From Zoom to slow-mo in 24 hours: COVID-closed 6th-grade classrooms ditch initial remote plan for lighter version

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School leaders cite variety of reasons for pullback that left some parents unhappy

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – A pullback from three hours of real time daily Zoom classes for a quarantined Indian Trail Intermediate School (ITIS) 6th-grade hall has at least several parents disappointed in the change — which occurred just one day into the two-week closure.

“It kept her engaged longer and in the routine of school and having more thinking, functioning time with English and science and math,” Jennifer Mrozek said of her daughter Tate’s first day of remote quarantine from Deer Hall team of about 75 students. That occurred Aug. 23.

“It just seemed a continuation of her normal day as much as it could be at home.”

Jennifer Mrozek

And going into the weekend of Aug. 21 that was the plan for the remainder of the quarantine period. Teachers had developed a schedule with one-hour blocks for English/Language Arts, math, and science/social studies followed by about 90 minutes after lunch “to complete assignments” and have questions answered individually.

It’s the kind of remote learning approach ITIS Principal James Jacobs said is the preferred product if kids have to be away from the classroom en masse.

“We set the bar really high in the beginning, like we would love to do this, it sounds awesome,” Jacobs said of that initial plan.

But on the same day students opened their laptops for the 9:30 “Block 1” Zoom, parents received a message from ITIS leadership that the model was being replaced.

“(A)fter getting feedback from parents, we understand that it can be very difficult for students to Zoom for each class daily,” the new message read in part.

Schools ‘threading a needle’ right now

Even though a quarantined fifth-grade ITIS team stuck with its three-day-a-week interactive Zoom schedule, Jacobs said the Deer Hall change was the right move after teachers heard from numerous families for whom the schedule was going to create difficulties.

Teachers on Deer Hall contacted parents starting Aug. 20 and continued through the weekend, Jacobs said. What they heard from a number of them, he said, was that their families would have difficulty with the requirement of three straight hours of Zoom classes with two five-minute breaks.

James Jacobs, Indian Trail Principal

“Some families are sharing one hot spot and the parent’s using it for work and the student’s not going to have an opportunity to get on,” Jacobs said. “Some students are at home by themselves. Some students are sick with COVID and they’re not able to get on. We have family members keeping students.

“So for them to be able to be on all day, we saw quickly it just wasn’t going to be possible. What we didn’t want to do is move a large group of students forward and have gaps for students that weren’t able to keep up.”

From Aug. 24 to today, when three teams of students numbering more than 200 in total returned to in-person learning, assignments have been posted in Canvas — the school district’s main online platform — with students expected to complete them independently. Teachers were still available to Zoom, email or talk by phone with students who reach out to them with questions about the work.

Jennifer Mrozek said she wished ITIS could have kept the more interactive option for parents who wanted it — including her.

“If we can offer the most for our kids, the most opportunity to learn, and if there are kids and parents that can’t do that, then if the opt out situation is working for masks, let them opt out of face to face Zoom learning without being penalized if they can get the work done in the way it’s being done now, which is just online,” Mrozek said.

Jacobs said that scenario was discussed but wasn’t feasible.

“The students that weren’t live, how do we provide the immediate feedback to those students?” Jacobs said. “One of the things we found to be very successful is a student can call a teacher, can Zoom a teacher at any moment and the teacher is there to answer the question.”

But Mrozek said Tate missed out on what would have been the best solution for her, and several other parents told News Channel 11 the same. Mrozek said Tate’s learning style is more geared toward a classroom setting – even a virtual one.

“She needs instruction. She does better with the structure and the instruction to know what to do.”

Tate Mrozek has requested a few Zoom meetings and her mom said the teachers have helped her through whatever she didn’t understand.

Now, Mrozek said Tate gets her work done in about 90 minutes. Two other parents said their children also spend as little as an hour completing their assignments and that they much preferred the longer day with Zoom classes.

“I appreciate how available the teachers are,” Mrozek said. “You can get them one on one and that’s been good.”

But if she’d known parents were expressing opposition to the remote block schedule, “I would have liked to have chimed in on the side of keep it – it will be good for my child.”

“Red Fox” charts different path

Another parent said he would have done the same, but he didn’t have to.

Sanjay Dharmapal’s son, Taj, was in another quarantined team at ITIS that had real time Zoom classes each Monday, Wednesday and Friday and didn’t back away from that schedule. They reserved Tuesdays and Thursdays for an approach like Deer used every day.

Dharmapal said his son Taj’s fifth-grade team on Red Fox Hall provided a good experience.

Taj Dharmapal works on schoolwork from home.

“He had Zooms basically all morning Monday, Wednesday and Friday,” Dharmapal said.

“He also had paperwork that we had picked up the prior Friday that he worked on and did during the Zooms and in the afternoons. It was very engaging, he was busy, but not overly so. I thought it was very positive and helpful, especially to us in the circumstance.”

Dharmapal and his wife observed Taj several times interacting with the teachers and students. “It was great to see that interplay,” he said. “It made it seem normal.”

Had he been faced with the Deer Hall situation, Dharmapal said he wouldn’t have been happy.

“I would have been disappointed and would have probably reached out to the school because I think it would have been a disservice for our students, their peers and the educators,” he said. “The more engagement that he was able to have with his teachers and his peers was the most helpful.”

At the same time, Dharmapal said he empathizes with the situation the schools are facing right now. He said the system seemed unready on several fronts when the semester started, but he understands given the rapid growth trajectory of the delta variant. And the results for his family were positive.

“I feel strongly and at the same time I feel badly for them that all this change and pivoting has happened again and I really feel good about how they handled it so far.”

Jacobs said one reason the fifth-grade teams utilized real-time Zoom more was because those kids had been in elementary school last year and didn’t have experience using Canvas. He said the fifth grade teachers felt their students still needed more experience using inboxes and navigating the digital format.

He also said one Red Fox team had low very low attendance on its first two Zoom meetings, though that increased for the other two.

Gray areas not a popular thing to explain these days

 Jacobs said ITIS leaders will continue looking at what works best. The school system will receive some mobile hotspots that it can distribute to children without good internet access, so that will alleviate one concern.

If more mass quarantines arise, he said there’s always the possibility of more Zoom live classes.

“When we see there’s a way to improve then that’s what we’re going to do,” Jacobs said. “That’s where constantly having those conversations with teachers and families are going to let us know, ‘alright, this is working, this is not working, what can we do to get better.’”

Jacobs said whether it’s masks, remote learning or any of several other tough calls institutions like schools have to make right now, it sometimes seems like parents or other stakeholders tend to see things black or white.

“We care about kids,” he said. “And we really want kids to be here. That is a big deal to us.

“I don’t want to be on this side or that side, I want kids to be here and I want to take care of them. But it’s hard because again, people are so divided, and they’re so passionate about their division. There’s not that gray area. We need that. We need people to say, ‘you know what Dr. Jacobs, you love your kids, you know your school, you’re going to take care of them the best you can. If this is what you can do, I believe in you, I know your teachers are going to do it.’ That’s what we need. That’s a big deal to us.”

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