District says students stay engaged in remote learning

by Daniel McKay
Whitefish Pilot | May 20, 2020 1:00 AM

Remote learning for Whitefish Schools has been a process for staff and students, but data shows students are staying connected even at home.

Principals from all three schools presented to the Whitefish School Board last week via a virtual meeting, sharing what has and hasn’t worked throughout the remote learning process and creating a path forward if more distancing is necessary when fall comes.

Whitefish Middle School Principal Josh Branstetter said he’s been working with the district’s assistant principals, who have been calling parents of students to gauge how well the remote learning plan is going, to try and quantify the data they’ve collected.

Across the three schools, he said an estimated 95% to 98% of students are engaged in remote learning with their teachers, though there’s about 8% to 10% that tend to waver in their engagement before assistant principals and other faculty intervene.

“I have to say, with all the time they’re putting in, we have a very high rate of students being engaged and participating in some fashion or another. There’s very few students that have just dropped off and had no contact, and even with those families and students that have dropped off, I know teachers, assistant principals, counselors, school psychologists and even nurses are reaching out, trying to find out what’s going on,” Branstetter said.

Kerry Drown, Whitefish High School Principal, said the process has been a bit of a give-and-take as far as how much content to deliver to students right now.

“When we started this process, one of our goals was to take things slow and methodical, and make sure we can equip ourselves with as much information and preparation as we possibly could and ease into it, rather than push people into the deep end,” he said. “A week or two later we hear maybe that’s not enough. This thing is in constant evolution, and it’s a dynamic process.”

In looking ahead, Muldown Elementary Principal Linda Whitright said she’s brainstorming with teachers different methods of learning and potentially reopening that could help inform decisions made in the fall.

“We all know, and we’re all hearing it everywhere, that we cannot ignore the fact that the reopening of schools in the fall of 2020 is on a trajectory to look different than it ever has before,” Whitright said. “As long as we’re thinking about that, I just have to compare it to at least this time we have a few months ahead of us giving us the opportunity to plan ahead as opposed to in the spring, [when] it took us a little bit by surprise.”

Whitright said she’s been sending teachers a variety of news articles about different school reopening and remote learning plans happening across the country.

From there, she’s hoping to survey ideas and run them through a “funnel.”

“It’s like a funnel, we’re going to start to pouring those feedback ideas into the top of that funnel ... think of those ideas going down through the funnel to our final idea, and at that point our hope is to ideally be able to communicate out to all of our stakeholders, the board and our families on what a final draft plan would look like,” she said, adding that the process would hopefully be finished by the end of June.

In a May board work session that’s typically focused on planning for the next school year, incoming Interim Superintendent Dave Means plans to work with faculty and the board to consider different options for the fall. Means in July will replace current Superintendent Heather Davis Schmidt as an interim superintendent.

During last week’s meeting, Trustee Darcy Schellinger voiced concerns that she said she’d heard about differences in how available teachers have been for students during the remote learning process.

“It’s been brought up that some kids are maybe getting two to seven Google Meets a week with their teacher, some kids might have none,” Schellinger said. “I’m just wondering if we have a minimum guideline for teacher instruction or that teachers need to be doing online learning a certain amount of hours or a certain number of times a week that kids can get on and get some instruction. I think that’s important to ensure our guaranteed viable curriculum that we’re offering that.”

Davis Schmidt said different options for class times and teacher times were explored when the need for remote learning was announced.

“We actually had significant discussion about how we thought we would have students attend class on a regular schedule, and that teachers would be teaching all day long on video and that students would log in on the same bell schedule,” she said. “By the end of the week we certainly had pivoted from that, because our goal under these circumstances is to not overwhelm our students, our parents and families and our staff.”

Jackie Fuller, Assistant Principal at WMS, added that all the teachers she’s heard from are working around the clock.

“I do know that our staff are working their butts off, even today I talked to one teacher who’s getting emails at 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. and answering them,” Fuller said. “I am so proud of our teachers. It makes me tear up, the work they’re doing. And it’s hard to get me to cry.”

First grade teacher Marnie Thomas spoke up as well, noting the difficulty of trying to make one plan or schedule when the learning styles of students can vary so much by age.

“I think we really need to remember there’s a huge difference between kindergarteners, first-graders and middle school and high schoolers. When you’re talking about technology and things we’re using, what works for a high schooler doesn’t necessarily work for a first-grader,” Thomas said. “The same for classroom meetings and things like that.”

“I’ve been doing those and they are difficult for first-graders to do, but I’ve continued to do them because it’s important that they see me and they see others, but it is a tough process. I’ve had parents say they are no longer joining because of how it goes, and it’s not any body’s fault, it’s that they’re 6- and 7-year-old children,” Thomas added.