For many educators, the start of this school year held the possibility of returning to a more “normal” school year after periods of distance and hybrid learning. But teachers and school leaders across the U.S. and Canada say the year has been far from easy or routine—though online learning tools like those offered by Hāpara have offered some relief.
Widespread staffing and substitute shortages were stretching educators thin even before the arrival of the rapidly-spreading omicron variant of COVID-19. It has only exacerbated the problem by bringing a new wave of teacher absences.
The challenge of educator and student absences
Schools have scrambled to find temporary solutions by pulling in administrators and other licensed staff to help substitute. Other schools have brought several classes without a classroom teacher into a common space, like an auditorium or gymnasium to provide some supervision to learners while they work on online assignments. Others, though, have been forced to extend holiday breaks or go into temporary periods of remote learning because they were too understaffed to operate.
“This year has been like 50,000 times worse than last year,” said Ashley Newman, an instructional technology coach in Frederick County Public Schools in Virginia. She’s often tapped to substitute, sometimes for full days.
And it’s not just educator absences that are affecting schools. When learners are ill or quarantined, teachers have to find effective ways to reach and teach them while they’re home so they don’t fall behind.
Online resources like video calls and Hāpara Workspace have proved successful in helping those learners stay on track and feel included in the classroom, even if they can’t physically be there, teachers say.
Choosing online learning tools that keep students on track
Still, the blessing and the curse of the pandemic’s impact on education is that it pushed teachers and students to explore the possibilities of online learning tools.
“We’ve almost beat technology to death,” Newman said. That means it’s all the more important to find online learning tools that are new, fun and engaging for students who spend large portions of their school day online.
Enter Workspace. Newman has built several Workspaces for elementary students, including one for fourth graders that takes them through the daily life and job duties of a colonial Virginian. Before the pandemic, it was an annual tradition for fourth graders to visit Jamestown to explore the many jobs that made up a colonial society. The Workspace, which includes videos and articles, allows students to still have that learning experience, whether in person or remotely.
Newman also built a Workspace to teach learners about habitats and another one focused on major immigrant groups who came to America.
Workspaces make it easy to make accommodations for individual learner needs. This is particularly important in a school like the one Newman primarily works in, where learners speak nine different languages, she said.
Newman also said the ability to pre-build Workspaces around units or projects allows teachers to keep their class on track even if they’re at home for a sick day. And learners who are home can participate in the same activities as their classmates.
“Building these ahead of time can really make our lives easier,” Newman said. “The teachers embracing it are already asking for more. And the students want more Workspaces too.”
One teacher recently stopped Newman at lunchtime and was emotional. She told her that for the first time all year, her learners were completely quiet for a full 15 minutes while they worked on a project through a Workspace that Newman built.
“Those kids were so engaged because it looked new, it looked different than their Google Classroom and they found it fun,” she said.
Making instruction seamless in the classroom and remotely
Ryan Duffett is the principal of Hughenden Public School in Alberta, Canada. He explained that online learning tools have allowed teachers to keep their classrooms operating as close as they can to “business as usual” when some students have to stay home.
“Our school has decided to go above and beyond and offer Google Meet for absent students to see what the teacher is teaching that day,” Duffett said. “That allows the student to (virtually) be in that classroom environment, and it sure beats the traditional model when a student would have to catch up after being gone.”
In November, Duffett’s school had several teacher absences and not enough substitutes for each classroom. So teachers who were at home but felt well enough to teach online used Google Meet and Hāpara online learning tools to keep teaching their class remotely.
“It allowed the students to continue learning from right where they left off,” Duffett said.
Hughenden Public School also uses Hāpara Workspace and Highlights to keep students organized and on task.
“The pandemic definitely brought a priority to using these online resources,” Duffett said. “We kind of went from using them as a tool to using them to create that classroom environment through a digital means.”
Making the move to online learning successful
Barry Scinski, the principal of Vermilion Outreach Centre in Vermilion, Alberta, said the pandemic forced the alternative high school to move from an entirely paper-based model to a digital one that’s already proving successful. The school started using Hāpara tools this fall and also uses Zoom and Google Meet to reach learners.
“We’re just in the infancy stage,” he said, but “our teachers are enjoying the ability to reach out to kids personally and have those conversations that make learning more real and authentic for kids.”
Scinski said that the pandemic prompted many families to rethink the traditional model of learning in a classroom, which has contributed to a higher demand for help from Vermillion Outreach Centre. There’s been a change in the stigma surrounding online learning, he said, as more families see the opportunities of using such resources to cater to students’ needs and learning pace.
“Now that we’re all realizing what those possibilities are, families and teachers who chose this are asking for more,” he said. So far, Scinski said Hāpara has grown into those needs and requests or has offered to develop something to fit the ask.
“We’re really just beginning to explore and test all the pieces, but that connectivity is coming,” he said. “We’ll be able to create that classroom feel and bring that interactive piece to online learning.”