TF South school year begins without students on-site

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Students and teachers adjust to new schedule, technology

By Carrie Steinweg

LANSING, Ill. (September 1, 2020) – Summer vacation is over and school is back in session—although in a way that is unlike any school year before. Like many schools across the nation, Thornton Fractional South High School resumed classes last month through remote learning. No students are in the building that would typically be bustling with crowds of high schoolers strolling down hallways, sitting at cafeteria tables for lunch, hitting the fields for practices, or situated at desks among classmates while instructors lead lessons.

What is remote learning at TF South?

Due to the ongoing pandemic and risk of exposure to COVID-19, all classes in School District 215, which also includes two campuses in Calumet City, are being done via electronic means rather than in-person at school buildings.

District 215 hosted an online tutorial for parents and students to get familiar with the programs and procedures of e-learning this fall. (Screenshot from TF South’s Facebook page)

“It was a collaborative discussion among building and district administration, teacher leaders, a parent survey that indicated 70% of parents had some degree of hesitation about in-person learning and our continual monitoring of state and national data about the safety of large numbers of people congregating together,” said Principal Jacob Gourley. “For now, our Board has planned remote learning through the first quarter. Near the end of September or early-October, our Board will look at available data to determine whether to extend remote learning or to bring students back into the buildings.”

When schools were forced to close abruptly in March, there were no plans in place for offsite learning and teachers adjusted as best they could by emailing assignments, posting them in online platforms and sometimes hosting classes via Zoom. Students will notice a stark change to the school day this year in comparison to last spring.

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Expectations

“The biggest difference [from the spring] is that classes are meeting together in live time, attendance is taken and grades are assigned. During the last go-around, students had to check in each morning, but could access and complete assignments on their own schedule. The grades on record at the time of shutdown were essentially frozen by the State, so student work during the spring could only improve their standing. Once many learned it ‘didn’t count’ they started to back away from actively engaging,” Gourley explained. “For live class meetings, we are using Zoom, which allows students and teachers to see each other and communicate in live-time. Assignments and assessments are posted to either Google classroom or to Microsoft Teams for students to access, complete, and submit.”

According to Gourley, the expectations “really aren’t much different than regular school.” Students need to sign in for each class daily and be on time. “We expect them to present themselves as if they were in a normal classroom environment and the policies of the student handbook remain in place,” he said.

Attendance is mandatory and Gourley said they’ve been pleased at the attendance rate so far. “As of last Thursday, our daily attendance rate reached 96%, comparable or better to what our in-person rates were prior to shutting down in March.”

Modified schedule

Some area schools at the elementary level have seen a reduced number of instruction days per week, but TF South students are provided daily instruction, although the class times have been reduced.

“Knowing that a full day of screen time would not be sustainable for many students, we adopted our Wednesday bell schedule, which has abbreviated classes and the student ‘day’ ends at 1:40 p.m. versus the traditional 3:25 p.m. dismissal.”

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Being well-equipped

Alex Blackwood starts his first day of e-learning. (Photo courtesy of Julia Blackwood)

E-learning poses challenges on many levels. Home situations are vastly different from student to student and the availability of a quiet, dedicated space, a modern computer or device, wifi access and camera aren’t equally accessible to all school families.

District administration has worked with school families to provide equipment to help bridge the gap. “We surveyed students/families as part of the online registration process. Any family that indicated they were lacking a device or internet access were invited to come and pick up a device,” said Gourley. “Continual updates are made to the District and school websites. We held a couple online webinars/Facebook live/Zoom meetings to lay out our e-learning plans. Teachers are available for outreach/questions/communication with students and families on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday after live classes end from 2:00-3:15 p.m.”

It’s new to teachers, too

After being thrown into an e-learning environment this past spring, staff had time to better prepare for e-learning this time around. The school provided training for teachers on remote platforms to help them prepare for starting the year off without physically being in the same room with students.

One challenge for teachers this fall as opposed to last spring is not getting to know students in person and meeting them face to face at the start of the year. At the point in March when schools were shutdown, teachers had spent several months with students and had established relationships with them before finishing off the school year via electronic means.

TF South High School
A challenge for teachers this fall is not getting to meet their students face-to-face on campus to start the year. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

“I worry about the transition to in-person learning,” said English teacher Lupe Ramirez. “I teach Freshmen mostly, so I think it will be important that we provide them some additional transition time, remembering they really never finished 8th grade and are coming into a new building and a new level of academic rigor.”

The pandemic has created a dire situation for working parents of young children and many teachers are finding themselves in the situation of leading classes while also providing support for their own children who are learning at home.

Ramirez said that the spring was a challenging time as she and her husband, who is also a teacher, worked from home with their daughter, who was in 7th grade. “She developed some good habits in the spring, so she doesn’t require much support from me,” said Ramirez. “Last spring when three of us were trying to learn and deliver instruction, it was much more difficult.”

Teachers were given an option of running their remote classes onsite at the school or off-site.

Gourley noted that although students aren’t meeting on-site, there has not been any job loss due to the building closure. “We have been been able to re-purpose many non-instructional roles to better serve students in a remote environment, so, at this time, no layoffs have occurred,” he said.

Technology

Encountering problems with technology is common in everyday situations and e-learning is no different. “As much as we are relying on technology to make this all work, technology is not foolproof,” Gourley said. “There are access issues with students not realizing they must be on their Google accounts using their school logins, versus their personal accounts. Things teachers post/share with students often turn out in different formats on the receiving end depending on the device being used by a student. We have encountered internet/power/email outages that have caused some hiccups, both at the school and in homes.”

Support and Success

Gourley said the start of the school year has been “exhausting,” but he’s seen plenty of signs that students, parents and teachers are glad to be back to a routine even if it is one that requires a lot of comprises. While he has dealt with understandably frustrated parents in the first days of school, Gourley said those he has spoken to seem appreciative of the administration’s efforts in planning and communication.

TF South seniors created a welcome video and gave advice to the incoming class of freshmen. (Screenshot from Youtube.com)

“The students have clearly been looking for some social interaction,” said Gourley. “A Zoom meeting cannot replace a traditional class setting by any means, but it has been very clear to me through their smiles that they have missed a routine, their teachers, and one another.”

Other steps have been taken to help normalize the school year including access to one-on-time with teachers after the school day for extra help and having school lunches available daily.

“I think our e-learning launch has been successful. Our success is largely due to the vision and leadership of our school board and district administrators,” said social studies teacher Tim Sullivan. “I am thankful our leaders have been making decisions with the staff and students’ best interest in mind.”

Teacher and parent comments

The Lansing Journal spoke with teachers Tim Sullivan and Lupe Ramirez, as well as multiple parents, about e-learning this school year at TF South. Some of their comments are contained below:

Teacher Tim Sullivan

Economics/Intro to Sociology/AP US History
Teacher at T.F. South for 5 years
Teaching from home classroom

Have things gone smoothly for you so far as far as technology?
“They have gone as smoothly as I could have imagined. The district replaced our iPads with a laptop in order to handle the demands of the different platforms (Google Classroom, Zoom, Powerschool, Email) we utilize during a class period. Paul Wakefield, our IT director, and his team has done a tremendous job preparing the district for this semester.”

What is different about how you’re conducting your class this fall as compared to last spring?
“There is much more structure to classes this fall than in the spring. Students are required to join Zoom calls following their class schedule everyday. Teachers take attendance at the beginning of the hour and then the lesson begins. I have been trying to lead class as close to in-person instruction as possible. In the spring, students would log in by 9 a.m. and complete work independently. Our plan for the fall is much preferred.”

What has been the hardest part so far about remote learning?
“The hardest part of remote teaching/learning has been not being in the physical classroom with students. The best part of teaching is getting to know the young adults in your room and watching them grow over the course of the semester/year.”

What kind of reactions have you gotten from teachers and parents to e-learning?
“The general consensus was ‘this is not ideal but it’s the safest option.’ I know teachers would much prefer to be in class with students. While parents have not directly reached out to me, my classes are as full as they would be if we were in person. The fact our attendance rate online has been well over 90% indicates that parents are supportive of our decision.”

What are positives of e-learning?
While e-learning challenges all stakeholders (parents, students, teachers, etc.) in different ways, I think this challenge will benefit students and teachers in the long-run. As a teacher, e-learning has given me the opportunity to apply some of the ed-tech ideas I have learned to my classes. I am hoping materials I produce during this time can be used in the future when students miss a lesson. This is a great opportunity to learn. As for the students, I have no doubt our students will become more comfortable using technology. After high school, students will be expected to learn online whether they attend college or join the workforce. Learning online is a skill and it must be developed. I think we are putting our students in a good position moving forward.

Teacher Lupe Ramirez

English 9/English 9 Honors/Advanced Journalism Yearbook
Teacher at T.F. South for 2 years
Teaching from home classroom, but anticipates working a few days a week at the school as the quarter progresses.

Have things gone smoothly for you so far as far as technology?
“The first week was difficult because students were becoming acquainted with platforms for real time instruction. Week two has already been worlds better. They’re understanding the routine and where to access class resources.”

What is different about how you’re conducting your class this fall as compared to last spring?
“I am loving that we are teaching in real time. In the spring, I scheduled weekly Zoom class discussions, but because students hadn’t had the chance to prepare many students didn’t have the necessary technology to attend. I didn’t want to penalize them, so often many of my students wouldn’t show for Zoom meetings. This year, students know they have to be “in class, ” they’re eager to participate and have been wonderful at asking questions and problem solving.”

What has been the hardest part so far about remote learning?
“Making connections is more difficult. I’m still learning names and trying to get to know students. It’s harder via Zoom with voice lags, etc. It’s also harder for students to connect with one another as a learning community. We’ve formed ‘tribes’ based on complimentary skills and I’m trying to make sure they become accountability buddies and also real friends.”

What are positives of e-learning?
“I love knowing my students aren’t forced to choose between education and their health (and that of their family). Even with the best safety measures, it would be difficult to maintain social distancing. Adults struggle with the discipline to resist shaking hands, hugging, etc. I, myself, have been guilty of a slip up here and there when running into friends I haven’t seen in a while. It’s unreasonable to expect teenagers to be able to consistently practice all safety measures. I love that the teachers and administrators at TF South are committed to delivering a quality education and also support for our students. I think we’ve really come together and discovered more in us than we knew was there. My students have expressed as much and are more eager and enthusiastic about education than ever.”

Parent Julie Blackwood

The return to scheduled classes was something that Julie Blackwood appreciated about the new school year. “I actually like how this year has started with an actual structured schedule and the accountability is there now,” she said. “My son says it’s been interesting because of a couple of glitches with Zoom the first few days, but he likes how he still has the opportunity for one on one help through Google class room messages if he needs it for new concepts.”

Parent Traci Gifford

“I was not thrilled with the idea of remote learning and was skeptical on how it would actually work in real time. I was just hoping it would be as close to real school as possible,” said Traci Gifford. “Even with last minute schedule changes the night before school was to start and a few technical challenges, it was amazing! My daughter was so excited to be able to see kids she hasn’t seen since March and actually see her teachers face to face.”

Gifford expressed appreciation for tools like PowerSchool that allow her to monitor progress. “I feel I am as present in her learning as I can be right now. I am so grateful to the staff and teachers at TF South for being an example of how this model could and is working,” she said. “It isn’t perfect, but pretty close in my opinion.”

Parent Debbie Furmanek

Debbie Furmanek said that classes went off without a hitch for her son. “For him there have been no glitches or problems logging in or even connecting to Zoom. His only problem factors into sports and how we are the only school in the conference that are not allowing the sports and activities that IHSA has deemed okay to proceed with,” she said. After missing his baseball season last spring due to COVID, her son had been looking forward to playing golf this fall.

Parent William Yadron

“I think that TF South has one of the greatest principals that it has ever had. He has been a great leader and pillar in this community. He has prepared the staff well,” said William Yadron. “My daughter is a senior this year. Her sculpture class is a worry for us, but her teacher is making every effort to maximize the class to develop her artistic talents.”

Yadron teaches special education at a charter school in Chicago where he begins e-learning after Labor Day. “As a special educator, e-learning impacts special education students the most. I think that e-learning is more in line with our current workforce experiences,” he said. “When our education system was developed to model industrialized traits for factory and assembly line work, we needed to fashion education in that model. Our nation’s workforce has developed past those constraints and now we need to make changes to our education system to make our students better prepared for a collaborative work/sometimes virtual work environment.”

Parent Lisa Dempsey

“I was a little disappointed when I first heard they were doing e-learning. I do fully agree that it was the right decision. Fortunately, e-learning is going smoothly for us. There were a couple little hiccups on the first day, but they were resolved quickly,” said Lisa Dempsey, who has a daughter who is a junior this year. “I think the TF South administration, teachers and staff are doing a fantastic job making e-learning successful.”


TF South High School is located at 18500 Burnham Avenue.

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District 215 Board votes to dissolve TF South “Rebels” Nickname

1 COMMENT

  1. Very good story. Remote learning has been working well because of everyone working together. I would like to make a correction in a comment by one of the parents. It is true that District 215 was the first school in our conference to cancel fall sports because we did not feel it was safe for our student-athletes or coaches. But, the situation has changed. Many of the other schools in the conference have done the same thing. We want to keep everyone as safe as possible and other schools have come to the same conclusion.

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