LA GRANDE — Three months can make a world of difference.
School begins in the La Grande School District on Monday, Aug. 31, and its teachers will again be providing only virtual instruction to its students, just as they were doing at the end of the 2019-20 school year.
But the quality of the distance education program the district will be providing this fall — Comprehensive Distance Learning, or CDL — will be significantly better, according to La Grande teachers, especially in terms of the live instruction and opportunities for teacher-to-student and student-to-student interaction it will provide.
This has faculty such as La Grande Middle School social studies teacher Anne Marie Fritz excited. She is looking forward to the chance to see and communicate directly with her students and for them to have the chance to get reacquainted with their classmates.
“Students will be able to be reunited with their friends. Classes will be building relationships,” Fritz said.
The teacher stressed she misses her students terribly and would like nothing better than to have them again in her classroom.
But the district’s Comprehensive Distance Learning model, she said, “is the next best thing.”
A key component of the district’s program is Google Classroom, one of the tools for virtual education Fritz and all teachers have been learning a great deal about in recent months. Fritz said learning about these tools has been invigorating and will help her as an educator.
LMS sixth-grade teacher Kelly Oliver is another fan of the district’s improved CDL program. She said she likes how it simulates an onsite school day and provides students with structure. Oliver noted students will be expected to attend the classes as they are streamed live, and that attendance will be recorded and students who are late will be marked as tardy.
Oliver said she believes many of the school district’s teachers feel good about the program in place for the fall and are inspired by the opportunity to dive deeper into the world of online teaching.
“Most teachers like challenges,” Oliver said.
She lauded the school district for how well it has prepared its teachers for providing virtual education.
“We all feel ready,” Oliver said.
The sixth-grade teacher said students are eager to come back to school in an improved virtual setting.
“They are charged up. Many want to start now,” Oliver said.
Parker McKinley, also a sixth-grade teacher at LMS, said he is glad he will be able to see his students more on a face-to-face basis than he did last spring. The educator said this will provide him with more opportunities to read his students’ body language, which he uses to gauge how well they are understanding his instruction.
McKinley said a key to making distance learning successful is to ensure students, parents and teachers are working in unison.
“When you have all three working together it is very powerful,” he said.
La Grande High School social studies teacher John Lamoreau said one of the things he likes best about the CDL program is the opportunity it is providing educators to develop a better understanding of the technology available to them. Some are tools he will continue using after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides and students can return to in-person classes.
“We are learning about new tools and how they relate to today’s world,” Lamoreau said.
Many students, however, would not choose virtual learning.
“All of the students I’ve talked to wish they could be back in the classroom,” Lamoreau said.
The LHS teacher said one feature of Comprehensive Distance Learning he likes is the requirement that all teachers provide distance education from their physical classrooms. Last spring, many faculty taught from home.
Lamoreau also said he is looking forward to being with his colleagues again now that school is starting.
“It will give us a chance to share ideas,” he said.
La Grande High School literature, writing and French teacher Kevin Cahill also is looking forward to seeing more of his colleagues, but he is not sure how students will respond to distance education.
“The big unknown in all this is will they hang with us or disappear,” he said, adding that keeping students focused and interested “will be a huge challenge.”
Students in a traditional classroom setting can draw on support and feedback from their peers. But in distance learning, he said, “they have to supply their own energy.”
Pat Des Jardin, who teaches science at LHS, said he has mixed feelings about the challenge of delivering distance education.
“I’m excited and terrified. I have so much to learn, and I’m afraid I will let students and parents down,” said Des Jardin, the winner of multiple inspirational teacher awards from Eastern Oregon University for his work at LHS.
Still, Des Jardin said he believes the district’s new distance education program is significantly better than what was in place last spring and thinks it has great potential.
“The possibilities are endless,” Des Jardin said.