Editor’s note: This is the second part in a series highlighting the work of Fort Dodge teachers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a year that has been anything but normal, teachers like Julia Hatcher have strived to provide the same educational opportunities for students — whether through face-to-face classes or virtual learning.
But the challenges don’t just begin and end with matters related to the curriculum.
“There’s a lot of challenges for teachers right now,” said Hatcher, a sixth-grade reading and language arts teacher at Fort Dodge Middle School. “The pandemic is upsetting to students. There’s some emotional issues with students. Some students are scared because a family member is sick or they are scared of people being sick.
“Kids want things to be normal. They want to play their sports and do everything they could before. There’s a lot of changes in what teachers are expected to do and we are doing our best to learn how to accommodate. To see our students grow and learn and excel. We still desire for them all to excel. We are doing our best to see that happen given all that’s going on in the world right now.”
Since early November, Fort Dodge schools have adopted a hybrid model due the positivity rate for COVID-19 in Webster County. The model puts students in school part of the time and has them learn from home on other days.
“Virtual days are a little more independent,” Hatcher said. “A little more of a practice. It’s something kids can do more independently. It’s more practicing what has been presented. We have to consider which lesson works best in which place. Adapt what we have to make it more workable online.”
On Thursday, Hatcher welcomed some of her students to an online session.
“Good morning,” she said. “Are you ready?”
“I am excited,” one student said.
Students were given the opportunity to share how they have handled remote learning.
Greyson Chance said he learns well virtually because “he listens.”
Kristopher Gentry said he likes the format because of the accessibility to teachers.
“It works for me because I’m with the teachers and if I have questions I can raise my hand and the teacher is just right there,” Gentry said.
Aden Tjalsma doesn’t prefer to learn virtually simply because, “It’s not face-to-face.”
Hatcher teaches three sections of three classes in a block schedule.
Reading, writing, speaking, listening and research are among the skills she helps students develop.
She said attendance has been better than anticipated for both in-person and virtual classes.
“There is one cohort that is 100 percent almost every time,” Hatcher said. “The other one they could be missing two or three kids. We call home every day after virtual classes if class was missed. We want parents to know it’s really important that they are online. There’s still a few we have trouble with but most kids are online and are responsible. I want to thank parents for setting up a good learning environment at home and supporting the teachers and the school as we teach online.”
And although there has been an overall achievement dip in schools throughout the state, Hatcher said students are performing about the same in her classes.
“I think due to our intervention day and the fact that we are still face-to-face and partly online has gone well,” she said. “I see grades similar to what they have been in past years.”
It has been more difficult for teachers to plan lessons, though.
“It’s made it hard to plan,” Hatcher said. “Planning for face-to face days, we know it has to be something where the teacher directly teaches them. More of a complex task where the teacher is doing a lot of talking.”
During Thursday’s session, Hatcher let students know that she had finished grading one of their recent assignments.
“I went through your narrative writing where you put your new Percy Jackson character into a scene,” she said. “I’ve read through most of those. Most of those have been graded.”
Students recently read a book from the “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” series. It has turned out to be a favorite.
“Percy Jackson was my favorite book to learn about,” said Trace Rial, a student in Hatcher’s class.
Students shared a few things they have learned so far this year in school that they are proud of.
Aryana Allen said learning about the Greek gods has been a highlight.
“It was fun to read with the whole class,” Allen said.
“In science I learned about the earth’s crust,” said Ronan Gifford.
“We learned about decimals,” Kyle Pederson added.
The day’s lesson in Hatcher’s class gave students six different options for an activity.
Writing their own myth or reading four myths and answering questions about them were two of the choices.
“You are only going to pick two of the six today,” Hatcher said.
As students began working, Hatcher stayed online and visible to students if they needed further instruction or had any questions.
“It is a little harder to help individually because in the group setting everyone can hear when students have questions,” Hatcher said. “They don’t need to know everyone’s business.”
Hatcher said one positive that has come out of the pandemic is learning and improving the use of technology in education.
“This year has pushed students and teachers to become more skilled with technology,” she said. “We have to. Some of us were not very skilled and now we are. That’s how the world is going to be. It’s not going to go away after the pandemic.”
Hatcher believes educators, for the most part, have done well to adapt to the ever-changing educational landscape.
“I think we have met the challenge of teaching both face-to-face and online,” she said. “And for sixth-graders, I think virtual learning is working. Given the state of the country and the pandemic I think we are doing a pretty good job of providing education.”
She welcomes a return to full-time in-person learning when the time is right.
“My hope is we get back to person-to-person as soon as it’s safe,” Hatcher said.