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Oswego School District teachers connecting with students online

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When the news came down that Oswego School District 308 had to extend its spring break due to the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, Kristin Wilson's first concern was that her students might not have what they need to continue their studies.

"When I first heard about the shutdown, I immediately thought about those students who may not have everything that they need at home. As the buses pulled away that Friday, sadness consumed me," said Wilson, a fifth grade teacher at Grande Park Elementary In Plainfield.

Grande Park and all of the District 308's 20 others schools were closed March 13 and will remain shut through April 7, following a shelter-in-place order issued by Governor JB Pritzker that went into effect Saturday, March 21.

Brian Fauth, a teacher at Plank Junior High School in Oswego, said that he had discussed the spread of the virus earlier this year with his students, along with the possibility of switching to e-learning, which became a reality due to the shutdown.

Having used Google Classroom for many years, Fauth said that he has concerns over student engagement.

"When do we start assignments that will be taken for a grade? How do we make sure our students with more specific educational needs are being given those accommodations? Does everyone have access to a device and the internet?" he asked.

Pamela Klick, a first grade teacher at Churchill Elementary in Oswego, thought about what she would want her students to have, if they could only have one item.

"The answer was a resounding, BOOKS!," she said. That's why Klick drove to each of her students' homes, and delivered bags of books to them.

"We know that children learn to read by reading books and the more I could get in their hands, at their level, the more they could grow and progress. We, teachers and parents, were all facing such a time of uncertainty and I felt like this was one thing I could do for them with short notice," Klick said.

As the additional days off of school were deemed "Act of God" days by state leaders, assignments not completed do not negatively impact student grades.

Despite the shutdown, Fauth has had some check-ins with his students and they are coping well, he said.

"Boredom seems to be the main thing, and I think they want a clear understanding of what their learning expectations will be if we continue to shelter-in-place," he said.

Wilson has also been posting regular content for her students while they are at home.

"I feel like it's going the best it possibly can," she said.

Making herself available for questions in a daily video chat, Wilson said she has posted her class's daily morning meeting question on Google Classroom, shared virtual field trips, videos of herself reading books, and other activities.

"The first day I was able to see their faces, I was over the moon happy," she said.

"I feel it is going better than I expected," Wilson added, but she remains concerned about students who don't have access to computers or the internet.

"There is so much unknown, and they really just want that contact and to see that their teachers and friends are okay," she said.

Harder still, is the separation and change in routine for younger students.

Grande Park Elementary School kindergarten teacher Tara Bohman said that her first reaction to the news of the shutdown was sadness.

Many of Bohman's student's weren't there that Friday, she said, and when her students left at the end of the day, they didn't understand the implication of the additional days off.

"You get so far with kindergarten, you see so much growth, and we had gotten so far, and I had this feeling of, 'We're going to come to a dead halt'," Bohman said.

"I don't know what's going to happen now...and I don't know when I'm going to see them again, and it was this complete feeling of 'I don't know'."

Bohman praised the work of district administrators, who put together the e-learning packets for elementary students between March 13 and 16, as the district does not have 1:1 technology.

"That was so they don't need anything, any workbooks or textbooks or anything," she said.

Like Wilson and Fauth, Bohman prepared a schedule for her students that went home with them, to help them keep to a routine, distributed a learning packet to students, but as Google Classroom is only accessible to students with Google e-mail accounts, and students have never logged in with their ID number, she's exploring alternative platforms to keep her students active.

Parents have been supportive of efforts, Klick said. "They have sent me videos of their children reading stories they've written, and of them reading books," she said.

Parents have also taken pictures of their children working from home, she said.

"Some children have also written me letters and sent them in the mail. I have received more heartfelt emails from parents who are grateful for all the help we are providing them," she said.

Klick also praised the "Zoom" app, which allows participants to engage in conference calls through video or audio.

"This app has allowed the children to see each other and say 'hi' to their friends remotely and have individual time to share their day with me and their friends," she said.

While at home with her own children, Bohman has communicated with her students and parents, but, "It's been hard," she said. "They really miss us, miss me, miss school, and they're very, very sad and needing that interaction."

Human interaction with her students and her fellow teachers is something Bohman said she misses as well.

"Teaching kindergarten is the happiest, most rewarding thing you could ever do, and seeing their smiling faces every morning is why you do what you do."

"This is hard," she said. "That human interaction is crucial for everyday life. I miss my kids."

"I miss the hugs every morning, witnessing the happiness that the children have when they are with their friends, looking into their eyes and seeing the lightbulb go off when they have learned something new, the stories they tell me, and the excitement they have when they finish writing a story and can't wait for me to read it," Klick said.

When asked what encouragement they'd pass along to their students, Wilson suggested finding a way to connect with others, creating a routine, or setting goals.

"I was struggling, but making those connections and creating new routines and setting small goals for the day has really helped," she said.

Fauth encouraged his students to think about the potential changes to education that could come from the extended time off.

"I try and look at this positively: this is an amazing opportunity to get teachers and students well-versed in the benefits of online education, and perhaps once we're safely on the other side of this event, we can find ways to rethink our entire model of what K-12 education can look like," he said. "I'll be encouraging my students to think of this as a massive, worldwide beta-testing process where we all get to experiment, work out the bugs, and ultimately contribute to a potential revolution in education."

Bohman reminded her students and families that while routines help, "Do what works for you," she said. All students are "good" academically, she said, telling parents that lessons at home don't have to be perfect.

Bohman said she is also hoping to surprise her students by doing a drive-by version of her classroom's Prize Day. "They've got to get out, at least come to the window and see me. We've got to have some kind of positivity," she said.

"If we do our part now and follow the guidelines given to us, it will be over sooner and we can go back to teaching and learning in our school setting," Klick said.

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