” she said.

Dawn Hall, a teacher at Silver Creek Primary, is teaching all virtual classes this school year for both kindergarten and first grade. The Silver Creek Community School Corp. is offering a virtual academy with an online curriculum developed by a third-party vendor, but it is taught by teachers in the district.

Hall said she starts her online lessons with both the Pledge of Allegiance and the school pledge, and she then goes into a read-aloud and short lessons. After that, the students break away to begin activities, and in the afternoons, kids meet virtually for small groups. She presents a weekly parent meeting to answer questions.

Although it’s a virtual classroom, it’s still a classroom, Hall said, and she feels the virtual academy provides a “personal touch” to education that keeps kids engaged and connected.

For Hall, one of the biggest challenges has been learning the systems for virtual learning, and teaching in this new format feels like being a “first-year teacher.” However, she has a network of administration and other teachers to collaborate with and work through issues, she said.

Kara Bailey, a ninth-grade English teacher at Silver Creek High School, is teaching classes both virtually and in-person. She has a total of 155 students, including 65 in the virtual academy. Each day, she has two face-to-face classes and two blocks available to support kids in the virtual program.

“It’s not hard — it was stressful in beginning, just because we didn’t really know what to expect, but think everybody probably felt that way,” she said.

Bailey doesn’t write the curriculum for the virtual classes, which take place on a platform called Buzz. However, she is available to provide support for both students and their families, and she sets up weekly Google Meet meetings for kids to meet each other virtually.

“I like that it gives them flexibility in the times they choose to learn,” she said. “I like that for the most part they are somewhere where they know they are safe....I try to make it as enjoyable as possible for them. They are at home learning for different reasons, and there are still kids switching to virtual or coming back to school. It might not be what they expected, but when it comes down to it, we want them to learn, and we’re just trying to make that happen for them.”

Clarksville Community Schools Assistant Superintendent Brian Allred is overseeing Indiana Gateway Digital Academy, the district’s new online program. About 100 kids are enrolled in the program, which is operated by the K12 online education platform.

The teachers in the virtual academy are certified teachers in the K12 program trained specifically for online education, so teachers within the district will be focused on teaching in the traditional setting unless they have to switch to eLearning, he said.

“The bottom line is, [the academy] gives us the opportunity to provide a virtual option with folks who have gone through rigorous training,” he said. “They know the business of teaching virtually, and our teachers know the business of teaching in the brick and mortar...it would not be correct for us to ask teachers to have to take on that extra workload when they’re already teaching face-to-face.”

NEW ROUTINES FOR FAMILIES

Catherine Fitzgerald said her family agonized over the decision to choose virtual or in-person classes this year, but they decided that virtual learning was the safest option. She is the mother of two kids in New Albany-Floyd County schools, including a fourth-grader at Mt. Tabor Elementary and a sixth-grader at Hazelwood Middle School.

“I think some kids really need to be in school for the parents’ and kids’ sakes, but I have a job with flexibility — I can keep kids home and I can work from home,” she said. “It almost felt like responsibility to make it safer for other kids by keeping my kids home.”

Her family’s experience with virtual learning has been positive so far, and she appreciates the work of teachers facing an extra workload with both in-person and virtual classes. Her kids’ classes have been more interactive and organized than those in the spring, she said, and they get to interact virtually with the students who are attending the classes in-person.

“When they do go back, they will have already seen the other kids, and they will be entering the classroom they have been in all year,” Fitzgerald said.

Chelsea Mix, the mother of Alphonse, a first-grader at Wilson Elementary in Jeffersonville, has a newborn child with a heart defect, so she felt that virtual learning would be the safest choice for her family amid the COVID-19 pandemic. She has been disappointed with the virtual learning experience so far, and she worries that her son will fall behind in his education.

There isn’t as much interaction with the teacher as she would like, and her son is having difficulty retaining the information from slideshows in Google Classroom. Mix, a stay-at-home mom, also feels overwhelmed trying to balance responsibilities as she cares for her newborn and supports her son’s education.

“It’s difficult being a parent trying to navigate through this, and I’ve had to learn new technology — I’m still learning new technology, honestly,” Mix said. “I’ve never used Google Classroom before — it’s all new to us. It’s been a challenge, and I wish the district would have taken time to figure everything out and be ready for all this going on and maybe thought more about students that are in virtual learning.”

Kimberly Freeman’s first grader, Xavier, is attending school in-person at Utica Elementary in Jeffersonville, but her daughter, Lydia, is attending virtual school at Bridgepoint Elementary in Jeffersonville.

She didn’t want “two different pools of germs” from two schools coming into one house, she said, and she felt it was important that her son, who is on the autism spectrum, be able to meet in-person with speech and occupational therapists at school.

The virtual learning has been much better than their experience in the spring, she said. Lydia logs in each morning for about an hour of instruction before logging back in the afternoon, and she has time in between to complete assignments and take breaks. Her daughter is self-motivated and gets her work done on time, she said, and the family isn’t “scrambling” like they were in the spring.

“We’re loving it now that we’re back in actual routines,” Freeman said. “In the spring, all the kids came home, and they didn’t give much guidance on what to do with them.”

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