Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman first announced March 15 that schools would be closed short-term and then a final announcement came on March 30 that schools would be closed for the remainder of the semester.
Many Tucson students returned to the classroom in late March in little digital squares on Zoom and other video conference platforms from their homes, the first time they've seen their teachers and classmates in weeks.
For those with internet access, they log on to their schools' learning portals and complete tasks virtually, others complete assignments from work packets or books prepared by their district or teachers. This is what school looks like for the rest of the school year during the coronavirus pandemic — completely new territory for many students and their teachers.
We spoke with three local teachers for a series about their experiences so far.
This is the third installment.
Kasie Betten teaches English at Desert View High School
Kasie Betten is finally seeing the silver lining of being out with the flu earlier this year: it gave her some down time to practice making screencasts of her English lessons.
She tested out the method — a digital recording of a computer screen, usually of slides, with narration as a way to give her students a better learning experience and make her substitute plans more effective for the next time she had to be out of the classroom.
"And now it turns out that's the foundation of how I've been structuring my classes," says Betten who teaches sophomore and senior English at Desert View High School.
She records a daily screencast, uploads them to her Google Classroom and assigns an activity to accompany the lesson.
"They can hear my voice and they can hear the way I explain things normally in class and then they can continue to work independently in their homes from there," she says.
Plus, students can watch the lesson and complete the work at a time that works best for them. Many of her students are also going to work in their jobs that are now considered essential functions like working in a grocery store or in food service.
She says so far, her students have enjoyed the screencasts although one did offer some feedback: Could she please make more jokes during her narration?
The transition to remote learning has been relatively smooth for Betten's students who were already accustomed to using Google Classroom and completing work online.
Desert View is in the Sunnyside Unified School District, where all students in fourth grade and above are assigned a laptop to use for school work during the entire school year. Betten recognizes that internet access is an issue for families in the district, but so far of the more than 100 students in her classes, there's only one student who she hasn't been able to connect with.
"The technology transition was abrupt, but our kids use laptops regularly in class, so it wasn't wildly different to stuff that they had experienced," she says.
Still there was a little bit of a learning curve to figure out what worked and what didn't, Betten says. Especially since her classes are typically very collaborative with a lot of small group work and peer support.
"That's been really a challenge adapting my teaching style to match this new kind of platform that I'm teaching on, so it's kind of like a lot of trial and error right now," Betten says. "It's taking what you do in your classroom normally and and then kind of reconfiguring it to say how does this make sense online? Or how can I make this still functional for my kids in this new space that we're now inhabiting."
The district was on spring break when the governor first announced a short-term school closure so the first stab at remote learning was more like "triage," she says.
"You had to come up with something really quickly that would facilitate their learning for the next two weeks and it didn't necessarily have to be beautiful... it just had to be efficient or effective," she says.
But when it became clear that closures would be lasting much longer, she began to think about what the new learning environment would look like. Betten is in an online master's program through Arizona State University, so she had an idea of what online classes look like and used that as a model for setting up her own instruction. She knew off the bat that consistency and clear communication were key.
A couple weeks into online learning and she's made adjustments to the format of her class to better suit her students as they continue moving forward with the curriculum planned for the semester.
At first she asked students to write discussion posts but found that some wouldn't complete them or they didn't meet the length requirements.
"So it's kind of like, how much do I want to die on this hill?" she says. "That's why I pivoted to video conferences because then they can just get what they need across quickly and get their answer quickly instead of kind of holding them to this accountability piece just for my own sake."
The video conferences are at the end of the week and they're optional but they're a space for students to share what they need support with, ask questions and get information about all of the changes that are happening in education. She's found that her students will even stay on a video conference even longer than she had planned so they can continue socializing.
"They get bored; they can't see their friends," she says.
She and her seniors are planning to have a weekly, virtual game night just so they can hang out and catch up with each other.
The school day never ends
Another big change with the new format: the school day seems to last much longer.
"Teachers are notorious for working well past our hours anyway, but normally there's transitions in your day. So you get up and go to work and spend all your day at work and then you go home and do more work, but at least you're home," she says. "But now it's like you're at home doing work all day."
In addition to recording her lesson and keeping up with her classes, she's also in daily professional meetings and replying to messages from her students at all hours of the day.
"I think that most of us feel like even though it's more work in a way, we wouldn't change it because it gives the sense that we're actually there for the kids," she says. "I think it's really hard for us, for all teachers, to be away from their kids because it's like what if they need me? What if they need this?"
While the technology piece hasn't been as burdensome for her or her students, the emotional effects of the closure weigh heavy for Betten.
"Emotionally it's really different because you're so used to spending so much time with your students and you know them so well and you look forward to seeing them and it's really kind of hard being away from them because they're a big part of your life and you're a big part of theirs," she says.
She says for the seniors in particular, the abrupt end to the school year is particularly difficult.
"For me and the seniors I have right now, you have to grieve it a little bit because now their graduation is going to be postponed and they don't get to do some of those senior-y things that normally students get the opportunity to do," she says. "We have to say good bye to the year a little earlier than we thought and kind of be at peace with all those missed opportunities or projects or social events or club things or sports games. All that kind of stuff. I think that's been hard for them."
It's hard for Betten too.
"I have some students in my class that I have three or four times a day and when you spend that much time with them you're so proud of them and how they grow, and you see them apply to college and get accepted and get so excited and you become such a part of their life and their future plans," she says. "So when it's all gone all of a sudden, it's like well, 'I still had to tell you more stuff'. It's really difficult ... you have to look at it like, this is the time we had and it's just gone and how do I cope with that?"