By Garrett Mitchell, Staff writer
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it challenges to every aspect of life, but difficulties have been amplified for the education system nationwide.
Woodruff has been no different.
When schools shuttered last March to mitigate the spread of the virus, students were cast into a new sea of uncertainty as virtual learning took the place of in-person instruction. Almost 10 months into the pandemic, students in District Four are continuing to navigate the realm of virtual and distanced learning, as pupils at both Woodruff Middle School and Woodruff High School are still under a hybrid learning model that sees in-person instruction twice weekly with two more days of online classes.
Younger students in the district, however, have seen a return to five-day-per-week classes as the primary and elementary schools have attempted to normalize as much as possible.
From the outset, distance learning has created a sense of confusion and instability for some, as students have struggled to maintain their grades and cope with the isolation of being away from their peers. Teachers and parents have also been forced to maintain a balance between work and helping their children keep up with their assignments.
“It was just a bad situation,” said Kim Mcghghy, whose grandson Wyatt is a freshman at Woodruff High School. “Our teachers were not prepared for this. Our students are not prepared for this. It’s hard, and I watch them now as they have to wear masks and they are just not prepared for what they are having to go through.”
Mcghghy, who also has a fifth-grade granddaughter, Cora, at Woodruff Elementary School, said she noticed a considerable drop in academic performance at the end of last school year when both of her grandchildren were sent home to learn virtually.
“Their academic performance suffered,” she said. “I’m not equipped to teach them, especially a high schooler. You don’t have enough time to divide it, so you have to break it up and you spend all day teaching. [Kids] don’t respond as well to their parents as they do to their teachers. We have even had to hire an outside tutor because we couldn’t do all of the teaching.”
Woodruff District Four Superintendent Dr. Rallie Liston acknowledges the difficulties faced by students and their parents, and understands the need for students to be in the classroom, but says the hybrid model was the best choice to maintain the safety of students while also giving them the best chance to succeed academically during the early months of the pandemic.
“The goal from day one has been to get everyone back in class, face-to-face, five days and do it as safely as possible,” said Liston. “My goal as superintendent is to keep our students safe, our teachers safe, and provide the best learning environment that we can. But let me be frank, our students, they are not doing as well on the hybrid model as they are face-to-face. We know that based on their grades and we are very concerned. We know they are struggling on these virtual days, so these teachers are really giving all they’ve got right now.”
Virtual learning and the hybrid model has been an adjustment for teachers as well. Some teachers in District Four have taken a leading role in helping students with their virtual assignments and have seen the shift in academic performance first hand as they work diligently to make the best of a difficult situation.
“When the pandemic hit in the spring, it was very sudden and we had a short amount of time to get packets ready for students to complete,” said Joy Mitchell, a teacher at Woodruff Elementary School. “Luckily, I was able to assist my nieces and nephew with their e-learning, and this helped me to see the students’ and parents’ perspectives. After seeing this, I shifted my thinking and thought about new ways to be able to provide support to my students. I had to adjust to be able to provide support to the students and provide it in a universal way so all students could access the help.”
Mitchell points to distractions at home as one aspect of virtual learning that is a possible cause for the decline in academic performance.
“The biggest difference is the students’ stamina and ability to pay attention during class,” she said. “There are a lot more distractions at home, so I had to set parameters and rules like I would in the classroom. When we were hybrid, I would post videos for science and social studies. I noticed that some students were not doing well on the assignments. Once I started teaching the lessons live, then students began to make better grades on science and social studies assignments.”
District Four has also strived to provide tools to help students connect more directly with their teachers and peers. Among those measures was the introduction of Chromebook laptops that students could take home to connect to their virtual lessons.
“These Chromebooks, I hear they are wonderful, and the students like them,” Liston said. “These iPads the youngsters have, they have already worked with some of those, and the teachers are able to teach and communicate with students now regularly with assignments and different teaching programs that have helped with instruction. We are in a learning community now and instead of hiding from it, let’s embrace it and figure it out and see what we can do.”
While students are more connected through the use of technology, there are pitfalls as well. Namely, many students have struggled without the daily interactions with their friends and peers which have led to less success academically.
D.J. Sanders, 10, is a student at Woodruff Elementary who started the school year in a full virtual setting is now back in school five days a week.
“[Virtual] was difficult for me because I wasn’t getting as good of grades as I am now,” Sanders said. “I went from having mostly A’s and B’s to having C’s and D’s. So that’s what changed. When we left school, they had to mail stuff to us and we had to do it on paper and I didn’t like that. Virtual wasn’t bad, but going back to school, I realized how much better I could have done if I was in school this entire time.”
Sanders added, “I feel really great about being back in school and with my friends.”
Mcghghy’s grandson, Wyatt, missed his time with friends and teachers and said virtual learning was more difficult for him.
“I missed being [in school],” he said. “My grandparents really don’t know a lot about what we are learning these days, so I prefer to be with a teacher. It was hard being all virtual. My grades really dropped.”
Mitchell has been able to bring some of the missing interaction among her students into her virtual lessons.
“The one difficulty that I notice the most is that children really miss the social aspect of school,” said Mitchell. “Because of this, I allow them time when we are finished with class to talk and share anything with the class. Students do not have to stay on during this time, but many like to stay on and interact with each other. Most times they want to share their pets with the class, a joke, a song on the piano, their Christmas tree, and more. I feel like this time is so important because it gives the kids a sense of normalcy and a time to socialize with each other.”
Mcghghy’s biggest concern, however, was what she saw as an overload academically prior to the introduction of the online technology such as Zoom meetings. Before that, at-home learning consisted of a more condensed schedule, and students felt the strain of trying to complete all their assignments correctly and on time.
“It was almost unrealistic at times,” Mcghghy said. “I would have liked to see maybe some consideration taken into that. It was burnout.”
Liston, however, is quick to praise the efforts of all involved in making a terrible circumstance the best it can possibly be. He sees the continuing efforts of students, teachers, and parents as a testament to the dedication of all in District Four schools to academic excellence.
“The most phenomenal thing in all of this, for me, is when you look at all of the disjointedness in the world right now, to look at our community as a whole, the effort from all has been tremendous,” he said. “In my experience with our students in my 30 years in Woodruff, when you set that bar high and explain why you are doing what you’re doing, our students have always risen to whatever it is that we are looking for. They rise to the occasion and they are doing that now.”