Nyssa High School science teacher Ken Dickey shows the nine-week packet he sent home to students in his classroom Aug. 29. (Aidan McGloin/The Enterprise)

NYSSA - Nyssa schools are one of the first local schools to teach virtually this school year after a state mandate restricting in-person school. With better planning and more experience, Nyssa educators say it’s much improved from last year, but the results are hard to determine so early on.

“We knew this was an option, it wasn’t sprung on you. That mental preparation was the biggest change,” said Luke Cleaver, Nyssa Middle School principal.

Students returned to class, though remotely, on Wednesday, Aug. 26.

Cleaver said there were still some issues they are working out. They will be ordering more WiFi hotspots, since some of the hotspots are being shared by siblings which result in poor video quality.

But he’s happy school is back in session.

“We’re in class for a while, giving real grades, giving real instruction,” Cleaver said.

The middle school’s enrollment hasn’t changed from around 300 students, but 46 of them chose the full-online learning mode, said Cleaver.

That mode, contracted through Edgenuity, is a self-studied education form where 25 kids can pop in and out of a teacher’s Zoom for help. These children will remain virtual even if the rest of the school returns to in-person education.

The start of school was better than anyone anticipated, said Maria Ortega, Nyssa Middle School dual language teacher.

Students were excited talking with each other and seeing their classmates online after months of isolation, she said.

Ortega hasn’t changed her lesson plans, and has sent home graphs and organizers to her math students.

Like other Nyssa Middle School teachers, she teaches in four 75-minute classes, and she said the teachers went through enough training to support students even from a distance.

Even though she’s figuring out the technology, she’s disappointed she can’t have any one-on-one time with her students. She has to explain how to do everything to her students, without being able to show them exactly how to do it, like she normally would in-person.

She sees frustration on some of her students’ faces.

For younger students, they need parents to help them out, said Matt Murray, Nyssa Elementary School principal.

Students in first grade can’t be expected to log in to lessons without their parents. Not all parents can attend to their students through the entire school day, however, so elementary teachers record the sessions, and students can watch the video later in the day with their parent’s help.

Even still, Murray has heard from some parents who say they’ve had difficulty supervising their children after a long day at work.

“That’s difficult, I get it, but we don’t have any other options now,” said Murray.

Nyssa Elementary has around 560 students enrolled, and is teaching in two-hour classes of 10 students instead of the usual 20 to keep students engaged.

The elementary school distributed white boards, markers and mathematical board games to families the Monday before school started, said Murray.

Now, the hardest part is getting students in the right place digitally, he said.

For the high school, the biggest hurdle was the sudden shift to online learning, said Brett Jackman, Nyssa High School principal.

“All summer long, we focused on reopening in-person, then two weeks before we were told to go with distance learning,” said Jackman, who repeated Gov. Kate Brown’s earlier argument that parents need to get back to work, and children to school.

They didn’t anticipate log-in glitches, but, generally speaking the first day of school went well, said Jackman.

The high school turned eight periods into four-period blocks, and figured out the logistics of getting Chromebooks to students with a curbside pick-up instead of having them walk in.

Jackson is proud of his teachers, who took and adjusted their lesson plans into the new 75-minute teaching blocks, he said.

“It’s pretty cool to work in a community like Nyssa, where everyone pools together when you need it,” said Jackman.

Ken Dickey taught a Nyssa High School science class the difference between a chemical and physical reaction during class last week. 

Still in his classroom, where the lab equipment is piled high and the desks sit empty, he’s experiencing some of the awkward experiences of virtual learning: it’s hard to show students how to read meters through the cameras that he has available, he set up a poll that was intended to be multiple choice but was instead single answer, and Zoom doesn’t allow him to write subscripts, making chemical equations a guessing game for his students.

He’s working through it, though. He sent home a large packet of nine weeks of learning, so students can follow along with him at home.

It’s harder making a connection with students, said Brad Dalton, Nyssa High School math and science teacher.

On the first day of school, the 33-year teacher felt like a first-year teacher again, not knowing what was going to happen in class. He tried an ice breaker at first, and pretended throw a ball around the virtual class, but normally he would go around the classroom and talk one-on-one with each student.

Without being able to know kids that way, it will be harder to keep them motivated, he said, but the fact that Nyssa High School is using real grades this year instead of last year’s pass/fail should help keep students more engaged, said Dalton.

Student engagement is a lot harder to keep online, and each teacher is putting extra hours toward learning the technology and developing new lessons to do so, said Dalton. For him, he has to take the Microsoft slides he used, and adapt them to Google Slides, and then adapt them to Pear Deck, a Google plug-in that makes slides interactive. It’s a time-intensive process that adds up.

Student progress is too hard to guess right now, not only because of how early in the year it is, but because he can’t check in with students like he used to.

“It’s still an experiment in the making right now,” said Dalton.

PRIOR COVERAGE

Malheur County educators share advice to keep kids engaged in long-distance schooling

New report shows state taking conservative path to classrooms

Local school district officials react to new Covid benchmarks

News tip? Contact reporter Aidan McGloin at [email protected] or at 541-473-3377.

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