Although this is generally one of the busiest months of the year at school, classrooms stand empty.
No school buses traverse the roads in the predawn light. Classrooms stand silent and empty, and no kids dangle from playground equipment. At night, no lights gleam over the quiet athletic fields, and no crowds of community members flock to the school to watch student performances.
Yet, despite the visible absence of students, education continues.
Connected by a fragile web of technology, teachers and students remain in their homes, slowly adapting to a virtual learning environment.
While parents and students grapple with the day-to-day struggle to remain motivated and keep on schedule, teachers used to spending hours every day in close proximity to their students must now find ways to support their classrooms from afar.
“In a traditional school setting, I have a good grasp on what I'm doing,” Harmoni Jesunas, 4K-12 music teacher at Prentice School District, told the Review. “In this new style of teaching, there is a lot of planning and research involved to make this a meaningful experience.
“I don't think I slept much the first two weeks as I was busy preparing, planning, and researching any information I could find on how to teach music from home. I am involved in multiple online teaching forums which allowed me to talk and brainstorm with other music teachers from around the world who are in the same situation.”
While Jesunas had already incorporated technology into her teaching model for the middle and high school grades pre-COVID-19, she had to develop programs for younger students from the ground up — a task that is especially tricky with some kids so young that they aren't using technology or may not even be able to read yet.
Even though English teacher Jamie Spagnolo is fluent in the usage of technology, having long managed the Prentice School District's website and social media accounts, the switch from in-person to virtual education has proved challenging.
“For me, the biggest learning curve was learning how to shift my online resources from being purely supplemental to being a complete replacement for face-to-face instruction,” he said. “I'm a meticulous planner, so only having a few days to prepare for this shift was both jarring and challenging. I feel that, if the virus peaks again during school next year, and we end up in a similar situation, I'll be more immediately prepared to flip a switch and teach effectively.”
For other teachers like Anne Baxter, who teaches math to 100 students at Phillips Middle School, the change to online teaching has been a significant jump. With 33-years of teaching experience, Baxter has focused primarily on face-to-face teaching in her classroom. Having the math textbook — along with other videos and teaching aides — available online has helped with the transition to virtual education, although Baxter said it is still a learning process for her.
“It's taken a lot to get used to the changes, but the longer we're at it, the better I get,” she said.
Paula Zwicke, a teacher for the Chequamegon Class ACT Charter School, said she and fellow charter school teacher Travis Augustine originally thought there would be significant changes for their 25 students with the switch to virtual learning.
“We do so many projects outside in the spring, and the whole model of the school is student-directed, hands-on learning projects,” she said.
However, the high level of flexibility and adaptability in the charter school has allowed both students and educators to take advantage of a historic moment and use it to study everything from the science of infectious diseases to the policies of lawmakers trying to contain the spread by a variety of means.
“This has been a major exercise in creativity,” Zwicke said. “We are having to consider what is critical for education, and what may be unnecessary. This situation has forced us to think critically about what is important in teaching and education.
“Sometimes people think that kids in a charter school aren't learning, but we'd argue that — more than a traditional educational model — we are able to react to our environment and work with different kids' learning styles.”
Although setting up a virtual learning environment was the initial challenge for educators when faced with the suspension of in-person instruction, another issue is having more long-lasting effects.
While most people have long been aware that the Northwoods is prone to areas of poor internet service, there has been no other time when it has been so strikingly apparent.
Teachers, parents, and students all struggle to work with laggy service that slows down educational aides, such as videos and live stream conversations, making the educational process particularly difficult.
“I worry about the connectivity for all of my students,” Spagnolo commented. “While most have internet access, not all have consistent access or sufficient bandwidth to connect as readily as many of the staff does. There is definitely an uneven level of access amongst the students, and I don't want any of them to emerge from this with a poorer education than their peers.”
While Jesunas works on singing with her students, lags in video hangouts often cause the sound to freeze or stutter — making it nearly impossible to practice live as a group.
Even though she resides just outside the Park Falls city limits, Zwicke said her service is often slow or glitchy.
Although teachers often specialize in certain subjects, all educators take the unspoken role of offering counsel, support, and emotional learning to their students when in the classroom. These less defined aspects of the educational process are harder to perform via technology, and the need for these services are harder to assess when students are not face-to-face with teachers.
“I have video chats with my classes and many other teachers in our district do as well,” Jesunas said, explaining that this allows her to better facilitate the social element now critically lacking. “The kids light up when their friend shows up to our online class. And I get to see those big smiles and everyone's pets, and we always have a fun time.”
Spagnolo pointed out that strong personal connections are often formed between students and teachers in small school districts, where each individual is known and recognized — which is proving to be an incredible boon in a time when it would be easy for students to disappear behind technology.
Still, he said, it is difficult to assess students' mental health from a distance.
“I make a point to ask them how they're doing whenever we are communicating about classroom content, and they generally give me responses that lead me to believe they're doing well,” he said. “However, my years in the face-to-face classroom have wisened me to the fact that students often say they "get" a concept or that they're doing well emotionally, but their faces can sometimes say something different. Not being able to look them in the eyes and assess their body language really feels limiting.”
Zwicke echoed these concerns, saying that while her students are broadly continuing on track and remaining engaged, it becomes difficult when a teacher cannot immediately interact with a student and observe the little communication cues that go beyond language.
Price County's three school districts have embraced social media platforms as a means to stay connected with their communities and students, with staff reading books aloud, sharing challenges to help make families feel connected, or celebrating successes — such as the thriving food services offered by all three districts.
Even so, there is a common theme uniting both students and teachers; a profound sense of loss for the simple, everyday normality of life — seeing friends, going to the park or the store, eating in a restaurant, or visiting extended family.
For Baxter, this loss is compounded by what would have been a joyful milestone in a normal year. After 33 years of teaching, Baxter is retiring this spring, which means that she will leave her long career of teaching without any of the lasts most teachers are granted.
Although she didn't know it at the time, she saw her students for the last time in early March when the first order was released by Governor Tony Evers, suspending in-person instruction until April 6. The mandatory closure of school buildings for in-person education has now been extended through the end of the school year, and Baxter — along with several other Phillips teachers who are retiring this year — will see out her last month from home, communicating with teachers and students via technology.
“If I think about it too much, I'll cry,” Baxter said. “I went to my classroom the other day, but I can only stay there so long without the students. I miss them so much — the best part of teaching is the kids — and now I won't get to see them, or even say goodbye.
“I can't say enough for the parents of our students. It can be very challenging to motivate kids. But on the other hand, I look at the positive that these kids get to spend extra time with their families, and how special is that?”
A new normal
This new teaching model has proved both more exhaustive for educators, at the same time as allowing them more time for themselves or family than they would in a traditional school setting.
With two little kids at home, Jesunas juggles her teaching career with spending time with her own children.
“At work, I am often busy with day to day things and don't take time for myself (missing lunch, staying at the office long after school hours, etc.),” she said. “ This has given me the chance to slow life down, enjoy the little things. I can get up at 5 a.m. and work on school things or stay up until midnight (both of which I have done). I have time to make dinner instead of staying late at the office or spending time in the car.”
Even so, Jesunas remains in work-mode 24/7, accessible to students whenever they may need her.
After spending 20 years working closely with fellow teachers and students, Zwicke said some days feel like she is stranded on an island in her own home.
“As this goes on and more time passes, some days I do feel disconnected,” she said.
In order to retain a sense of community with her peers, Zwicke now participates in a virtual lunch date once a week with teachers she would normally have joined in the school for a midday meal between classes.
For Spagnolo, the experience has allowed him to set his own schedule — although he is finding it difficult to separate his personal and professional lives.
“On positive notes, I can now finish my coffee before it gets cold and I can pause to pet my dog whenever I get the notion,” he said. “If we're counting hours, I would say that I'm working similar totals to what I did before the pandemic; however, the structure of those hours is completely different and in many ways more exhausting. Before the pandemic, it was easier to draw lines to separate my personal and professional lives. Now, they blend together so much that I feel like I'm basically on-call from the time I wake up to the time I go to bed.”
Even while teachers navigate a new educational world, working to support their students as the school year winds to a close, one question hovers in the background of everything they do: what will next year look like?
Although end-of-the-year assessments have yet to be done, it seems apparent to many teachers that most students will see gaps in their education from this three-month period of virtual learning. Most districts have focused on core subjects such as math and reading during this time, and teachers and administration will spend the summer developing plans to meet the needs of their students next year.
This period has revealed some interesting revelations as well — for some students, a more flexible schedule that allows them to work at their own pace or at unusual hours has served to reduce the stress felt in a traditional classroom.
“I have kids who aren't huge fans of sitting still or being in a classroom,” Jesunas observed. “But give them a laptop and a flexible schedule, they are in heaven. We are already talking about how we can integrate things they are learning through this experience into our classes or if they are gone from school but can still be a part of the class. I also have kids piloting music websites to see how they like them. This is something I haven't had time to do in the normal classroom.”
Spagnolo has found that teaching remotely has allowed him to individualize the educational process for certain students more than might occur in a classroom where he has to address the student body.
“Academically, I've been impressed with the level of engagement from our students,” he said. “Yes, there are a few who may not have the necessary support at home and have taken this as an opportunity to end their school year early, but 99% of my students are clearly putting in lots of time with their studies. While many have expressed that they miss regular school, there are some who have taken to the independence of online learning and, in many ways, prefer it.”
The pandemic has also forced school districts to learn more about technological teaching aides that may prove useful even in more normal years, eliminating the need for snow days or allowing students to study from home when they can't come into the building.
Yet, Baxter acknowledged that there are students who fall on the other side of the spectrum, performing far better when they have ready access to a teacher in the classroom. Although Baxter will not be returning to the district as a teacher next year, she expects she will see the ripple effects of this quarter through her new role as a school board member.
“I am confident our teachers can address the gaps, but they will exist,” she said.
Although what the next school year will look like remains uncertain, Spagnolo noted that this period of time has allowed teachers to create an educational model that is working — and can continue to work into the future, if need be.
“I think one success is knowing that, if we need to do this again, we can find a way to make it work,” he said. “The level of student, parent, and staff engagement in this change has been impressive, and I imagine that, with more time to prepare a contingency plan, we'll be able to tackle any of the issues we encountered here. In addition to learning about ourselves and how we have adapted during this time, I think we've all learned a lot about how to tackle something like this in the future.”