Distance makes the heart grow fonder for teachers at rural Alberta elementary school

With the coronavirus pandemic affecting most parts of rural Alberta life, one elementary school in Stettler is adapting to the new reality of an empty school with its students at the far end of a technological tether.

Stettler Elementary was only one of many schools across the province that found out with very little warning the week of March 16 that all such education centres were being closed to prevent the spread of coronavirus. However, education was expected to go on.

Three Grade 3 teachers at the school, Karen Rachar, Haley Tod and Christie Riddell, plus a Grade 4 teaching peer, Denyse Boyd, said they felt a bit blindsided by the sudden announcement.

“It was shocking,” said Boyd in an empty classroom Mar. 25. Boyd said she left school on Friday as usual, just assuming she’d see everyone Monday morning.

Rachar said a phone call the evening of Sunday, Mar. 15 notifying her of the school closure left a “surreal, unreal feeling.”

Trying to adapt to new reality

Riddell said the announcement was painful to a degree. “It was very emotional,” she said. “I felt like my kids were being ripped away.” Riddell said trying to adapt to the change, plus instructions on how to use technology to fill the void, left her in panic mode that first week, plus trying to get lockers cleaned out so kids could continue using their notebooks and other school supplies.

Rachar said teachers did their best to adapt to plans that were changing so often. She said she was confident the kids’ education would continue whether schools were closed or not, but how that would be achieved wasn’t always clear.

So far, schools like Stettler Elementary have been employing software like SeeSaw (an online portfolio program with strong distance learning abilities), Google Classroom (according to Google, allows teachers and students to sign in from any computer or mobile device to access class assignments, course materials, and feedback) and Google Meet (a video conferencing tool) to keep teachers in touch with their students, and some of the learning can even be done directly through smart-boards in classrooms.

While some bugs need to be ironed out, Riddell said teachers, students and parents are making it work. “It’s a learning curve,” she noted.

Rachar noted students nowadays are tech savvy so they seem to be adapting well, while Boyd noted software companies have stepped up to help out by offering free trials to help cope with the coronavirus pandemic, which is affecting most parts of the world.

Tod noted the learning curve extends to some parents but she’s impressed that everybody has been very positive in what has been a very unexpected situation.

Nothing is perfect, though. Rachar noted distance learning sometimes obscures who is actually completing the work while Riddell said some parents haven’t looked at things that teachers have sent them.

Boyd said that teaching some concepts, like long division, can be very tricky when you aren’t face-to-face with the students.

Riddell said one of the strangest things to adapt to is seeing Stettler Elementary School empty during the day when it’s usually bursting with activity. Rachar agreed, adding, “It’s very quiet.”

Boyd said being away from “her kids” has been tough. “We’re all just trying to do the best we can do,” added Boyd.

On a learning curve — together

Narci Nenetz, Erin Prehn and Joe Thibeau, Grade 6 teachers at Stettler Elementary, agreed Alberta’s education system is in unknown territory. Prehn said it was daunting to get back to school Mar. 16 and digest the massive shift and the fact no school ever had to deal with anything like this before.

Nenetz said it was nice to work with a team of teachers eager to help each other out. Prehn said it’s been gratifying to have patient parents out there.

Nenetz said teachers tackled the problem of how to deliver content to kids at home and while things like Google Classroom aren’t as effective as face-to-face, they can get the job done. Prehn noted teachers, students and parents are all now on a learning curve together. Take, for example, Phys Ed class. Using Google Classroom, teachers post challenges and daily workouts that don’t require equipment.

Thibeau said when he first heard the announcement of school closures, he thought it would just be for a few weeks but after seeing daily changes he now realizes coronavirus is much more serious than anticipated. “This isn’t something that is three weeks, a month long,” he said.

Thibeau also pointed out the spirit of teamwork teachers enjoy and the “amazing response” from everyone in the education system. “On the whole I’m pretty excited to see how our staff has responded to this,” he added.

While Thibeau noted he feels students are becoming more independent through this ordeal, Prehn said she feels she’s becoming a better teacher as she’s more comfortable with technology and relies more on teamwork.

Not all families have tech resources

Thibeau said with the state of technology today, there is lots of information out there, it’s just up to the teachers to make sure it gets to the students. For this reason, he said he’s a bit concerned for those families who don’t have all the technological resources that some others have. Thibeau also pointed out that anyone, teacher, student or parent, who hasn’t used technology to this degree before may struggle a bit.

Also, the three teachers pointed out they continue to reach out to vulnerable students who thought of Stettler Elementary as a safe place in their lives. They noted the school counsellor Penny Dahl has also been reaching out to students.

Stettler Elementary School principal Sharon Fischer said everyone from teachers to students to parents feels bad about school closures and she’s extremely proud of the community. “Everyone has just jumped right in,” she said.