Teaching from quarantine

The Western News | November 17, 2020 7:00 AM

Headed back to school amid the coronavirus pandemic in late summer, Wally Winslow, a teacher at Libby Middle High School, knew there was a good chance he would have to instruct students in quarantine from his classroom.

He never thought that about handling the situation in reverse.

On Nov. 4, officials quarantined Winslow after he came into close contact with a person who tested positive for the virus. His students were unaffected and remained in school. Up until Nov. 12, when the middle school switched to a fully remote schedule, Winslow taught his six in-person high school classes from his home.

Mandi Rose, a kindergarten teacher at Libby Elementary School, found herself in a similar situation after she was quarantined early last week. As she waited for the results of her test, her class was moved to a remote learning schedule on Nov. 9 because of a lack of substitutes.

From communicating with students to grading assignments, Winslow and Rose were confronted with a slew of challenges as they taught their classes remotely. One of the most frustrating aspects of the situation for both was being unable to interact face-to-face with students.

Winslow, who stays in contact with his students primarily via Google classroom, email and text, has found that a lot is lost when communicating digitally.

“The subtle nuances you get working directly with kids, you don’t get that over email,” he said.

The communication barriers have also made it difficult for Winslow to give feedback to his students on their assignments. His style of grading involves heavily marking up classwork with comments. While Winslow still has students turn in paper assignments so he can grade them by hand, there is a delay between when they are graded and returned due to concerns about spreading the coronavirus.

To interact with her students, Rose supplements paper packet assignments with an iPad app. While the app allows her to post video and voice recordings and lets students submit written work, drawings and recordings, Rose cannot use it to communicate in real-time with her students. Additionally, only eight students out of her class of 14 were using the optional iPad supplement as of Nov. 10.

A significant portion of her instruction style, Rose said, comes down to the “little things,” which are often hard to manage remotely. Making minor adjustments — like correcting a pencil grip or the pronunciation of a word — is often critical to ensuring students properly grasp a lesson. Although she said her students were diligent about turning in assignments, she still worried about not being able to see the work that went into them.

Gathering materials they need to conduct their lessons has also proven a challenge for both teachers. Every day, Winslow said his wife would drop off whatever he needed from the classroom on his front porch. He said he often relied on colleagues to run errands for him.

Rose said she stays in constant contact with a paraprofessional and the other kindergarten teachers at Libby Elementary School. Like Winslow, she also relied on colleagues to bring her materials from the school building.

Winslow, who teaches advanced physics and chemistry classes as well as standard level chemistry and geometry classes, has noticed that the maturity of his older students often leads them to have more success with remote instruction. Younger students, he’s found, have more of a tendency to stray.

Overall, though, Winslow expressed pride in how his students have adapted to the challenges of the virtual curriculum. Confident in their capabilities, he even allowed one class to operate an air cannon while he supervised via videoconference.

“Sometimes we’re afraid for obvious reasons to let [students] take the reins but here I didn’t have a choice,” he said.

A silver lining Winslow has found amid the pandemic headaches is that his students have become better at self-advocating.

“The kids are beginning to understand that communication is key,” he said. “Being a good communicator transcends everything in the classroom and carries into adult life.”