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Content Or Connection: How Utah Teachers Are Navigating The Online Classroom

Illustration of a video classroom.
Teachers around the country are adapting to distance learning. The first step for many has been simply making sure kids are OK.

Teaching can be a hard job. Add in a global pandemic and statewide campus closures, and it becomes even harder. Now, with those closures extended at least through the end of the academic year, teachers like Amelia Landay have a long road ahead. 

Landay — “Ms. L” to her students — teaches fourth grade at Rose Park Elementary School on the west side of Salt Lake City. She’s one of about 26,000 public school teachers across the state trying to teach kids through a computer screen. It hasn’t been easy.

“Getting everybody online, figuring out ‘how do I use this technology in an effective way?’” are the major challenges, Landay said. “Do I even teach new material to everyone? Or do I try to fill holes that people have?”

She thinks trying to fill learning gaps between her students is probably the best use of her time, as opposed to forging ahead with an overall lesson plan. With math, for example, some of her students are working on fractions, while others are stuck on addition and subtraction. 

Screenshot of instagram post. Woman holds the book "Holes" over her face.
Credit Instagram
Amelia Landay (pictured) is teaching her 21 fourth graders from home. She created a private Instagram account to motivate her students and keep them interested in learning.

Landay meets with many of her students one-on-one, using about 10 different apps and online programs to reach them. But she’s also branched out to social media, with a private Instagram page she created just for her students and their parents. 

It’s a lot to manage, but Landay said if teachers don’t engage kids, they’re going to lose them. 

In a way this is helping us slow down and be better teachers,” she said. “However, I have no idea whether I am being an effective teacher or not right now.”

Struggling With Attendance

Photo of a woman in an inflatable raptor costume.
Credit Courtesy Amelia Landay
Rose Park Elementary's mascot is a raptor, so Amelia Landay (pictured) has taken to wearing an inflatable dinosaur costume to keep kids engaged.

Many teachers at Rose Park Elementary have said they’re also struggling to figure out the best approach to teaching during the pandemic. And no one seems to have the right answer. That includes principal Nicole O’Brien, who, since schools first closed, has struggled to get in contact with many of her students’ families. 

Much of it has to do with the many socio-economic disadvantages her students face, she said, which are common among students across Salt Lake City’s west side.

“The biggest word I would use is access,” she said. “They don't have the same access that middle class and upper classes typically have.”

Almost 90% of Rose Park students qualify for free or reduced school lunches, available to families of four making $47,638 or less. Compare that to the east side’s Uintah Elementary, where only 13% of students qualify. 

On top of that, over half of students there are English language learners. O’Brien said many of their parents don’t speak English or are undocumented, and often don’t provide contact information. 

So even resources that are available — such as school-provided laptops and free internet— can still go unused. 

We've had families say ‘we've lost jobs’,” O’Brien explained. “‘We're worried about our rent, food. The last thing on my mind is being able to get over and pick up a laptop.’”

Credit Zoom Screenshot, Jon Reed
Nicole O'Brien meets with her staff at least once a week. But like much of life these days, it's done online

While student attendance has been slowly increasing, O’Brien described tracking them down as a major sleuthing effort.

And even after they’re found, teachers are still having trouble getting them online. Landay said she’s lucky if half of her 21 students show up on a regular basis. On one day, she only had two. 

That’s why O’Brien’s message has been to first make sure students and families are OK — that they have access to basics like food and shelter. After that, they can focus on school.

Content is important, but right now the most important thing is we're there connecting with our kids, letting them hear our voices, see our faces, reminding them we care,” she said. 

It’s a role she says teachers aren’t necessarily trained for, at least not to this degree. 

Creating A Safe Space

But during a pandemic, it’s needed more than ever, according to Nakeshia Williams, a professor of education at North Carolina A&T State University. Her work focuses on multicultural education, helping teachers adapt lessons to individual students’ needs. 

“At the forefront of a student's mind perhaps is not academics,” she said. “So as a teacher, how do I create a safe space to engage my students, but also to make sure they know that I am present and here for them.”

Willams said teachers have long needed to understand students’ lives outside the classroom. If they come to school hungry or scared, that impacts their learning. Teachers are not always taught how to do that though, and almost certainly not in a remote setting. 

She said it starts with getting to know students — asking questions like what do they do when they get home from school? What’s their routine at night? Do they have a routine? 

Williams said when teachers can do that, students perform better. 

You have to acknowledge their culture,” she said. “You have to acknowledge their language. That's acknowledging, respecting and valuing their identity as a person. “

But it’s a lot to ask of teachers, who get a new crop of students — and parents — each year.

And for Amelia Landay, she said she worries about striking the right balance. 

I do strongly believe that the mental health and social well-being of our kids has to come first,” she said. “Then we need to fill it in with the academics. But that academic piece is super important, especially for our kids that don't always come to the table with everything that other kids have.”

She said if the academics don’t get figured out, it could create a ripple effect. Students may be coming back to school next year unprepared, and they could fall further and further behind their peers. 

“I think that's the big debate right now — what will make the difference next year?” she said. “I don't think anyone really knows.”

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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