Since Gov. Evers mandated the closure of schools on Mar. 13, educators have been scrambling to teach remotely. In the Northwoods, the level of instruction varies considerably based primarily on the availability of high-speed internet in the households of students.
Education in our Northwoods’ schools looks very different than it usually does. With little notice, principals and teachers had to transition from in-classroom instruction to teaching remotely. For Rhinelander’s Central Elementary School, the transition to remote learning has been made easier because their teachers and students were already using portable computers in the classrooms.
“Because students use Chromebooks during the school year and a lot of our teachers have used those platforms to supplement direct instruction for some it was a pretty smooth flow,” said principal Paul Johnson.
Such devices have become a standard tool in classrooms because it has user-friendly software designed for education and instructors can monitor the content. Once they were able to get the devices to the students’ homes, they could start delivering lessons.
“As much as we can we are delivering essential curriculum via technology. We do have some instances where we are doing for some students or certain situations some traditional paper-pencil instruction but primarily it is being supported through technology,” Johnson said.
Although online instruction may not be as good as that done in a classroom, at Central Elementary School, instruction has continued because of the availability of the devices and overall good internet service. In the few cases where they are doing paper-pencil instruction, it is because homes are not equipped with high speed internet sufficient to handle the real-time instruction from teachers. At other schools, however, like West Elementary in the Unified School District of Antigo, too many of their students and even some staff lack sufficient internet connectivity.
“Our families don’t have consistent access to internet nor do all of our staff members,” said principal Rachel Tassler. “We have been trying to get creative on things we can offer families that they can do together, knowing that is a very stressful time for families, staff and students.”
That has meant sending home packets of work and contacting families by phone or text. At the elementary school level, Antigo’s school district has not been able to continue teaching their essential curriculum.
“Our primary focus at the Unified School District of Antigo,” according to Tassler, “from the very beginning was on the social and emotional wellbeing of our students, staff, and families. Our first focus was a means to contact families in a way that would work for them.”
The Laona School District and Robinson Elementary School has met the remote learning challenge in a different way. Portable computers had been integrated into classroom instruction, and at the time of school closure they were able to send home a device with each student.
“Second through 12th grade have devices,” said principal Melissa Chrisman. “They have chrome books at home provided by the school. Teachers are using Google classroom to push out assignments each day.”
This process was helped because earlier in the year the school did a virtual instruction training day. Although they thought that this might be a way to teach when school is cancelled because of weather, it provided them with helpful information for the shutdown.
“In February we had a day off of school, so it was a teacher in-service day. We did a pilot virtual learning day on that day. That may have helped because our teachers had a little taste of what this would look like and we had a clear idea of what high school students did not have internet and what they needed,” Chrisman said.
During the pandemic, some internet providers are offering free service, and the school passed that information along to parents. For homes without access to a suitable internet service, they came up with another solution. They made the outside of their school a WiFi hotspot.
“You can be in our parking lot,” according to Chrisman, “or the sidewalk outside and still connect to the WIFI. Our technology department has been working with people to come up with ways so that the kids can be connected at least for a short period of time during the day.”
Chrisman, Tassler and Johnson, all credit their staff for delivering remote education during these difficult times. Stephanie Felder, Director of Professional Development for Cooperative Education Service Agency (CESA) communicates with principals and teachers daily.
“Teachers have risen to the challenge in such a beautiful way. I am so proud of all the educators across the region and what they are doing,” Felder said. “Nothing anyone signed up for.”
But despite their best efforts, the availability of internet access has created an unevenness of instruction during these times. According to the Public Service Commission’s Broadband office, the Rhinelander and Laona school districts, for example, have much better access to broadband internet than do families in the Unified School District of Antigo.
“The infrastructure that exists in some places simply does not exist in others. It is really bringing to light the inequity between our communities,” Feldner said.
The long-term solution is to bring better internet access to rural areas. In the meantime, schools are doing their best to meet the educational needs of their students.