Schools in Arizona closed on March 23 and will remain closed for this school year, but the academic year goes on. It is uncharted territory for the students, parents and teachers at a time when parents may be trying to work from home or are out of work and wondering when they’ll work again. To learn more about this transition to distance learning, The PRT spoke with administrators from Patagonia Public, Patagonia Montessori, and Elgin Schools.

Patagonia Schools

When the initial two-week closure began, Superintendent Kenny Hayes, gathered teachers in small groups with the District IT specialist to discuss initial plans and present an overview of Google Classroom. Teachers are using a combination of online learning and paper packets. In addition to traditional academic work, students are also involved in challenging experiments. One such project asked students to adapt a common object to perform an unusual task, such as using a mousetrap to blow out a candle. 

Emiliano Leon, a Patagonia Elementary Kindergarten student in Sara 
Vicary’s class, works on beginning reading tasks at home. 

Hayes said the biggest challenge of all is not having access to the kids.  “None of us became teachers to stare at a computer screen. It’s a bit easier that this occurred in the final quarter, when we generally spend a lot of our time reviewing material in preparation for end-of-year testing. And it’s easier to support our students now, as classes have developed close relationships.  Most classes have regular Google Hangout times and/or teachers have established office hours when students can call.”

“Another challenge is internet access for our kids from the more rural parts of our District. Some live in areas where it would require a new tower to improve their access, so we adapt by giving them paper materials and assignments. And they do have phone access.”

Hayes encouraged the community to stay tuned for a “Drive-Through Graduation Celebration” to take place on May 21st (8th grade) and 22nd (12th grade), with live coverage on KPUP Radio.  

Patagonia Montessori School

Principal Jessi Bebbe says the small school size and high parental involvement have made distance learning easier. Enrollment is 32 children in preschool through eighth grade. Because Montessori education relies on hands-on activities with specialized manipulative objects and an individualized curriculum, teachers have spent hours creating materials and lessons for each student.

“And we try to remember,” Beebe said, “that all families are going through something different. We can’t assume students can devote the time to school that they normally would. So we offer several hours of work daily.”  The Montessori philosophy extends to home life as well. “We encourage parents to let the kids figure things out on their own.”

The charter school is a “low-technology school” so it has foregone platforms like Google Classroom. Middle school students have some optional internet activities. Beebe said the families stay in touch, and help each other out. “This is a close-knit community, and families are looking out for each other.”

Elgin School

Principal/Superintendent Mary Faley was glad that their technology ratio was already 1:1 when school closed. Each child has been assigned an iPad or Macbook. While there are some families without reliable internet access, staff is working to help them connect. The school’s WiFi extends to the parking lot, so it is not unusual to see cars parked there as children work online.

In grades 2-8, teachers are using Google Classroom to assign and receive schoolwork, as well as present links to online lessons. According to Faley, many grades were already using online learning, including keyboarding, reading and math programs that adapt lessons to students’ skill levels. “What was supplemental technology has become primary,” she says.

Many lessons are shared on social media. Examples of assignments on the school’s Facebook page include videos of a young child reading aloud to siblings, a boy riding a bicycle through a homemade obstacle course and presentation of an apex predator species for a Science class. 

More Than the ABC’s

Besides the children’s academic growth, the schools care deeply about kids’ emotional and social health.  Children and parents  at all the local schools have access to staff by phone, and teachers know that, while sometimes the kids need academic clarification or help, sometimes they just want to hear their teacher’s voice. Beebe said, “We are trying our best to take the situation and make the most positive experience out of it,” said Beebe.”

Faley said that Zoom class meetings help kids emotionally, as they can stay connected to their teachers and classmates. 

Faley summed up the gratitude the staffs at all the schools expressed. “Thank you to our community for their offers of support and to our parents for doing all they can to help their children. We’re grateful to our hardworking and creative staff of course, but without parents, we could never accomplish what we are.”