Reopening school this fall in the middle of a worldwide pandemic is no easy task. It takes the critical thinking, planning and teamwork of educators and health experts—along with the cooperation and flexibility of students, parents and employers.
Much of the groundwork is underway. As summer break rolls to an end this month, the school year will launch with a very unusual look.
What will school look like? Most likely, not like anything you’ve seen before. Precautions such as teachers and students wearing masks, fewer students in a classroom, and a shortened school week might be the case. A mix of at-school and online learning could face students and teachers.
But it’s not their “first rodeo.” There’s been a practice run with at-home schooling.
In March when the coronavirus pandemic hit, schools were shuttered for the remainder of the school year. Students and teachers trudged on together, finding their way through the maze of online teaching and learning.
That experience, combined with what they anticipate for this school year, is the basis for the following feedback gathered from students and parents in early July.
Some students admit they learned valuable lessons in self-control during the mandated at-home schooling this spring—lessons that will help them navigate through the many changes for fall reopening of school.
“Online learning really shows a person’s level of motivation and self-control,” said Brooke Butler, who will begin her freshman year at Fond du Lac High School. “During the stay-at-home schooling, it was hard to feel motivated at times. It was easy to get distracted. Online learning was fairly easy for me since there were no projects. So it didn’t result in us doing as much as we would’ve in the classroom. It seemed good to have less work, but really, we missed out on some of our education.”
Brooke is anticipating her first year of high school won’t be quite what she expected. “I hope there will be as much face-to-face learning as possible. That’s how I learn best, and it’ll help me improve my social and leadership skills,” she said.
Doug and Stacy Hammoch of Fond du Lac found online learning to be challenging but also a positive experience in some ways. Doug, who works as a technical writer, was able to work at home during the shutdown period. His wife Stacy, a mammography technologist, was temporarily furloughed. Their three children—Blake, age 11; Landon, 8 and Emily, 6—benefitted from their parents being at home to help teach them.
“The kids all coped better than I expected,” Stacy said. “They enjoyed the slow mornings being able to stay in jammies a bit longer. Blake was self-sufficient; Landon was too, but needed a little help keeping on task. Emily, however, being in kindergarten, needed one-on-one help. It could be challenging at times, but we made it through. Doug and I took turns. If we weren’t furloughed from our jobs at that time, I have no clue how we would have been able to home-school our children.”
“The best part was having Mommy as my teacher,” Emily said. Blake shared that he enjoyed having more free time, but was frustrated by not being able to talk to his teacher right away if he had a question. Landon said he enjoyed using Zoom and a virtual picnic at lunchtime. Emily and Landon both said if school this fall were all online, they wouldn’t be happy. “But I’m a pro at it by now,” Emily added.
Doug said he appreciated getting a peek into his kids’ classes. “It’s not the way I would have chosen, but something I feel lucky to have experienced, nonetheless.”
With what is predicted to be a combination of at-school and at-home learning this fall, Stacy has concerns. “Doug and I are both back to work. How will we home-school if we need to be at work? How will the kids stay healthy and safe if they are back at school? I don’t know what that will look like. It’s a bit terrifying, but I have confidence in our school system to help families cope with new school situations.
“It’s not just parents and students that need to be flexible, but employers as well,” Stacy said. “Life is different with Covid, and employers will have to consider new work environments and work situations for employees with school-age children at home.”
Flexibility will also be key for college students. The impact of the pandemic has resulted in major disruptions such as postponing college, transferring to a cheaper school or to a campus closer to home. Some find it’s prolonging their timeline for graduating.
Zach Rindy, who graduated from Colfax High School in May and plans to attend UW-Madison this fall, said the school shutdown was hard from a social aspect. “As 4th quarter rolled in, I was looking forward to enjoying my last few months as a senior—things like the athletic banquet, pickup basketball games during lunch hour, my varsity baseball season and graduation.”
Missing out on face-to-face time with teachers was the biggest drawback of finishing school online, Zach said. “It’s better when you’re soaking up information and knowledge straight from your teacher rather than through a monitor or PowerPoint.”
The possibility of his college classes being online doesn’t rattle Zach since the method is already familiar. “Throughout my whole senior year, I was taking a handful of college-level courses along with distance learning courses where you’re on a video call with a college professor from the classroom at your high school. These classes definitely prepared me the most for online college courses.”
Zach is looking at several options for attending UW-Madison, including not staying in the dorm, but considering off-campus living. Another option he’s reviewing is to take his first semester of classes at a different school closer to home. His goal is to ultimately get into Business School at UW-Madison. “I feel the biggest letdown of college this year will be the lack of socialization due to COVID-19. A big part of moving onto a new campus as a freshman is meeting new people and enjoying new experiences. However, with social distancing, socializing will be a very tough thing to do.”
Zach’s twin cousins, Grace and Jensen Rindy, who live in Oregon, Wisconsin just completed their freshman year of college at Minnesota schools–Grace at Winona State University for nursing and Jensen at University of Minnesota for a psychology degree. Both finished their freshman year online at home this spring and are feeling the impact of the health crisis.
It has led to Jensen’s decision to transfer to UW-Madison this fall. “I was already leaning towards transferring to Madison prior to the pandemic but since Covid is still around and classes will mostly be online, I’d rather not pay rent. I’ll just continue to do my classes from the comfort of my home and save money,” Jensen said. “Finishing classes online prepared me for how this school year will be, given that it will also mostly be online. I know I have to practice better time management skills to stay on top of everything. What surprised me was how understanding my professors were—even when my WiFi cut out in the middle of my microeconomics mid-term exam.”
Grace remains steadfast in her decision to stay at Winona and purse a nursing degree. “The pandemic has only opened my eyes even more to the great demand for healthcare workers in the U.S. It’s made my desire to go into the healthcare field that much stronger,” she said. “There is an overwhelming need for doctors and nurses and everything in between due to Corona. It makes me more determined to get my license so I can start helping those who need it.”
Grace says she notices how the pandemic is affecting some friends’ decisions. “A few are dropping out and taking a gap year or transferring to classes at a cheaper technical school.”
Stephanie Bruns, Sun Prairie, was slated to graduate this month with her master’s degree in occupational therapy from Elmhurst College in Illinois. She earned her undergraduate degree at UW-Milwaukee. Now, graduation is on hold because the pandemic brought the clinical portion of her schooling to a halt.
“My school requires fieldwork (clinicals) at two separate placements—one in a pediatric setting and one with adults. I was able to begin my pediatric placement prior to the pandemic, and then completed it online via telehealth with the children. But my last fieldwork placement—the one with adults—has been cancelled, and the company isn’t taking students until 2021. I am searching for a new placement with adults so I can finish my last 10 weeks of clinicals,” Stephanie said, noting when she graduates she’d like to work as an OT in a pediatric setting or a hospital in-patient or acute care setting.
“The pandemic has postponed my graduation date, but hopefully not for long.”