Students, teachers step up to remote-learning challenges — with help — as school year begins

Online lessons in locations remote from the classroom are this fall’s challenging new reality for
most students and teachers in Whatcom, San Juan and Skagit counties. (Image source: TechNotes).

By Matt Benoit

— The beginning of the 2020-2021 school year is unlike any that students, parents, teachers or administrators have ever seen — or perhaps even imagined. Many classrooms sit empty, while their anticipated occupants take on the new experiences of teaching and learning in a fully remote fashion. 

In the spring, schools were abruptly thrown into virtual learning by the COVID-19 pandemic, and many lacked resources to provide enough devices and internet connectivity to enable successful across-the-board remote learning.

Since then, school districts have worked to ensure they’re adequately prepared. Many, including here in Whatcom County, are receiving local, state and federal funding to help build infrastructure for remote learning. 

The Port of Bellingham recently applied for a United States Department of Agriculture Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grant. Gina Stark, the Port’s economic development project manager, said that if they are included in the program, they’ll be eligible for up to $1 million in federal funds. The Port, Public Utility District and Whatcom County will also kick in $50,000 each towards the grant’s goals, which focus on providing educators with computers, webcams and other technology support to conduct fully remote learning. A decision on the grant was expected by the end of August, but as of Sept. 3, no decision had been reported by the Port. 

In addition, the Whatcom County Council has allocated around $800,000 of its $1.6 million in CARES funding for school district support, and will be working with districts countywide to determine what support they specifically need, Stark said. Additional CARES funding from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) is also forthcoming to districts, she added. 

Connecting Whatcom

The fact that some county families lack a high-speed internet connection for distance learning only underscores the need for the Port’s and County’s longer-term plan of increasing broadband connectivity throughout Whatcom County.

In the short-term, however, Connect Whatcom, a collaboration between the Port of Bellingham and the Mount Baker Foundation, is working to ensure connectivity is as available as ever, and mobile hotspots are playing an essential role. 

Stark said conversations have been happening with local internet service providers, and conversations with Comcast have led to a deal with their Internet Essentials program, which connects low-income customers with low-cost, broadband internet service.

Where cable connections cannot be established, wireless hotspot devices may provide usable signals for those with cellular service. The Mount Baker Foundation even established a hotspot test team, which sent 4H students from different county districts to specific locations to test the signal strength of hotspots from AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile, including whether or not a Zoom call could be supported. 

“It’s important that this connectivity is a stable connection, and that the bandwidth these kids have access to is really going to be usable,” Stark said. “It’s one thing to be watching a YouTube (video) or looking at something on the internet. That’s completely different than what these kids have to do. They’re going to have to stream their classrooms; they’re going to have to download and upload documents. They’re going to be on all these Zoom calls; they’re going to have to do science labs. So, that connectivity is really more than just being able to get onto the internet.”

Read more on Port and County work to expand connectivity in Whatcom County: “Port, County race to bridge Whatcom’s digital divide” (Salish Current, July 23, 2020).

A computer in every student’s hands

The Meridian School District, home to around 1,800 students, recently acquired more than 1,500 new Chromebooks and 400 iPads through a lease agreement from a company handling public bids for education. They’ll pay for the new equipment next spring, when a technology levy that was approved in February takes effect.

Over the last several weeks, the equipment has been distributed in twice-daily pick-up sessions at Meridian Middle School. 

James Everett, district superintendent, said the district formed a committee two years ago to research how technology could reinforce and enhance learning, which led to the request for a tech levy. With an inventory of aging Chromebooks and iPads, some of which were nearly a decade old, the district was ready to refresh their devices anyway; the pandemic simply accelerated the process and number of the replacements. 

“The competition to try and secure devices was really fierce,” Everett said. “We would not have been able to move forward had we not taken that action to secure the devices, which would have made this fall all the more difficult to be able to provide education for our kids.”

That action, said district technology director Joe O’Brien, began in May, when it was clear fall learning likely wouldn’t proceed normally. O’Brien said they began reaching out to vendors by the end of that month, and things worked out wonderfully. 

During spring virtual learning, O’Brien said the district did not have enough devices for all their students, but reached out to families to identify which households actually needed them, and distributed accordingly. This fall, they won’t have that problem. 

“I don’t have the words to express how amazing it was, not only to have our community support the tech levy, but just how fortuitous it was for that to happen a month before the world shifted,” O’Brien said. “There are districts across the country that are not as fortunate, and are struggling with how to implement remote learning.”

Quality connections 

Among the most pressing issues for many districts, even if they have enough devices, is to ensure their students and teachers actually have adequate internet connections. 

In the Meridian School District, O’Brien said they’ve independently acquired MiFi devices (wireless hotspot devices which provide wireless internet signals) and are distributing those to families who need them. They’re also partnering with Connect Whatcom and the county council to address connectivity issues. O’Brien said Everett is negotiating with Comcast to allow free use of their Internet Essentials program if needed. 

For families not in Comcast’s service area, they’re relying on T-Mobile and Verizon hotspot devices, or possibly fixed wireless connections through Pogozone. Connect Whatcom’s Aug. 20 newsletter reported that Pogozone has plans to expand connectivity in several county areas through multiple methods, including installing new tower sites. 

One of these proposed tower sites is northeast of the Peaceful Valley area, in the Mount Baker School District. The area is also home to Kendall Elementary School, where even teachers have been determining whether they have fast enough internet connections. 

Madison Stump, a 29-year-old first grade teacher, is about to start her eighth year of teaching at Kendall. She lives mid-way between Bellingham and her school, and has acceptable cell and internet service at her home. But not every teacher does. 

“I have colleagues who have connections of 1 to 2 megabytes per second (Mbps),” she said. “They can’t sustain doing a video call, but can engage in chat features and reviewing student work. But live video conferencing is hard for them.”

Stump gets 7 Mbps speed, which isn’t great but is adequate for what she needs to do, she said. Her cell reception is also good enough from home to allow for calls and texts to students, if necessary. Teachers that don’t have adequate speed, she said, may have to visit an alternate site (possibly their empty classrooms) to do their jobs. 

As for students, Kendall Elementary serves a significant number of the county’s low-income families. According to OSPI, 76.1% of the school’s nearly 400 students are on the free or reduced-price lunch program; only three other county schools rank higher percentage-wise. OSPI is working on solutions with ISPs such as Ziply and Comcast, and plans to use CARES funding to purchase affordable service for families qualifying for free or reduced-price meals. 

Communication by every means

In the spring, with remote learning thrust upon them, Stump said she used whatever means necessary to communicate with students and their families. For families that lacked reliable internet, or only had a landline phone, she relied on traditional phone calls. Paper packets of schoolwork were automatically mailed to all Kendall Elementary students in the spring, and will available again upon request this fall, Stump said. 

Language barriers are also potential issues with parental communication. Fortunately, the district has a language line for Spanish and Russian speakers, the latter of which make up a sizable portion of Kendall’s population. If parents call the language line and leave a message in their native language, the message will be translated into English for whom it’s intended. 

Mary Sewright, superintendent for the Mount Baker School District, said that while there are enough devices for every student, there’s a chance some students in the 625-square-mile district won’t have an acceptable internet signal, even with a hotspot. This is where the district’s back-up plan comes in. 

For students still lacking internet access, Sewright said the district will hire back several bus drivers from furlough to transport students to the school buildings nearest their homes, so that they can use district internet connections. They hope to implement this program by Sept. 21. In the meantime, any students without internet will remain in contact with teachers through phone calls, likely having coursework mailed to them, she added. The district also received $488,000 in CARES funding from OSPI, which will ensure every effort is made to make remote learning a success. 

As for the virtual classroom learning, Stump said she anticipates a normal class size of about 22 students. Her first week of work will be professional development focused solely on the logistics of fully remote teaching, ahead of the Sept. 8 start of classes. 

She anticipates most mornings starting with a classroom Zoom call, where unlike the spring, attendance will be taken. There might be smaller group breakout sessions for some study subjects, and maybe additional support from paraeducators, Stump said. 

The biggest challenge of remote learning, she said, will likely be bonding with children and getting to know them. In the spring, Stump was interacting remotely with children she’d already spent most of a school year with in-person. Now, she’ll be starting relationships with a group of students she’s never met before. 

“When you get on a video call, especially with younger students, they get nervous, either because they don’t know you or because they’re not used to seeing themselves on a call with all these other students,” she said. “Once they get comfortable, it’s making sure they have those same (classroom) understandings of ‘we can’t be silly right now, we have to focus right now, and we’ll have some time for personal sharing later.’”

The first week of virtual classes, Stump said, will be focused on relationship building and not academics. Virtual class meetings between teachers and families will also be available. 

“Everything that we’re doing is kind of a new problem to solve,” she said. “But the goal is just to make something that’s going to work for everyone, and build it based on communication and relationship so that it’s a positive experience and an engaging experience for everybody.”

School districts across Whatcom, San Juan and Skagit counties sought input from families about how to manage teaching during the pandemic. Read more:

Back to learning, back to school to happen in the shadow of COVID-19 (Salish Current, Aug. 20, 2020)

Local schools seek parent, student feedback before announcing fall plans (Salish Current, Aug. 2, 2020)

Matt Benoit is Bellingham-born and raised. He’s written for the Bellingham HeraldTri-City HeraldPacific Northwest InlanderDiscover Magazine, and WhatcomTalk, among others. He holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and media production from Washington State University.