Teachers say engaging students during distance learning is challenging

TACOMA -- Dozens of school districts are just finishing up six weeks of distance learning, and one teacher in Tacoma said the number of students finishing up academic assignments is low.

“Our students have a lot stacked against them,” said Nichol Everett. “I encourage them to do the work and I want to support them, but I also know they have a lot of barriers in being able to do that at this time.”

Everett is a teacher at Jason Lee Middle School in the Tacoma Public School system. She teaches U.S. History and a program called AVID to about 150 sixth and eighth grade students.

In the last six weeks, she said about a couple dozen students are keeping up with academic assignments.

The middle school teacher designed a website to reach her students once schools were closed and home schooling became the only option.

While engagement can be challenging, she’s found that her students have been more keen to participate in a daily check-in form that logs how each of them is doing with an emoji.

“It’s difficult because when I’m in the classroom and I see students struggling, I go have a private conversation or I pull them out in the hallway or I refer them to a counselor,” said Everett.

The president of the Tacoma School Board of Directors said students could’ve been disengaged from the start of distance learning, considering students weren’t being graded at the time.

He said the challenges facing students at home include access to the internet and devices, family involvement and resources.

“When you only have one way to engage students, that’s problematic,” said Scott Heinze, Tacoma School Board President. “Continue to stay connected to your teacher. I know most of our students are missing their teachers, and I know our teachers are 100 percent missing their students and that connection and bond that they have.”

Heinze said they also don’t expect students to spend six hours a day doing academic work in front of a computer, especially young children who benefit from having a break from screen time.

Everett said teachers are going above and beyond to make distance learning work. In fact, she’s launching virtual office hours for her students starting this week.

“Schools and districts are doing everything they can to get those resources into the hands of students,” said Everett.

Heinze said the Tacoma Public School District is preparing for distance learning well beyond this school year, and into the fall of this upcoming school year. He said public health remains a priority, and social distance is proving to be effective against the coronavirus.