Summit County’s teachers are adapting to distance learning as schools to remain closed until May 1 |

Summit County’s teachers are adapting to distance learning as schools to remain closed until May 1

Mark Etheridge, a kindgergarten teacher at Trailside Elementary School, advocates making a daily schedule for younger students and posting it in a prominent place. He sends out videos to tell students he misses them and remind them of school, including some with a puppet named Flukey.
Courtesy of Mark Etheridge

Teachers in Summit County’s three school districts are reporting success adapting to the distance learning measures necessitated by the coronavirus outbreak, but many also note the challenge of connecting with students remotely beyond numbers and letters.

“If the purpose of school is to put math and literature into students’ minds, it might be more efficient to do online quizzes all the time,” said Matt Nagel, an English teacher at Park City High school. “I think the purposes of school are much broader than that.”

Almost to a person, the dozen educators who spoke with The Park Record said they missed their students and worried about connecting with those who need extra support.

But they’re adapting to these unprecedented times, working long hours and using technology to disseminate lessons all around the county.

That’s involved communicating directly with parents, a challenge for some families that don’t have ready access to email or other computer-based tools.

Districts have advocated preparing about four hours of work per day per student, in part to avoid overburdening parents who are already busy juggling their own lives and, hopefully, their jobs.

Those who teach younger students stress the importance of creating a daily schedule so children know what to expect as the days go on.

Mark Etheridge is a kindergarten teacher at Trailside Elementary School. He said he advises parents to work on a schedule with their children and hang it up in a prominent place. It should include normal school activities, like physical education, free time or story time after lunch.

“Anything we can do to bring them normalcy in households will help them emotionally and will help them educationally,” he said. “I think the more we can make it normal, the easier the whole thing will go for kids. It’s got to be stressful for them.”

Etheridge records videos of himself and sends them out to families saying how much he misses the kids and reminding them of what they do in the classroom. He said he hopes to keep morale high.

The challenge teachers face connecting with students is different depending on the students’ age and what subject the teachers teach.

Sue Shuppy, a South Summit High School art teacher, said she’s struggling to get materials to her students and wants to avoid giving more writing assignments.

She said she’s arranging an outdoor pickup of things like clay and sketching materials and in the meantime fielding questions online and trying to help students.

Annie Wallace is a French immersion teacher at Ecker Hill Middle School. She said she’s grateful for the technology the Park City School District has and that she’s re-learning the importance of patience.

“I really have to think what I want students to get out of the assignment,” she said.

She’s also concerned about the amount of time students are spending online and in one of her assignments asked them to create a Medieval-inspired game and to reflect on the importance of recreation.

Monica Orton, who teaches biology at South Summit High School, said distance learning has some unexpected benefits, like allowing shy students to shine. She echoed a common complaint from teachers, that explaining certain concepts that would only take a few moments in person end up taking much longer when it has to be disseminated online.

One silver lining, Orton said, is it reminds her what it’s like to learn new material, something her students are going through every day.

Camellia Robbins, the North Summit extended day kindergarten teacher, said another benefit of working remotely is it allows teachers to tailor lessons to each individual student.

But all that means more work for teachers.

Many of the emails teachers sent to The Park Record in response to interview requests came in between 9 and 10 p.m. and began with an apology that it was the first free minute they had all day.

While the online lessons may prove to be a beneficial asset in future years, creating them takes time.

For younger students, it means creating packets of work that can be done at home, though that work relies on having a parent with enough time to sit with a child and walk them through the work.

That amount of parent support is not constant among all families, and many teachers worried students who have less support or even dangerous home lives would suffer as schools shut down.

“School occupies young people for six hours a day. That’s a huge cog in our society,” Nagel said. “It’s a lot easier to disappear in an online class than to disappear in the back of a classroom. The high-achieving students are going to continue to ‘high achieve’.”

It appears distance learning will become the new normal after Gov. Gary Herbert announced Monday that schools would remain shut down until at least May 1.

Teachers will need to continue to adapt.

Louise Willoughby, principal of Silver Summit Academy, said last Friday every fourth- and fifth-grader was invited to share the forts they’d created during the day and the work they’d done in them.

She added that the school is relying on technology and that several online learning platforms and technology companies had made their services available free of charge during the pandemic.

“I have seen magic happen last week,” Willoughby wrote. “Families, students, teachers, school and support staff, district and state employees, and online learning companies have all jumped in with both feet to make learning from home happen in an amazing way.”

Students have taken the lead on finding ways to socialize with each other virtually, Willoughby added.

Laird Small is a South Summit High School history, economics and psychology teacher. He said there has been a learning curve providing lessons but the district has been providing staff with guidance and resources.

“Obviously we as teachers miss the interpersonal interaction and class time with students. That is always hard to replicate,” Small wrote. “But at this point we know our students very well, and they know us, and I think it makes it easier for them to reach out if they are struggling, or have questions.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Matt Nagel’s name and incorrectly identified where Sue Shuppy teaches.

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