The 2020-21 academic school year is off to an unusual start.
The majority of Columbia River Gorge schools opened under a distance learning model in September, first introduced last spring at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. As of press time on Oct. 19, no students from the Hood River County School District, North Wasco County School District 21 or White Salmon Valley School District had returned to in-person classes.
For three Gorge families, distance learning — which requires logging into a remote classroom — has proved challenging, though not without certain rewards.
Cassie Gooding has three students in North Wasco County School District 21: Gavin, 17, is at The Dalles High School, Aubree, 11, is at The Dalles Middle School, and Logan, 8, is at Chenowith Elementary. The kids’ schedules vary — Gavin is in school from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Aubree from 8:30 a.m. to noon, and Logan from 8-11:30 a.m., Monday through Friday. Gooding is a dental assistant, working at The Dalles Dental Care (Haley Easling, DMD) and Northern Oregon Endodontics (Scott Edgar, DMD), located in Hood River.
“I have had to greatly adjust my schedule for distance learning, meaning work as I can during the week for Haley and adjust my hours for Dr. Edgar, not being able to be in the office until after the kids are done with school,” she said.
Arianne C. Walker has four students in the Hood River County School District: Dylan, 17, and Azrielle, 15, are at Hood River Valley High School, and Aurora, 8, and Anastasia, 5, are at May Street Elementary.
Her elementary students attend classes from 7:50-11:50 a.m. Monday through Friday, but “there are multiple log-in times for each child and the schedule has been evolving weekly,” she said. Anastasia has music and PE on a rotating schedule in the afternoons, but “my older kids are doing their classes during that time, so it’s not really happening,” she said.
Dylan, a senior, has zero period, so he logs in from 10:15 a.m. to 3:10 p.m., with a lunch break from 11-11:30 a.m.; Azrielle, a sophomore, has class from 11:30 a.m. to 3:10 p.m. Walker works in sales at Ray Schultens Motors in The Dalles from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, as well as Saturday by appointment.
“I sometimes need to stay (at the office) later,” she said. “I was able to take a couple days off last month to try and help in the very beginning of all of this. Now I’m at work trying to handle it remotely, through phone contact with my children.”
Carly Borton has four children, three of whom are in the White Salmon Valley School District: Benjamin, 13, at Hinkle Middle, Gabriel, 10, at Wallace and Pricilla Stevenson Intermediate, and Nathanael, 7, at Whitson Elementary; Samantha, 3, is in daycare.
Borton works from home for Hood River County School District; this year, she is on a temporary job transfer to Hood River Options Academy (HROA) as a full-time math teacher.
“We spend at least three to four hours on and off all day (online),” she said. “They have the day divided so my youngest goes to school for 45 minutes on Zoom starting at 8 a.m., with a 15-minute enrichment following. Then he has asynchronous (independent) learning the rest of the day that takes him a couple of hours. My fifth grader starts around 9 a.m. and has Zoom meets and asynchronous assignments throughout the day. My eighth grader has Zooms from 12:20-3:30 p.m., and asynchronous in the morning.”
Though each family is managing, they all report a number of difficulties.
Walker said the biggest challenge for her younger children is having to stay engaged online, “especially being at home, where they can get easily distracted between other siblings and pets,” she said.
The kids have learning spaces in the kitchen and living room; the little ones have headphones, “but it’s still difficult. My youngest wears glasses and when she puts the headphones and the glasses on, it gives her a headache and makes it hard for her to concentrate, but without her glasses, she has trouble seeing,” she said. “My 8-year-old said the headphones hurt her ears and don’t always work properly. And my 15-year-old has little sisters who continually ask her for things, especially once they are out of class and she is trying to be in class.”
Because both she and her husband, Craig Maurer, work fulltime in sales, they must rely on the older kids to help with the younger. It’s Dylan, for example, who goes to May Street to pick up materials for his younger sisters on his lunch break each Tuesday.
“We are not part of any parent pods,” Walker said. “We are having to rely on our older kids to help with our little ones.”
In Borton’s family, the challenge has been “a lack of typing skills.” Her youngest son struggles to complete assignments because it takes him a long time to write and type his responses.
“We have switched to drawing and writing on paper as opposed to on the computer, and then just taking a picture to submit,” she said.
Another challenge is a lack of internet or internet outages. “Out here in Underwood, there are few options and we get kicked out of Zoom meetings regularly,” she said.
Gooding has had a similar issue with technology. The schools provided Chromebooks, but they are not always Zoom compatible.
“There have been some tech issues,” she said. “… I was fortunate to have two fantastic bosses who donated computers to my kids because we had issues with the Chromebooks.”
She sees the commitment as something of a challenge as well. “I had to rearrange my whole life so that they can get an education,” she said.
“My kids are doing okay, but I think many are struggling,” she added. “I have motivated kids and I encourage them to stay that way. Not all kids are motivated to work — distance learning doesn’t help those kids. There is no incentive to do the work and they can easily be left behind, not at the fault of the teachers or parents.”
All have had to supply some materials for their students, although all said support from their respective districts have been good on that point.
“The Hood River County School District has been very good at supplying everything the kids have needed to succeed,” said Walker. “I did have to change internet providers to be able to have enough bandwidth and speed for all of them to be online at the same time … we also had to purchase a WiFi booster.”
Borton said that her family had to upgrade both its wireless plan and internet service “and we still struggle to get enough to sustain our family needs.”
All three have discovered unexpected benefits to distance learning. Walker said her kids aren’t as tired at the end of the day and that they enjoy their half-day schedules. Gooding said that, while her children miss seeing their friends, “overall, they love the freedom distance learning gives them — they are so adaptable and tech savvy.”
“I am really impressed by how much the kids are learning to navigate through the platforms,” said Borton. “They are getting pretty savvy with Google Classroom, Google Documents, etc. I am also so proud of them learning to get out of their comfort zone and email their teachers or go to office hours.”
Still, it’s a difficult balance.
“I couldn’t work and assist my kids without my family and support from my employers,” said Gooding. “… I have had to work fulltime the past few weeks, so my mom has helped me out with the kids. I had to move their setups to her house two hours away, but the bonus is that distance learning can happen from just about anywhere.
“… My kids are worth the time and effort. Not everyone can afford to give up a job to help their kids in school. I am fortunate to have people that support me and my kids during this time,” she said.
Borton also has support. “My husband also works at home, so he comes in and helps at times when I am in meetings with my students. My mom has also been a huge blessing … she has learned how to help Nate get into his Zoom call and how to navigate Seesaw. I think it’s really fun for Nate to teach his grandma some technology skills.”
Working at HROA has also “been a blessing,” she said. “I am working a lot, but I have much more flexibility to support my children.” Her two youngest children will soon be attempting a hybrid option, having in-person classes twice a week.
Walker said, “Honestly, no,” when asked if she had enough support to work and assist her children with distance learning. “But we are trying to make the best of it. I feel like the schools/teachers are doing their best to make sure we have supplies (and) supplementary instruction tools … but it’s still exhausting trying to both work and try to coordinate distance learning. And we are lucky in the sense that we have older kids at home to help, some families don’t have that.
“… I feel like we are all trying to navigate this together, but while we are having a shared experience, it’s different for everyone,” she said. “ … I feel like everyone is doing triple duty to try and make this work. Personally, I feel like I’m failing miserably and just when I think we’ve got it down, schedules change, or something else gets added (that needs to happen during the weekday before 5 p.m.) and it feels like an uphill battle again. However, as difficult as it is, I would rather not have my children get sick, so in that respect, I appreciate the caution and having them in a safe environment.”
“There is a huge equitable disparity that we are all trying our best to overcome,” said Borton. “I know how much I have to do to help my own children makes me feel so bad for parents who have to work outside the home each day or for older siblings who are also given the responsibility for teaching their younger siblings.”
“Shout out to the teachers,” Gooding said. “This is not easy — especially at the elementary level, to control your classroom over a screen is nearly impossible, but they are doing it. As the weeks go by, it seems to be getting better and the kids are adjusting to this new routine. Distance learning is far from perfect — and the teachers are doing their very best.”