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Education from a distance

Lesha Harenberg, a teacher of 22 years at Eldorado High School, says there’s been a big learning curve shifting to online instruction amid the pandemic. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Shifting to distance learning has been one of the biggest challenges Eldorado High School teacher Lesha Harenberg has faced in her 22-year career.

Harenberg – and teachers throughout Albuquerque Public Schools and the state – were charged with shifting instruction to a distance learning model after the COVID-19 pandemic forced school closures for the rest of the academic year.

Harenberg now teaches for a truncated daily schedule, is required to use a pass-fail grading model and has had to rely on technology more than ever before.

She admits there’s been a learning curve.

“One of the hardest things is the schedule,” the science teacher said.

With students working at different hours of the day, she finds it difficult not to be on call 24/7. But she said giving students flexibility is crucial.

“There could be families that have five kids or more with only one device, or kids could be taking care of their siblings right now,” she said.

Because of logistical and emotional stresses brought on by the pandemic, students are allowed to spend less time learning at home than they would in the classroom. Harenberg said high school students are given about 25 minutes of work per class daily.

Kimberly Ward

Kimberly Ward has gone from teaching her Rudolfo Anaya Elementary School first-graders six hours a day to preparing lessons that don’t eat up more than 45 minutes a day. During distance learning, schooling is focused largely on solidifying lessons that have already been taught.

Following state Public Education Department recommendations, APS is calling for grade-specific instructional time.

“It’s a little bit of a time crunch,” Ward said.

So she will focus on one subject a day, uploading a batch of assignments on Sunday night with the expectation that students will work daily.

Engagement from the students ebbs and flows.

At the beginning of distance learning, Ward saw about a 50% participation rate, but that’s bumped to about 90% on a good day.

Like Ward, Amber Arnett, a special education teacher at Ernie Pyle Middle School, said student participation can change day to day.

During distance learning last month, about 40% of Arnett’s seventh- and eighth-grade students had been logging on and consistently doing classwork.

Amber Arnett

Harenberg would also like to see more of her high school students tuning in to video calls and turning in assignments, saying in late April that completion of assignments was “really low.” She said this could be a combination of the fact that the majority of her students are already passing and that they are suffering the stresses of the pandemic.

APS has moved to a pass-fail system rather than traditional A-F grades for high school second-semester grading. Harenberg said students who were already passing in mid-March will be given a passing grade for the semester, though they are still encouraged to do the work and get feedback.

If students aren’t passing a class, the aim is for students to get on track to graduate.

But one of the hurdles of distance learning is the balance of checking up on students while not putting more pressure on families in a stressful time.

Ward’s workday, in addition to responding to students’ assignments, consists largely of communicating with parents.

“We’ve never experienced anything like this. So, it’s a learning curve for all parents, students and educators,” she said.

Because Ward isn’t there to make sure students are doing their work, she said, communicating with parents is key to making sure students are learning.

“Through APS, we are required to make two contacts with families a week, whether that’s through student work or contacting the parents. I check the assignments every day, and if I notice at the end of the week there are some students who’ve not completed, I’ll try different ways to contact them,” she said. “That’s all we can do right now, is try to contact them. … I don’t want to add any stress to any parents or any families, so I let them know I’m here for support.”

Even from afar, teachers are trying to motivate their students.

Arnett and Ward set up classroom websites, craft weekly lessons and offer video calls, among other resources. Harenberg is uploading lecture videos and animations of science lessons and linking to other resources online.

Per APS’ continuous learning plan, assignments for elementary and middle school students aren’t being scored, but feedback is still expected.

But it’s not all about academics.

“The main thing we are trying to do as a school is give them grace,” she said.

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