Ryane Dobkins, a senior at Madras High School in Central Oregon, tunes into her Spanish class from home. Her school day starts at 9 a.m. and ends at 12:10 p.m., leaving her time for ranch chores. (Jennifer Dobkins)

Distance learning becomes the new normal

Central Oregon families share their struggles, triumphs and concerns of learning from home

October 21, 2020

By Holly Scholz, Madras Pioneer

Distance learning for Jefferson County students might now be the norm, but families say it’s far from normal.

The online schooling stories from local households in Central Oregon are as varied as the families whose homes have become schoolhouses and whose parents have become teachers’ assistants.

Some families are doing fine with their children home all day and are glad for their help around the house, while others have had to hire tutors or solicit family members' help.

Some parents juggle working from home with helping their kids connect to Wi-Fi on their devices and finish their lessons. Other parents get their older students connected to school before heading to their job, and then expect phone calls throughout the day about this or that, check in on them at lunch, and hurry home after work to make sure they complete their homework for the night.

Homeschooling and ranch chores

Jennie Port says homeschooling was never on their radar.

“Having it forced on us like this, it was really, really stressful,” Port said. “It’s been very stressful trying to make sure that the kids are staying caught up while John and I are both working 40-plus hours a week.”

Their oldest, a Madras High School freshman, not only must keep up with his classes, but he babysits his two younger siblings and makes sure they get logged into their classes each morning.

All three children are doing Comprehensive Distance Learning through the Jefferson County School District. The younger two are in second and third grade at Madras Elementary.

“We’re both at work all day long, so we really have to count on the kids to log on and be at school and do their work,” Port said.

At first, the family struggled to get the kids hooked up to their devices, and then they had internet problems.

“Our Wi-Fi runs kind of slow, and to have all three of the kids on our internet at the same time was really causing a lot of lagging, so we would have to turn their videos off just so we could hear what the teachers were saying,” Port said.

Last week, the district delivered a Wi-Fi hot spot to their home, which seems to help. 

All three students are in class from 9 to 11:30 a.m. each school day.

Port said her oldest is falling behind in his classes because he has to take care of his brother and sister. Consequently, he must attend extra sessions for two hours each afternoon just to keep caught up with his classwork.

“It’s heart-wrenching, feeling like your kids are falling behind,” Port said.

She says she cannot wait until her “social butterfly” kids are back in school.

“I am not equipped as a parent to do the homeschooling. That’s why it was never on our radar,” Port said. “We pay taxes for public schooling – let the kids go to school.”

Other parents strive to see silver linings. 

Jennifer Dobkins says her daughter Ryane misses the social aspect of high school, but at the same time, it’s been convenient for her to be home.

“She actually likes it a little better because she can take extra classes,” Dobkins said of her Madras High School senior. “But she says they pile the homework on them.”

Ryane has had a few problems communicating with her teachers, and sometimes their internet connection is sketchy, but she does not miss her long bus ride to and from school.

She’s done with her live online lessons around noon and then tackles homework or helps out with ranch chores.

Ryane misses some of her classes' hands-on elements, such as FFA, and she's missing her friends and club activities.

“A positive attitude really helps,” Jennifer said of distance learning. “I can’t imagine having little kids and having to deal with that – especially multiple.”

Port and Dobkins were among several Central Oregon parents who shared their experiences related to distance learning with the Madras Pioneer. You can read the whole story here.

This piece 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.