QUINCY — Heather Humphrey’s fourth-graders scurried to pull out whiteboards and markers, ready to move onto math time.
Students solved four multiplication problems, writing down each answer to show their teacher, before moving onto a story problem which had Humphrey shifting to the board and writing an equation to determine how many bags of pretzels come in a carton if nine cartons contain 540 bags.
“We know that nine times something equals 540. Think about that strategy we just used for that multiplication. Think about 9 times what equals 54 and use that to help you get to the 540,” Humphrey said. “You guys are telling me that 9 times 60 equals 540.”
It’s a typical math class — with one exception.
The students aren’t there. They’re at home instead, or maybe at grandma’s, remote learning in this COVID-19 school year and linked to Humphrey via Zoom.
Nik Broekemeier sent his students off on a quest. “Try to find two cans of food, two bottles of water, two books,” Broekemeier said. “We’re going to work on our muscles.
“I like it,” fourth-grader Lydia Duesterhaus said. “I like remote learning better than in-person learning actually. I think it’s been a good option.”
Humphrey is one of 24 Quincy Public Schools teachers providing instruction to K-5 remote learners.
“We managed to make it work really well,” Humphrey said. “I’ve been really happy with how everything’s turned out.”
Families could choose between in-person and remote learning. In-person learners could move to remote learning at any time, and remote learners could return to the classroom after each quarter for K-5 and after first semester for 6-12. Twenty-three percent of the district’s roughly 6,600 students were learning remotely in October; that number has dropped to 18% in March.
“One of the biggest challenges was to find what was going to work the best for students and for teachers. It was doing some trial and error,” QPS Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment Kim Dinkheller said.
“We’re still learning every day about what works and what doesn’t work. That’s the nature of education. Educators want to look for ways to support students, ways to work smarter. That’s what we do in this profession even when there’s not a pandemic.”
Based in an office at Rooney Elementary, Humphrey teaches 13 fourth-graders, down from 21 at the start of the school year, from Rooney, Baldwin and Denman.
“It’s just a blessing to work with them and listen to them and laugh with them. I’ve loved every minute of being able to be back in the classroom,” said Humphrey, a literary coach who shifted to the classroom for this school year. “They build relationships and friendships in the classroom that they’ve carried on outside the classroom.”
Like in the classroom, days start with a morning song, a question to answer as students arrive, a check of the weather and the Pledge of Allegiance.
Humphrey “has done a great job basically simulating a classroom,” said Liz Duesterhaus, Lydia’s mom. “It feels like a real class. Kids have their classroom jobs. They still work in groups. They get time to be social and share about their lives and their interests.”
The rest of the time blends working with the teacher, or synchronous time, and independent work away from the teacher but still mostly online, known as asynchronous time, with an hour-long break for lunch and recess.
“The kids are being instructed 8:45 to 2:45 every day other than lunch. It isn’t just get on the computer for five minutes and go play. They’re sitting in front of computers just like they would be if they were in the classroom,” said Glori Duesterhaus, Lydia’s grandmother, a retired teacher who oversees remote learning for Lydia and another granddaughter, first-grader Elinor AuBuchon.
“It’s worked out very well,” she said. “I’ve gotten to see on a daily basis what they’re doing and what they’re having difficulty with. It’s been really fun for me.”
Everybody had some adjustments to make at the start of the year, but “the learning curve was probably no different than for them to be in person,” Glori Duesterhaus said.
“It’s become the new normal for us,” Liz Duesterhaus said. “We know she’s going to have to go back eventually to in-person learning, and that will be a good thing, but for right now we’re in no rush to send her back.”
K-5 remote students log onto a digital platform to tap into all the resources, including some specific to each teacher, they need throughout the day. Teachers first had to teach themselves how to use some of the resources, then teach the students.
“There’s a lot of learning going on,” Humphrey said.
Reading interventionist Mary Christensen uses the same practices but different tools to work with around 40 remote students, down from 50 earlier in the year, from all five elementary schools.
“I’m doing reading groups all day long. I just do it online,” Christensen said. “You learn, just like the kids. We expect kids to be learners each day. We’ve experienced what kids do every single day. It’s a good thing.”
Using online tools, the daily word work, mini lessons, discussions about what they’ve read and writing about their reading still take place for small groups of remote students just as they would in the classroom.
“We’re making the best of our situation,” she said. “I’ve learned a lot of flexibility, and you learn a lot about grace and forgiveness not only for the situation a kid is in but also for yourself. I may not figure out something today, but eventually I’ll get it.”
Getting it, and getting it ready for students, takes time.
“You can plan the lesson, but then you have to prepare the lesson,” Humphrey said. “You almost get like obsessed … finding ways to keep them interested and engaged. I think we’re doing it.”
Among Humphrey’s offerings have been tuning into a play about Harriet Tubman recorded by the University of Illinois Springfield and virtually visiting the “Bean” and the Willis Tower both in Chicago. “We get to do little field trips even though we’re not really leaving our house,” Humphrey said.
“They’re learning. They’re growing. They’ve come a long way from the beginning of the year,” she said. “They’ve taken ownership of it. They’ve taken on what they want to learn, and they know what they need to do to get there. It’s been a real team effort. I’ve been really impressed with their work ethic.”
It’s the same at Quincy Junior High School and Quincy High School where remote learning is done online through Edgenuity and supervised by QPS staff.
Some QHS remote students virtually attend upper-level classes, not available through the online program, and “it’s going better than it was at the beginning of the school year as teachers have been able to set expectations better and then kids were able to better adapt to the technology,” QHS history teacher Michael Stephens said. “The big takeaway is meeting kids where they are and trying to give them the best experience we can this year.”
Some teachers opted for asynchronous learning with posted assignments and video links for students while others, including Stephens, wanted students to attend a particular class period to keep everyone “on the same page” and to participate in class discussion especially in his AP government class.
“You can’t really do that asynchronously. You have to be able to listen to what the other kids are saying when we talk about some of those issues,” he said, and “I really wanted them to feel they are part of the class because they are part of the class.”
First semester, Stephens may have had “virtual” students in four or five class periods each day. This semester, he has two “permanent” remote students attending class, and the option is available for quarantined students.
“A lot of the kids, if they’re available and feeling OK, would rather join because they’d rather have a chance to at least marginally interact with their classmates or if they have a question for me, they can get it answered in real time,” Stephens said. “It takes an extra step out for them to just sort of be there without actually physically being there.”
Nearly all students, whether in-person or remote, turn in assignments through Schoology, an online learning management system.
“It’s the same assignments, the same test, the same everything. So that way, the grade they get for taking the class remote is completely comparable to the grade you would get from taking the class in person,” Stephens said.
Back in Humphrey’s class, students gave a thumbs-up on screen if they were ready to move from practicing cursive writing to word work. Working with partners in separate breakout rooms, the class sorted words based on the prefixes, using an app instead of little pieces of paper, and read them aloud.
“There’s a lot of great opportunities out there to help enhance the classroom experience and just to help make things a little easier for teachers,” she said. “When I go back next year to my regular role as literacy coach, I want to take some of those pieces with me.”
Humphrey popped into each breakout room, checking on their progress and helping with pronunciation of tricky words.
“This allows them time to have a little bit of talk time,” Humphrey said. “They do know that the rule is work first, then play. Usually the moms and grandmas are in the background reminding them.”
Caleb Coleman, Lydia’s classmate, said it’s convenient learning at home.
“All my stuff is by me, on my desk. I just have to grab it,” he said. “The only challenge is like if there’s a window by you and you love nature, it’s hard to not look at it.”
Jen Coleman, Caleb’s mom, worried at the start of the school but says both Caleb and his older brother in junior high, and a remote learner, are thriving.
“They both love school. It’s a hard choice, but I feel like we’ve made the right one. For us, this was what was best for our family,” Coleman said.
Although the year brought far more positives than negatives, Liz Duesterhaus still worries about the amount of screen time Lydia logs.
“That does challenge us more at the end of the day to make sure she’s getting outside and doing other things that don’t involve a screen,” Duesterhaus said.
At the same time, though, Lydia’s tech skills have grown.
“These are skills she’s going to need,” her mom said.
“Kids in this remote experience obviously have better computer skills. Kindergartners know how to use the annotation tool to mark up my screen, how to manage and open a couple windows,” Christensen said.
“The other thing our kids have learned is a new way to communicate online and negotiate a conversation when you’re not in the same space,” she said. “You have to work at that. You have to watch and look at people’s faces, manage if a noise or distraction happens to mute yourself and when it’s appropriate to have the camera on and the camera off.”
Coleman hopes Caleb takes away more than just what he’s learned in Humphrey’s class.
“With any circumstance that comes our way in life we can adjust, we can be creative, we can drive through it if we try. If we give all we’ve got, we can figure it out,” she said. “That’s a really good lesson for everybody.”