A pandemic hurled Payson schools into a high-stakes experiment with online learning — with decidedly mixed results.

From the district’s point of view, teachers, administrators students and parents have managed a remarkably smooth hurtle into an age of online learning and Google conferences.

“Overall, we’ve definitely made progress,” said Payson Unified School District Interim Superintendent Mark Tregaskes at last week’s board meeting. “We’ll continue to look for more tools and also more training.”

However, he said the district still isn’t sure how many of its 2,400 students lack either a computer or internet access. He said the total probably ranges from 10% to 30%, depending on the school site.

For many parents, the abrupt closure of schools and shift to online lessons and paper packets has produced a frustrating lost semester and fears their child will fall behind.

Jo Ann Nunez in an email to the Roundup said, “my son has no computer and I feel the school packets are just a waste of time. I don’t know where to turn and school is just about out, anyway. I’ve got a feeling he is going to have to repeat the grade.”

Another parent, Sarah Ellen, commented, “I know it has to be hard doing most of their work on a tiny little phone, and I have to give up my work computer when they need time to work on a much more user friendly platform. One of my kids had two Google meets with teachers at the same time, so he got a 0 in participation points for the meet-up he missed. However, after reaching out, the other teacher offered extra credit. I am grateful that our teachers and district are being patient, communicative, and still trying to keep the learning ball rolling.”

One student said he’s doing his best to keep up and is still learning things, but learned a lot more when he could go to class. He spends less than half as much time on school work as he did before. “It’s good. I guess I’m still learning things. I like being home, but it’s kind of boring.”

In reality, every class offers a distinct challenge — depending on the creativity, flexibility and experience of the teacher.

Some teachers have proved adept at coming up with creative assignments students can do at home and have proved a wiz at using the tools in the Google Classroom apps the district had already embraced.

But other teachers have struggled to adapt lesson plans and run class chats.

Generally, students with savvy, involved parents, good internet access and a computer have transitioned. But many students have dropped out of sight and have neither completed many of the assignments or logged into the video conferences. That happens in any classroom, but it’s a much bigger problem when teachers don’t see the students on a day-to-day basis.

Schools have adopted a policy that so long as students attempt to keep up, they won’t get a lower grade than they had at the end of the semester they finished just before the shutdown.

Teachers and administrators say the abrupt shift to online and remote learning has forced them to master online tools, which will pay big dividends even when normal classes resume — most likely in August.

On the other hand, one administrator said the forced transition may offer a tremendous learning experience for teachers, but represents a “lost quarter” for students.

Clearly, the shift has underscored the vast advantage enjoyed by students from well-off, digitally connected families with parents comfortable with both computers and intervening with teachers. But the difference in family support, sophistication and opportunities has long accounted for much of the difference in student achievement — even in traditional classrooms. About half of Payson’s school families qualify for free and reduced school lunches based on family income.

“You just can’t argue that students without access this quarter are getting an equal education,” said one top district official.

National studies have shown widespread inequities in computer and internet access for students — even among college students, who have also been forced to shift to online classes on the fly. One survey of college students published in EDUCAUSE Review found that perhaps 30% to 60% of college students have had difficulty with bandwidth, devices, remote applications, communicating with faculty and accessing course materials. Most colleges significantly underestimate the difficulty students were having.

Still, the Payson school district has made changes on the fly. The district has benefited from years of work by IT Director Victoria Andrews to upgrade the district’s computer infrastructure and provide access to digital tools — mostly Google programs to develop curriculum, present material, communicate and video-conference. Andrews has been running almost non-stop, online training classes for teachers and other employees.

Incoming Superintendent Linda Gibson said the district was fortunate to have earned its status as a Google reference district, with lots of Chromebooks and classroom training for teachers. However, the students already struggling with a lack of support “have been hard hit.”

She noted that teachers have also faced challenges with testing, since they can’t guarantee students aren’t getting help in answering the questions.

“We’re starting to think about remediation to help kids catch up. We’ve got to take a step back to enable them to take a giant step forward and catch up,” said Gibson in a discussion at the Monday night board meeting.

Rim Country Middle School Principal Jennifer White noted that teachers have also worked to resolve conflicts — with some students required to attend sessions for different classes at the same time. Teachers have been recording sessions, allowing students to view the video conference later when they’re free. Teachers have also come up with multiple ways to fulfill requirements of a given assignment, especially for students without computer access.

Board member Michelle Marinelli said, “as a parent, I have some concerns some teachers are not as interactive as others. For that classwork to be completed, that interaction needs to be there. Hopefully, we can kind of get on track with everyone in some way or another.”

Some parents contacted by the Roundup raised additional concerns, while also understanding the difficulties the district faces in managing the unexpected transition.

“I am so grateful that there are free hotspots available and free internet access to everyone and that video game consoles can access Google classroom as well as any smartphone,” said Samantha Spina. “While camping, I had to log my daughter in using my phone so she could see her teacher’s message and to send her teachers her pictures of her paper packets.”

Cassie Lyman said, “We are all traveling through the same storm, but we are not all traveling in the same boat. We each have different perspectives on the situation, different resources, different needs, different scenarios to say the least. I feel our education system is broken and COVID-19 has provided an opportunity for us to see that.”

Shelia Marcum commented, “I had two teacher conferences yesterday over the phone for my high schoolers. The teachers were very helpful in making sure my boys had what they needed to finish their work.”

“I am confident that our very lucky country kids are learning a lot about life, resilience, problem solving, creativity, and getting a rare opportunity to not be over scheduled, and just have fun being kids,” said Ellen. “It reminds me of my childhood, when we didn’t have the money for music lessons, or sports, etc. ... all we had were our bicycles, good books, a playhouse, and a bunch of trees and haystacks to climb ... I am grateful my kids are getting a taste of it.”

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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