The soft closure of Utah schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic was announced March 13, and has subsequently been extended through the end of the academic year. The pivot to distance education has posed challenges to students, educators and families.

The Sevier School District incorporated an online schooling technology, Canvas, several years ago. However, not all teachers were utilizing it to the extent school closures would require. This resulted in teachers having to overcome a learning curve to quickly produce high-quality lessons online and incorporate video conferencing platforms to interact with students. The closure of schools also made students responsible for their learning. In addition, parents have been pressed into the roles of educators, facilitators and having to learn to navigate educational technology on the fly. 

Joshua Robinson, a seventh grade teacher at North Sevier Middle School, said while he cannot interact and have the involvement he would like with every student, at least he can get students the information they need to be successful. 

“While students are working on their assignments, I am at my computer using Google hangouts or meets to interact with students that have questions or need extra help,” Robinson said. “I am also constantly refreshing Canvas to answer their emails and make sure I am getting some kind of connection with every student daily. I do a lot of phone calls, text messaging and emails to reach out to students and parents we haven’t heard from to make sure they are okay and if they need any help accessing their assignments.” 

Robinson said he is thankful to have the technology and resources available to reach out to students in a time like this as not all school districts do. He has also appreciated getting a better understanding of technology and online resources, he can use to put together good lesson plans remotely.

“I’d much rather teach in a classroom full of wound up 12- and 13-year-olds than sit at my computer communicating through email and video messaging,” Robinson said. “I feel like the students are adjusting well considering what they are being asked to do. I can’t imagine being their age and expected to get up, get logged on and do my homework effectively with so many distractions going on everyday.”

A common theme among teachers in Sevier County is the loss of face-to-face contact with students, as well as concerns about those who are struggling. Another downfall is with subjects where labs and hands-on activities are incorporated, according to Robinson.

“I would love to get to see all my students’ faces in a classroom, give high fives and have them tell me about their lives,” Robinson said. “I think what the parents and students have done in this community is admirable. It hasn’t been easy, but they have shown a lot of grit. It has not been perfect, but with the adjustments being made daily, we have come a long way in ensuring students are learning daily.

“I would like to thank our district leaders, administrators, fellow teachers, students and parents,” Robinson said. “We are very blessed to live in the community we do, and I look forward to the days when the curve is flattened and I can teach to a room full of smiling faces.” 

Another NSMS teacher, Heather Torgerson, who teaches physical education, said daily physical activity is very important during this time of isolation and she assigns simple, daily activities, which holds her students accountable to move their bodies. 

“I think kids now, more than ever, need to get up and move,” Torgerson said. “The more kids sit around the house using their devices, the more they are going to feel tired, anxious and depressed. Parents have become involved in my assignments as well. I have received several texts saying how much they have appreciated the circuit routines, the yoga poses and even the mandatory jogs or walks they share as a family.”

Torgerson said she receives thank you messages on a regular basis from students that are learning how beneficial exercise is to not only their physical bodies, but to their emotional and mental well-being. 

“We discuss how natural endorphins are released during exercise, and they are taking advantage of their endorphins to make their days better,” Torgerson said. “I am getting a lot of positive feedback during my online PE classes.”

Keeping balance and structure to each day is important, according to Torgerson. 

 “I know how hard teachers are working to keep students engaged,” Torgerson said. “We are all just doing our best with the situation at hand. I feel routine is so important. My girls and I get up at the same time everyday. We exercise before they start homework and they finish their homework at the same time they would if they were getting out of school.”

As the mother of a high school senior who is an athlete, Torgerson said it has been heartbreaking for her daughter to not have the ability to compete in track this season and such is likely affecting her scholarship with Brigham Young University. Track scholarships are based on times and distances, which she may have improved during her senior season and could have increased her scholarship. 

“For seniors, this should be their victory lap right now,” Torgerson said. “Without warning, all of the traditional celebrations of their final term of high school were squashed, which has to be extremely difficult for them.” 

In addition to paper packets being sent home to kindergarten students with daily assignments and activities, Bree Nielsen, an instructional assistant at Salina Elementary School, said she is very grateful for the technology already being used on a daily basis in the classroom as it made it easier to transition to homeschool and continue with the same lessons. 

“Part of my duties are to make contact with each of my students daily,” Nielsen said. “I am able to teach and review the same subjects I would at school, it is just over the phone now. We are able to work on sight words, counting, letter sounds, etc., so they are still able to progress. I look forward to hearing their voice each morning, and I think they look forward to having a phone call of their own as well.”

Most students are staying on track with their learning and retaining curriculum, but it is unfortunate school will not resume for the year, according to Nielsen.

“I do worry about those few students that do not have much help or guidance at home and for the students that need socialization and daily interactions with peers and teachers,” Nielsen said. “It is a very stressful time for parents, students and teachers. But, our teachers and principal have done an amazing job reaching out and making the transition work.”

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