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Distance Learning Brings New Challenges To RHS
English Teacher and Coach Monte Wood adapted his classroom to resemble an actual classroom with stuffed animals instead of students for the time being. VIRGINIA STILL/THE NEWS

The start of the new 2020-21 school year at Riverbank High School has been challenging for staff, teachers, students, and families. Technology has taken on a very important role for the learning to continue through these special circumstances that we are all affected by. From the tech savvy to the tech challenged everyone is trying to adapt to the new normal. A few teachers from RHS shared their experiences from the first few weeks of the new school year.

Teachers are required to be on campus teaching their students unless they have a medical issue and a doctor’s note, then they can work from home.

“The reason why teaching from here is better in my opinion is that they have the phone, internet and other materials right there,” said Riverbank Unified School District Superintendent Christine Facella. “Technically they can go from their car to their classroom, do their teaching and go home. They do not have to interact if they choose not to. If they do interact we ask that they social distance themselves and not gather in large groups.”

During Juan Harvey’s health careers class last week the empty desks were all pushed together and his laptop was open with circles on the screen that had initials and a few that had faces shown. This is the distance learning method all teachers must adhere to this new school year until students are allowed back into the classroom.

In class they were discussing the medical career paths with a mix of freshmen, sophomores and a couple of juniors. Students learn about the careers in the medical field in the introductory course and the second year they learn medical terminology. Harvey has been with RUSD for four years but as with all the teachers on campus, it is a first for him instructing virtual classes.

“The first couple days took some getting used to,” stated Harvey. “I think the students have gone to all their classes now and have gotten familiar with the team’s meetings. This week I think we really hit the ground running. They are doing a really good job. We took a quiz yesterday and they all did extremely well in all five of my classes. I think we are all getting acclimated to it.”

One thing all the teachers expressed was that the students shared that they miss being in class and seeing their friends. The teachers added that they also miss seeing the students.

Although all students have guidelines that they must follow during the virtual classes they are not required to turn on the video feed. They must stay muted unless they are asked a question or have something to add to the discussion as there have been several distracting sounds in the background.

“Some students have put their picture on their profile and some just have initials,” said Harvey. “When talking I asked them to share their video and turn it on so that I can get to know their faces.”

The teachers use Google Classroom which the students can see all their classes at once and any announcements or assignments that have been given. Teachers have gotten creative during this new transition and have had to boost their computer troubleshooting skills.

Math teacher Tim Bradley is new to RUSD and RHS this year. During his math class he was teaching the students using a virtual whiteboard for math problems where they can see what he is writing but do not see him. This will be his 27th year of teaching high school math. For the past 21 years he was teaching at Del Norte High School in Crescent City.

“For the most part the school year has been going well,” noted Bradley. “The District Office and our admin team really prepared well. Given that we are all first year at this, it has been a great start. My biggest challenge is what I’m calling “connection anxiety.” Not knowing if the internet will be working, if it will go out, or if a power flicker in my room will disrupt the connection. Also, I have been amazed at how much as a teacher I rely on a student’s body language as a check for understanding. That check is really gone. I’m encouraging my students to try to take ownership of their education; they have to let me know if they do not understand something.”

With 26 years of experience in math, Bradley added that he is aware of what may be difficult for the students and will provide more examples with guided practices.

“I have a great group of students,” added Bradley. “A couple of times my internet connection has been lost in the middle of class, when I get back on my students are there waiting.”

PE Teacher Cassi Ross has done her research on bringing physical activity to students virtually and has set students up with a variety of workouts. While they do the workout on the screen Ross walks around the gym checking in on her students from her phone. The workouts change on a regular basis for the students and there is no equipment required. She found a website that is free that has thousands of workouts.

“What we are finding is that they need to move,” stated Ross. “We can see it start to really affect them with their mental health. So we decided that we need to start working out with our students for their mental health and physical health.”

Ross has the students two times a week and since some of the students don’t turn on their camera she has to go by their integrity. They also have workout forms that they must fill out.

“We had a big talk about integrity,” added Ross. “To try to do this and keep an eye on them is hard. I have my camera on and they can see me. They know I am walking while they are working out. This is the first day that we have worked out together but they absolutely love moving.”

The struggle continues with some students not turning on their camera and not setting up a picture leaving a bubble with only their initials. Some of the teachers are finding it hard to connect with the students if they can’t see their faces.

Ross has been a PE teacher for 21 years and has been at RHS for seven years expressing that she loves being at RHS and that RUSD is the best district.

English teacher and track coach Monte Wood did not like having the empty desks in his classroom piled on each other in a corner in his classroom. He got creative and borrowed some stuffed animals from his daughters to fill the empty desks that were placed in rows like a normal classroom setting.

“It is a lot of challenges,” added Wood about the beginning of the school year. “It is hard to build relationships with kids that do not turn on their video. I can’t see them and I like putting a face with the name. When this is all over I am going to come out with a new set of skills that I never had before.”

The stuffed animals occupying the desks has created a more pleasing visual for Coach Wood and in a survey 93 percent of the students like them as well.

All the teachers have been adjusting to the new technical difficulties that they have been experiencing on a daily basis. Even those that are a bit more tech savvy like Graphic Design instructor Jon Gianelli has recognized the technology struggles with poor video and internet connection issues.

“There has been a lot of challenges but I am confident that we will get through it,” stated Gianelli. “I think that a lot of students are frustrated with not being able to connect and things like that. Every day gets a little bit easier. I am optimistic.”

Gianelli added that he is all about technology and has thought about some cool things that he can do with the students like having them gain remote access to their computers on their desks in the classroom. Although the distance learning model had created more work for the teachers than their regular teaching methods.

“You definitely sense the stress with everybody,” stated RHS Principal Greg Diaz. “It is completely different. When we had our first faculty meeting at the beginning of the year I just told them it doesn’t matter if you have done this 20 years, 30 years, or your first year, we are all first year educators right now. It is a lot of work.”

On a positive note Diaz explained that the teachers are collaborating more organically and sharing tips and things that work with each other as they have all become IT troubleshooters to some degree.

“We all want kids back on campus but it is out of our hands,” expressed Diaz. “The kids want to be back. The biggest challenge is the technology. On our side and the students’ side and it is not just here, it is happening across the country. We will get the hang of it and adapt as we go.”

New to RUSD and RHS this year is Math Teacher Tim Bradley, who has been making adjustments for the new distance learning with a virtual whiteboard. VIRGINIA STILL/THE NEWS
Graphic and Video Game Designer Instructor Jon Gianelli has a stand up desk area set up with web cam and microphone for his classes. VIRGINIA STILL/THE NEWS