Like most parents in Hall County, Diana Blankenship Osorio has gotten her first weeklong taste of online learning as school buildings are shut down until at least March 31 due to the coronavirus threat.
With five kids in Hall County Schools, the Flowery Branch mother said she has taken on the new roles of teacher, cafeteria worker, counselor, special education teacher and speech pathologist.
Two of her children attend school at Spout Springs School of Enrichment, two go to C.W. Davis Middle and her oldest is a student at Cherokee Bluff High.
Blankenship Osorio said she has past experience homeschooling two of her children, but juggling online learning among her five children has proved a more daunting task.
“What I’m finding frustrating is that there’s no uniformity to it,” she said. “Even the two in the same elementary school, the teachers are sending information completely differently.”
Three of her children are Individualized Education Program students, requiring special assistance with speech, reading, writing or math.
Blankenship Osorio said she understands teachers are having to adjust and she is hopeful the school system will “figure out the kinks eventually.”
“I think it can be effective if it becomes uniform,” she said. “Teachers have been understanding, and they’re trying.”
Cristina Leek, third grade teacher at the private school Lakeview Academy, said she starts her days at 8:30 a.m. and works until at least 4 p.m. During the rest of the day, she is busy answering questions from parents, students and other faculty members until around 9 p.m.
“Remote school has been a challenge for sure,” Leek said. “I know that some people probably think that it’s a breeze for teachers, and that we are sitting at home watching Netflix. That is completely not the case.”
To help students stay on top of their work, Leek said she is constantly sending out emails to parents. For teachers at Hall and Gainesville schools, this is also the norm.
Kortni Pullen, kindergarten teacher at Mundy Mill Learning Academy, said it is imperative for teachers to keep good communication with parents and students.
“When I’ve assured them that I’m available and willing to help them throughout the day, they seem to feel a stronger sense of partnership with me,” Pullen said. “Your child’s teacher wants to help, so do not be afraid to reach out to them.”
Learning the tools of the trade
Catherine Chambers, fourth grade teacher at Centennial Arts Academy, said teachers are working the best they can with what they are given.
In Gainesville City Schools, Chambers said many students do not have access to computers or other devices. Those children have been sent home with lesson packets and materials.
For the students who do have computers, Chambers said teachers are using Google Classroom, the Remind app, Class Dojo, Zoom and social media to communicate.
A majority of teachers in Hall and Gainesville have a Zoom account, where they can hold video conferences with students to teach and answer questions.
Blankenship Osorio, said Zoom has been the most helpful online learning tool for one of her elementary kids.
“My fourth grader is doing it and looks forward to it, even if it’s just 20 minutes in the day,” she said.
Leek said Zoom has proved effective with her students by allowing her to stay in touch with them individually.
“We are planning to continue meeting one-on-one and in a group session throughout the week,” she said. “Staying positive is the key to making remote school successful. It’s a huge learning curve.”
The biggest challenges
Not every class is the same, which has prompted teachers in non-core classes to think creatively.
Jennifer Griner, art teacher at West Hall High, said teaching the fine arts or any performance-based class has its own special challenges.
“How do we as art educators encourage and inspire students to engage in the creative process, when we aren’t in the room with them to encourage them, help them and redirect them?” Griner said. “I honestly do not have the answer to that. And if we can figure that out, what about supplies? That I do have an answer for.”
After receiving permission at the beginning of the week from West Hall High’s principal, Griner has started putting together art kits she will deliver to students.
“I’ll create little kits of supplies and drop them off at their house; either at the front door or in the mailbox, so there is as little human contact as possible,” she said.
Griner holds Zoom sessions at 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. for her art students. Anyone who has questions, concerns or ideas can chat with her from 4-5 p.m.
“The Zoom session is a great way to really discuss their ideas, how their artworks are coming along,” Griner said. “And most importantly, I get to give them that encouragement that just doesn’t translate well through email or text.”
Ella Grace Leek, a 10th grader at Lakeview Academy, said online learning isn’t an ideal situation, but it gets the job done.
“For some classes, I do feel that we’re getting the same amount of instruction,” she said. “But for other classes, where a teacher would need to demonstrate how to do something specific, it’s more difficult.”
Madison Blankenship, a 10th grader at Cherokee Bluff High, said adjusting to school from home hasn’t been too difficult because her teachers are constantly updating their online learning platforms.
For most of her classes, Madison said she feels as though she’s getting the same level of learning as she would in a classroom. However, she said this isn’t the case with her electives like her law and forensics course. She said the students are missing out on one of their big projects, which involves setting up a crime scene in the classroom.
“And for art, we’re not able to finish our group project,” Madison said. “But for the most part, if you’re keeping up with the assignments and asking your teachers questions, you’ll be fine.”
Pullen said the biggest challenges for her include not seeing her kindergarteners in person each day and making sure students and parents have a clear understanding of the daily lessons.
Megan White, technology teacher at Lakeview Academy, not only implements online learning from home, but assists her three children with their work.
She said the availability of resources at home has presented a hurdle.
“While we have three computers in our house, I am on one, my oldest son is on his, and my daughter is on hers,” White said. “So, my little guy and I take turns when completing our assignments and work online. Some of our students have multiple siblings at home too, so it is the same for some of them as well.”
A work in progress
As each day goes by, teachers are beginning to slip into the flow of online learning.
“While leading classes remotely is not in every teacher’s wheelhouse, the teachers and students at our school have adapted to this change amazingly well,” White said. “We will do whatever is necessary to make this work for however long we need to.”
Chambers said as a community, her system has proved that it is “One Gainesville.” Through tackling the obstacles of online learning and delivering meals to students’ homes, Chambers said she’s confident schools will be able to handle this “new normal” for as long as needed.
“None of us know what the future of all of this will bring,” she said. “However, I know I speak for all teachers when I say, I miss my kids so much and hope that we can go back to our regular classrooms as soon as possible.”
For parents struggling to help their kids with schoolwork and keep them entertained, Blankenship Osorio encourages them to not plan every minute of the day.
“I see a lot of parents trying to find more activities, but I think that’s putting more stress on yourself,” she said.
Leek’s advice to parents is to “breathe.”
“This is something that we never thought we would live, and we are living it,” she said. “To the parents, I want to say, thank you, and please know that your child’s teacher will help in any way possible. Take it one subject at a time, rest in the middle, go for a walk, play, find a release or a break. We can do this.”