Everywhere you look in trying to wrap your head around Monday's switch to eLearning in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, there are positives and there are negatives.
There's no positive to a global pandemic, of course. But we are solidly in the digital age and the online connection skills and tools being learned by teachers, students and parents are going to be useful even after regular school is back in session.
"Those skills are being developed and learned right now that will really help people. Even students who struggle a little bit with technology and would never want to be in an online school, some of what we're doing will help them at the college level,” said Sarge Truesdell, principal at Skyview Middle School in Soldotna.
Skyview was already pretty far down the path of digital schooling.
"We've done a really good job over the last five, six, seven years at making sure almost all of our content was available online anyway,” he said. “So I feel like when this first happened, my initial thing was, 'OK, I think we're going to be OK at Skyview. There's still going to be a big learning curve for folks. It's still, in my opinion, what's going to happen over the next seven weeks is not what's best for our kids I think it's going to be pretty good considering the circumstances."
Teachers are coming up all kinds of cool ways to connect from afar — live streaming PE workouts, Skype sessions to help with math concepts, ways for students to collaborate and post updates on their progress. But even for Skyview, the shift is not without its challenges. Some subject areas just don't lend themselves to online learning. Anything hands-on is going to suffer.
"It is tough for the art teachers and the shop teachers, the robotics teachers. How do they even come close to replicating what they do? Because no matter how much they learn about online stuff, they really need their classroom, their tools to really be able to teach students," he said.
Truesdell thinks the biggest challenge in all of this is going to be for kids who don't have internet access at home. Skyview is loaning Chrome books to families that need one for kids to connect to eLearning but it can't send internet home.
About 50 of Skyview's 400 families don't have internet at home. Even though local internet providers are offering to upgrade or even provide free service to families with students at home, installations are backlogged. For those kids, teachers are going literally old school, with paper-and-pencil packets sent home.
"It isn't just the work, it's the teacher providing feedback and providing support and all that as all of the kids work through the standards, is the most important part. I don't know how well we'll do with that," he said.
To add a further wrinkle is there isn't yet a way figured out in all this to track that kids are learning what they should be learning. State assessments have been canceled for the year. Teachers can still give tests, but how do you do that fairly when some kids have had the benefit of interaction with their teachers — even if digitally — and some haven't?
"How are we grading kids? How is that being reflected? How are we grading the kids who are engaged every single day online versus the kids who don't have online access or the kids who choose not to engage with the work? So there's not really a plan right now for how we hold that accountability," he said.
Truesdell says middle schools are waiting to see what policies are put in place for high schools, since they have higher stakes with graduation requirements and grades going on college transcripts. But even in middle school, the last quarter of the year, in particular, is preparatory work for the next grade level. How successful is next year's algebra student going to be if they didn't learn what they needed in prealgebra this spring?
"What we accomplish in one single day of school is a lot. Kids learn a lot and there's just a lot that happens in a school day. And I tell kids that when they have attendance issues, I say, 'Man, alive, you can't miss two days a week and expect to keep up.' Too much happens in a single day of school. Too much learning, too much feedback," he said.
There's a double edge in all this for teachers and administrators, too. On the positive side, they have the resources and time to learn all these new tools and methods. The downside, though, is a pretty big one. Educators get into education because they like being around students.
"I don't like my new job nearly as much as much as my old job, which had kids involved in it and meeting and greeting kids at the door and smiling and laughing and middle school kid energy in the building," Truesdell said.
But everybody's navigating these waters together. Come Monday, Truesdell says he can't promise smooth sailing but he does promise that Skyview teachers and staff will be ready to help however they can.
"Monday is gonna to be interesting when we go live because what's going to happen … there's going to be kids who just dive in and are really getting after it. There's going to be kids who are struggling. I think our phone's just going to be ringing off the hook with families and kids and parents who need questions answered or things just are struggling in that regard. So we're expectant of that and we're ready for that but it certainly will be an interesting day."
Thanks to Sarge Truesdell for giving us a peek into his mostly empty school building this week.