Life outside the classroom: Eau Claire students and teachers adjust to school online

Students and teachers in the Eau Claire Area School District have been out of school for nearly two months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and many have faced a difficult transition into an online school format.

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An empty parking lot outside Eau Claire Memorial High School sets the scene for the remainder of the academic school year, as schools remain closed under Gov. Tony Evers Safer-at-Home order. © Evan Hong 2020

Evan Hong

It was Monday, March 16. Sue Devine, an 8th grade physical science teacher at Northstar Middle School was preparing for her students to take a heat test for their daily assignment.

“I got to school on Monday, and you felt the chaos,” Devine said.

In the third hour of the school day, teachers began notifying students that they were to clean everything out of their lockers by the end of the day. Students who did not have access to a web device at home were asked to visit the main office and check one out.

As soon as students heard the announcements, they knew things were about to change.

“I kind of figured that we weren’t going to go back to school,” said Ally Davis, an 8th grade student in Devine’s class. “Because they were cleaning out our lockers, so there shouldn’t be any point if we were going to come back in two weeks.”

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers mandated that all public and private K-12 schools close, including the Eau Claire Area School District, in response to the growing COVID-19 outbreak on March 17, just one day later.

With spring break around the corner, students and teachers hope the time off would only last a couple of weeks, but as the virus spread, the hopes of returning to school diminished. On April 16, Evers extended his Safer-at-Home order to May 26, and ordered all schools to remain closed for the remainder of the year.

“I sat on my bedroom floor and I just bawled,” Devine says emotionally. “Because I’m never going to see these kids. This great 8th grade class, that’s it. We’ll never be together again.”

Although students may have felt the initial wave of excitement to get to stay home, sleep in and play with their pets all day long for a couple of weeks, now that its been nearly two months, they even miss being at school.

“At first I was like ‘Woo!’ a longer spring break, but now that we aren’t going back it’s kind of sad because we aren’t going to see our friends,” said Katie Rassbach, an 8th grader at Northstar Middle School.

Over the days of uncertainty as to whether school would continue, members of the Eau Claire School Board and the administration felt increasing pressure to decide promptly.

“We were getting a lot of angst from families, and a lot of concerns from parents that were fearful of sending their children to school,” said Jim Schmitt, executive director of teaching and learning in the Eau Claire Area School District.

Many parents across the district pushed for students to transition into an online format, and that became a reality very quickly for everyone. Since the shutdown, students and teachers alike have been forced to adjust to an online format of schooling, something that many have struggled with in the past, or have never attempted before. Students have been learning through PowerPoint and video presentations as well as taking online quizzes and tests on Canvas, an online learning program that is widely used at the grade school and college level.

To accommodate students who struggle to learn online, the school board implemented a pass/fail grading system, creating a simple threshold students need to achieve to pass the class rather than continuing with the common letter grade policy. For intrinsic learners like Ally and Katie, the policy doesn’t matter, but Devine says the policy has caused several students to start slacking on their work.

“I’ve seen students going from wanting to take a retake on a test to getting 5/15 or 8/15 on their assignments, and these are “A” students,” Devine explained.

While many students continue to earn high grades during the shutdown, many agree that it has been a tougher task to absorb the curriculum from home.

“I don’t really like learning online because it’s easy to zone out and get distracted,” Rassbach said. “It’s more fun to learn with your friends and hear the teacher, because I feel like I am more of a listening learner.”

From the standpoint of both teachers and students, the challenges of online learning create a greater urge to get back in the classroom. The school district says there is no current timeline on when students will be back in the hallways at their lockers, but the school district is preparing for all possible scenarios.

“We’re not allowed to have a student on our property until at least June 30,” Schmitt said. “We’re hopeful about coming back in the fall, and we are making contingency plans just in case, but we are planning around making the assumption that we will be back.”

For teachers like Devine, the priority right now isn’t to make sure the students get back to school quickly to complete their heat test successfully.

“We teachers called every single student to make sure that they were okay,” Devine said “The academics are not our priority, our priority is asking, is everyone safe? There are so many students that are in abusive settings or have no food, or parents that have been losing their jobs.”

Members of the Eau Claire Area School District have done their part to provide for students who need help in these uncertain times. In May, local teachers banded together to create a fundraiser in partnership with Feed My People, an area food bank, to help students and families receive free meals. The fundraiser earned over $12,000, enough to provide 40,000 meals for students and families in need. Schmitt says a silver lining that comes out of the pandemic is that people will now realize the importance of the school system and everyone involved.

“It does make you realize the magic that happens in schools everyday that we just take for granted when we get it taken away,” Schmitt said.

With the Safer-at-Home order expected to end on May 26, it is unclear as to what the next steps are for reopening the Wisconsin state economy, but it seems clear students and faculty hope they can safely return to their classrooms sooner than later.