One year of coronavirus: Clark, Champaign families challenged to keep students on track

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

Rachelle Suther has two children, a sixth and 12th grader, in the Tecumseh Local School District who she said, “absolutely hated online.”

“Both boys preferred in-person, but we were forced for online until they lifted to hybrid. Both of my boys’ grades and demeanor on school suffered greatly because of COVID,” Suther said. “They absolutely hated online… both boys became very discouraged trying to keep track of online days and in-person days.”

Chrissy Zettler has four children in the Springfield City School District and she said three of them have done well with remote learning.

“Three of my children are striving. They are doing so good in all of their classes and my oldest has even went from getting D’s and F’s to getting all A’s doing it at home,” said Chrissy Zettler.

However, one of her children has struggled to connect with virtual learning, she said.

These are two families that illustrate the challenges parents faced when schools closed in March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Ohio Department of Health ordered all public and private K-12 schools in Ohio closed at the end of the school day on March 16, 2020. Gov. Mike DeWine called this decision an ‘extended spring break’ at the time and planned to review review on April 3. Schools eventually closed for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year as coronavirus cases and deaths spread.

Suther said she and her husband work in retail fulltime and that “keeping track of all this was a nightmare” and that “it’s been one of those years that I can’t wait to be over.”

“My youngest son has issues not having his assignments being processed due to the type of computer I had or something with the program server, but regardless even proving to the teachers at an in-person conference call and explaining all that he was doing, his grade suffered and he failed the classes anyway,” Suther said. “My oldest son suffered as well. He was an honor student and taking advanced classes and he was struggling learning the techniques in his advanced classes without an in-person teacher.”

Suther added that her children also had to quarantine last October due to her contracting COVID-19, which she said made catching up worse and her children and their learning experience were “impacted greatly.” She said, “it’s discouraged them for next year.”

There have been “many worries” as a superintendent navigating during the pandemic, said Tecumseh Local School District Superintendent Paula Crew, including student well-being and the learning gap.

“My biggest fear was, and will continue to be, the ramifications the pandemic has had on the social, emotional and mental health of our students and staff members,” she said. “The academic and learning gaps from the prolonged school closure also continues to weigh heavy on our minds.”

Suther said she is ready for her oldest son, who is a senior this year, to move on from school and put this year behind him.

“He felt robbed of some very memorable moments for his senior year… I’m sad that he didn’t get those experiences,” she said.

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Family sticks to virtual learning

Schools were allowed to open back up with some type of in-person learning in fall for the 2020-21 academic year, but had to do so with learning plans that included health and safety protocols related to COVID-19, such as wearing masks or facial coverings, social distancing of at least six feet, upkeeping personal hygiene such as hand washing, and cleaning and sanitizing in all buildings.

One of the biggest challenges Springfield City School District Superintendent Bob Hill said was being able to provide learning environments for students while following all protocols.

“Providing an environment conducive to learning for all grades across 16 buildings, while social distancing and requiring the use of masks,” he said. “In addition, educating approximately 30% of our students virtually proved to be a challenge, yet our effectiveness improved each day.”

As for her as a parent, Zettler said she is “stressed beyond max” with helping to teach her four children at home as she is a college student as well.

“Not only am I homeschooling four kids, but I am also a student myself at Wittenberg University and it is so hard to keep them on track and keep up on my classes. I even had to reduce my class load this semester just so that I could juggle everything,” she said.

Although most of her children are doing well with remote learning, Zettler said her kids miss being around other kids.

“My kids miss being around their friends and other kids, which is hard on them and I can see the impact is it having,” she said.

Hill said his biggest fear was how to best educate all students with “the least amount of learning loss” along with the wellbeing of the students.

“I stayed awake at night and worried about the safety and well-being of our students, whether they have adequate heat and water, and if they were being fed,” he said. “The social emotional toll of virtual education is always at the forefront of my mind and I continue to worry about our students being isolated without the daily support that our educators provide to them.”

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Hybrid, blended attractive to some families

There were challenges for some school districts as they transitioned to online learning for students, but Global Impact STEM Academy was a school that already had a virtual education system in place which helped students adjust to their blended learning plan.

“My daughter elected to go all virtual as the changing environments was making it harder to stay in a routine. My son, who loves being in-person, remained blended,” said Jeremy Hudson, who has a seventh-grade son and a ninth-grade daughter at GISA.

Hudson said his son was excited to have more peer interaction and more instructors than what was offered to him as a homeschooler and he has seen him thrive. He said it was different for his daughter because she remembers how the academy was before COVID-19 when it came to education and opportunities.

Hudson said he and his wife also have two other middle school children that they homeschool, so there were minimal challenges with the two children who had been using hybrid learning at GISA.

“It helps that we still have two more middle schoolers doing school at home, so on the days where our teenagers were , it was relatively easy adjustment back into all doing school at home again,” he said.

Learning decisions for the STEM academy were made with other schools and government agencies, but those decisions were still questioned, said Founding Director Joshua Jennings.

“Even with that support in the decision-making process, I still continued to question if the decisions we made were the right ones at the time,” he said. “We always wanted to ensure that we were doing all that we could associated with the safety and wellbeing of students and staff, while at the same time ensuring student success to a high-quality educational experience and services.”

Once school reopened in August, many districts offered either in-person learning, which could include hybrid or virtual learning depending on the cases in the county, or remote/online learning.

State data shows that as of Jan. 7, there are 219 traditional public school districts in Ohio using fully remote learning; 239 using five-day in-person learning; and 149 using hybrid learning, according to the Ohio Department of Education.

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In-person options present challenges

Northeastern Local Schools parent Amber Scurlock said her children, a second and 11th grader, ’'have handled it well’' under the circumstances. The family chose in-person learning when schools reopened, but still sometimes must take their classes online.

“They miss their routine of going to school daily,” said Amber Scurlock.

Scurlock said her children’s biggest challenges were trying to learn online without having a teacher present like they would in-person.

“Their teachers have been great and readily available to help answer questions we may have but it’s not the same for them as when in in-person learning,” she said.

As for her as a parent, Scurlock said, “it’s been a difficult transition from normal life to COVID life.”

“Taking on the responsibility of learning virtual has been difficult trying to ensure the kids are getting their schoolwork completed as well as trying to balance my own work,” she said.

Graham Local Schools was another district that used in-person learning, until they had to switch to hybrid in December for about a month.

“My teens went back to school and adjusted well to all the changes. Although some had a hard time adapting to lunch rules and missed their friends through hybrid,” said Julia McLean who has a fourth, eighth and two 10th graders.

McLean said her fourth grader had a harder time than her other children coping with the mask and social distancing rules.

“Recess was kept to a certain area, and only her class could play together. Lunch was really rough because it was hard to hear a classmate six-feet apart, and she couldn’t sit with her friends,” she said. “We had a lot of meltdowns when she would get home from school, but especially during our hybrid month, as all of her friends attended on different days but she would much rather be at school than be home to learn.”

McLean said the switch impacted her as a parent because “it was hard to watch the kids struggle with all the new rules” and “it was difficult to live with the uncertainty of if we were having school the next day.”

Although Graham was in-school most of the time, McLean said her children struggled the days they were learning at home. She said it lowered her children’s grades and it was hard for them to stay on top of assignments.

McLean added that she is thankful to live in the district where the superintendent supported both online and in-person learning because “he knew how important it was for the kids to be back in school.”

“I always worry about student learning and opportunities. With the complete closure last spring, we wanted to be able to provide as much instruction as possible, along with all of the activities that students enjoy,” said Superintendent Brad Silvus. “Teachers are working hard to have as normal of an environment as possible for learning.”

Continuing coverage

The Springfield News-Sun has covered the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on schools and families in Clark and Champaign Counties and is committed to continuing to tell the stories of resilience that have emerged.

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