May Roberts Elementary School teacher Carol DeWitt credits biweekly virtual meeting with other teachers in the Ontario School District as a key ingredient to her success in a distance learning instruction model. (Submitted photo).

ONTARIO – Fifth grade teacher Carol DeWitt likes change and she likes a good challenge. Distance learning has offered plenty of both.

DeWitt teaches 27 students at May Roberts Elementary this year. She meets once a week with her class via video – Tuesdays for about an hour and a half. The meetings have proven a popular respite for kids during the pandemic. DeWitt has used the time to help students connect with each other.

One student recently shared a song, others introduced classmates to their pets, one boy even takes the class on a tour each week of the garden he is helping with. DeWitt calls it her students’ virtual field trip.

“You don’t normally get to do those things in a normal year,” said DeWitt.

Across Malheur County, teachers had to rapidly adjust to teaching students from a distance. Schools were ordered close and haven’t been in session since March 16 under state orders intended to contain the coronavirus.

The struggles are many – having less time with students, recognizing that students are more dependent than ever on parents for help with lessons, and keeping students engaged.

DeWitt has found ways to adapt to face those challenges.

On a recent week her students sang “Happy Birthday” to a classmate and listened intently as another student shared news of the death of a grandparent. The video meetings offer the only connection students have with each other now, said DeWitt.

Since distance learning kicked off mid-April, she’s experimented with ways to make her live lessons more engaging.

During a recent class on geometry, she had her students go on a scavenger hunt around their home in a mad dash to find the shapes they were discussing.

Help has come in many forms, she said, but she credits the biweekly virtual meetups with fellow teachers in the Ontario School District with easing her into the transition.

She meets virtually with all the fifth-grade teachers in the district twice a week to discuss lessons and units.

Teachers split the work and share their slideshows and lessons. “Everyone has an expertise so we put our expertise together,” DeWitt said.

The district has provided technical support at every step, with district employees on call for any questions or issues that arise, she said.

The biggest challenge has been finding all her students and making sure they are consistently participating, DeWitt said. It’s a challenge because some students share their Chromebooks with multiple siblings, she said, and others accompany their parents to work.

Every family has a distinct situation or schedule. DeWitt has found success by sticking to her once-a-week date for video meetings, and posting all her lessons and assignments weekly on Wednesdays.

“Another challenge for me during this process is getting kids, parents and families to relax,” DeWitt said.

Parents sometimes reach out to her, flustered, because they run into difficulties and they’re worried their child will fall behind.

She often walks her students and their families through technical web issues.

DeWitt strives to avoid overloading her students with curriculum. The aim for herself and her fellow fifth-grade teachers is to provide two good math lessons and two good English lessons per week.

“Take it as a challenge and absorb all that you can,” she said. “Don’t get frustrated, ask people questions. Don’t be afraid to say ‘I messed up’ and ‘How do you do this?’ Know that whatever you are feeling, the students are feeling it two fold, and their parents on top of it. You gotta be relaxed and go with it.”

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