It has been nine months since the coronavirus pandemic reached the United States and Oregon students had to transition to online learning.
And yet, Schere Caufield is still adjusting to the challenges of teaching remotely.
Caufield, 27, teaches social studies, world history, personal finance and economics at Banks High School in Washington County, west of Portland. Caufield teaches three one-hour-long virtual classes per day, with about 25 students in each class.
Most teachers would say online learning already is a tough mountain to climb, but Caufield says rural schools have more challenges based on their geographical locations.
“Some of our kids still don’t have internet,” she said. Some “live in such an isolated area that the only internet they can even attempt to purchase is satellite internet, which is awful.”
Schools clear early technical hurdles
Caufield added that the district-provided hotspots don’t always work out in those areas.
There also is the issue of funding. Prior to the pandemic, some schools had laptops available for students to use in class, but Banks High School had to play catch-up this past summer to get students ready for distance learning in the fall, Caufield said.
So far, the district has given every student a Chromebook, and students who need it have hotspots to help with their Wi-Fi.
If students still have internet issues, the high school provides printed materials to students. Caufield said staff members have been driving directly to students once per week so they can have access to learning materials. Students can then return the materials back to teachers for grading and feedback.
“It truly has been a struggle to get in contact with some of these students,” Caufield said. “You get into teaching because you want to be able to help all of the kids, right? Having these handful of students who are not communicating with you and you’re struggling to get in contact with the parents has probably been the biggest struggle for me.”
Teachers are not the only ones who are having a difficult time with distanced learning.
At Banks High School, the number of students failing at least one class jumped to 26%, from 50 students in fall 2019 to 63 students this year. While Latino students make up just 7% of the school’s student body, they represent 30% of the students who are failing classes.
The stark gaps in achievement across different student demographics aren’t new, but they have been amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“A lot of these kids were the students who at any other time would be passing with, like, a C (grade), but when they’re at home and their parents are at work or whatever, they’re struggling to complete the work independently or to come to class regularly to complete the work,” said Caufield, who has seen a higher failure rate in her students this year.
At the state level, the Oregon Department of Education does not ask for periodic grade reports, instead relying on annual assessments to determine student achievement and success. That means problems lie with districts to solve. Any interventions needed must be deployed or coordinated at the district level.
What about attendance?
In accordance with Oregon’s Ready Schools, Safe Learners state guidelines for education amid a pandemic, students need only log on to a remote class, email or send a text message to their teacher once within a 24-hour period to receive credit for attending that day.
The guidelines allow flexibility for families who may not have adequate internet access or may have other challenges with logging on to a class at the same time each day.
For right now, Caufield says attendance is an “OK” measure for engagement. However, she added that a student could be marked as present and not have attended the live session for the day.
“A better measure for engagement would be if a student is attending live sessions, and that’s not really reported anywhere officially because of the guidance that the (Oregon) Department of Education has given us to report our attendance,” Caufield said.
As distance learning continues, Caufield has found her own way to investigate whether a student is engaging in her class.
First, she uses Google Docs, where she can track a student in real time to see where they are in an online document.
The social studies teacher also uses a free online program called Nearpod. Teachers can use the program to make interactive lessons that contain quizzes, polls and videos.
“(I’m) trying to leverage technology a lot better than I did in the spring to try and get kids engaged and talking to their teachers,” Caufield said. “I’m not seeing them as much because I can’t force them to turn the cameras on, so, making sure they’re learning and getting the material.”
Caufield plans to continue trying new things, communicating better with families and breaking down assignments with clearer instructions for her students.
While focusing on ways to improve distance learning can be great, Caufield said she’s mindful that students will be looking back at this year and all the things they’ve missed outside the classroom.
“As a teacher, it can be frustrating when you feel like you’re putting in all of this work,” she said. “But just remembering to take a step back and have empathy for what these kids are also going through. This is a weird time to be a high school student. You’re losing out on all of these experiences.”
This article is part of a collaborative reporting project called Lesson Plans: Rural schools grapple with COVID. It includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, Charlottesville Tomorrow, El Paso Matters, Iowa Watch, The Nevada Independent, New Mexico in Depth, Underscore News/Pamplin Media Group, and Wisconsin Watch/The Badger Project. The collaboration was made possible by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation.
Lead photo: Schere Caufield teaches three virtual classes each day for students at Banks High School, west of Portland. PMG photo: Jaime Valdez