By Bob Skolnik
Instead of sitting in their classrooms with their eyes on their teachers, local elementary and middle school students are going to school at home. They still see their teachers occasionally, but it is through a screen.
Since schools in Illinois were shut down in mid-March by order of Gov. J.B. Pritzker in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, area school districts have made an abrupt shift to remote learning while understanding that, especially in the primary grades, nothing can make up for the physical presence of a teacher.
"Remote learning can't take the place of in-person instruction at any point," said Angela Dolezal, the director of teaching and learning for Riverside Elementary School District 96. "We can only do our best work and put forth our best effort to ensure our students are having this continuity of learning."
District 96 was the best equipped of all area elementary school district to make the switch to online learning. All fifth- through eighth-graders in District 96 have had school provided Chromebooks all year. When school shut down in March, third- and fourth-graders were given Chromebooks.
Last week families of first- and second-graders in District 96 went to their schools to pick up iPads. Kindergarten students might be next.
"We are currently working on determining the need for kindergarten iPads," Dolezal said. "We sent an email out to families who needed a device for home for their kindergarteners to continue remote learning and we're working with that list."
Other local elementary schools are trying to distribute as many computers and devices as they can to their students. Brookfield-LaGrange Park District 95 has distributed about 80 Chromebooks and also handed out 10 hotspots to families who lack internet access. Lyons-Brookfield School District 103 and Komarek School in North Riverside are also handing out Chromebooks.
Teachers are using a variety of techniques, including recorded videos, video conferences, reading to students, videos showing students how to do math problems and worksheets -- lots of worksheets -- to keep students engaged and help them learn.
Engagement is what the districts are looking for. Teachers are providing feedback, but they're not handing out formal grades.
"We keep track of assignments that students are completing," said Jen Kovar who teaches English language arts at L.J. Hauser Junior High School in Riverside. "We're not taking anything for grades, but we're keeping track of work completion."
Grades are not a priority, especially since the Illinois State Board of Education has decreed that remote learning work should not negatively affect a student's grade.
"We are actually still working out the details of grading," Dolezal said. "Currently the administrative team is working with teachers to figure what method will best meet our students' needs for feedback, and our staff and parents' need for communication on how the students are doing on the work that they are completing at home."
Most districts are not requiring daily attendance for remote learning, but they are monitoring attendance and engagement, mostly out of a concern for the well-being of students.
"When we notice students aren't engaged in daily activities, then we do mark that 'non-engagement,' so that we're documenting that. And then the principals work with the social workers and school psychologists to reach out to those families to see if there is anything that they need, any type of resources, both academic but also social-emotional," Dolezal said.
District 95 Superintendent Mark Kuzniewski that his district is trying keep assignments reasonable and moderate.
"We've built a model of instruction that is flexible for parents and, hopefully, manageable," Kuzniewski said. "Those have been our two key words in designing this. We're not looking to overwhelm parents who are trying to work from home while also trying to teach and help, especially the younger kids, with work."
Central School second-grader Katie Fournier, of Riverside, says that she is enjoying remote learning.
"I think it's actually nice because you can focus on your work better because there aren't as many distractions as there is at school sometimes," Fournier said. "But I also miss going to school and seeing my friends."
Teachers say that they miss their students. Every school day Molly Knott, a fourth-grade teacher at Congress Park School in Brookfield, holds a virtual class meeting in the afternoon via Zoom, the video conferencing app.
She estimates that about half her students attend the virtual meeting on an average day. LaGrange-Brookfield District 102 has reserved Mondays for teacher planning, but teachers are interacting with their classes Tuesday through Friday.
Knott, like most teachers, is especially concerned about the emotional well-being of her students who are isolated at home.
"I am so concerned about them emotionally and how they are handling the loss of school and everything they know and were used to," Knott said. "The academic work does not matter to me nearly as much as the emotional health and the physical health."
Knott says that she tries to provide positive feedback as she looks at the work her fourth-graders turn in. She says it is hard for her to be in touch with her students only through a screen.
"I really miss seeing and understanding the growth that they've made or what their struggles are," Knott said. "It's really difficult to see that now."
Kovar says that she also misses her sixth-graders at Hauser, and she checks in with them regularly through video meetings.
"My first concern is just staying connected with them, so we do a little check in and see how everybody's doing," Kovar said. "Like typical middle schoolers, they're tired and they're bored and they miss their friends."
She says most of them are turning in assigned work.
"I would say most of them are not slacking off," Kovar said. "They have learned to be conscientious students just through their education years. Most of them are stepping up to the plate. But middle school students are social beings. They're so desperately missing the connection with each other, and that's what they thrive on when they're at school."
Kovar is working on having her students read a novel together and is working to organize a voluntary book exchange where students can share favorite books with their classmates.
"We're being super, super cautious with social distancing and keeping the books clean," Kovar said.
Most classes are not covering as much material as they would if students and teachers were back inside their school buildings but, given the situation, teachers and administrators are not troubled by that.
"We can't do as much as we normally would," Kovar said. "We're only doing a smaller portion of work because every kid's home situation is so different."
Administrators say that they don't know if students will return to their physical classrooms before the school year ends in June.
"We will be pleasantly surprised if the governor on April 30, or shortly before, decides that schools can open again in May," Dolezal said. "But, right now, we plan with the thought in mind that this is going to go through at least the end of May if not to the summer."