The students were supposed to evenly scatter red and green sprinkles over the top of the chocolate chip cookie bars.
But when teacher Christina Grauff glanced up at her computer screen, she saw a video array of kindergartners in various kitchens across Astoria happily dumping piles of sprinkles at random.
“For me, it was an actual glimpse of what kindergarten is normally like,” she said.
There was the anticipation beforehand — kids asking every day if tomorrow was the day of the baking project — then class discussions about food then the actual baking. You could see the excitement, the engagement, Grauff said.
Most Clatsop County school districts began the school year with only some students in attendance, combining in-person learning with online education. Astoria began the school year online for all grades and has only brought back a few students for specific classes. Only two districts — Jewell School District and the Warrenton-Hammond School District — opened fully across grade levels.
Since September, however, Warrenton has had to shift back to online-only options as local coronavirus cases continue to rise. Recently, Jewell announced it would send some of the school district’s seventh and eighth graders home for remote learning for two weeks after a student tested positive for the virus.
Clatsop Community College, meanwhile, has pivoted many courses to online-only with limited in-person offerings. Administrators have seen a drop in older students as people shift their focus to children who may be learning at home for now and changing work conditions.
As the fractured school year progresses, many educators say they are concerned about students’ emotional and mental well-being. They worry about the long-term impacts of social isolation and the limitations of online education to reach and benefit all students equally.
Deprived of the usual avenues to teach and connect with students, teachers have come up with creative ways to try to replicate both mundane and special classroom experiences.
‘I miss that personal stuff’
For Grauff, a teacher at Astor Elementary School, that meant recruiting her husband and daughter to help prepare over a dozen individual packages of cookie bar ingredients and distribute them to students outside of Fultano’s Pizza.
In a normal school year, Grauff always organizes a baking project for her class. They have made everything from stew to pumpkin bread. Besides being a chance to share something Grauff loves to do on her own, baking teaches kids skills like proper hygiene, how to measure and how to take turns.
But this year, even if the Astoria School District had opted to reopen to students, there was no way to make a baking project “COVID-friendly” in a kindergarten classroom, Grauff said.
Then, one day while she was shopping for groceries and feeling sad about the loss of these hands-on experiences, she realized cooking shows are basically online classes. So why couldn’t she do something similar?
It took a lot of work upfront. Grauff had to think through every single detail and make sure she provided students with all the supplies they might need. But, she said, it was a success.
Kindergarten is usually strong on connection. Kids want to give and receive hugs. They declare that you are their favorite teacher even though you are the first one they have ever had. They ask questions constantly.
“I miss that personal stuff,” Grauff said, “and this felt really personal.”
For Pat Keefe, a physics instructor at Clatsop Community College, one of the biggest challenges he faced was how to engage students in the classroom experiments that are critical to understanding the subject matter being taught.
In the spring, when Gov. Kate Brown enacted the first round of pandemic-related restrictions, he didn’t have any students in class. It was a crash course in how to use video conferencing and sharing technology.
“And I’ve spent my career going in the opposite direction,” Keefe said.
He prefers to have students cooperate together in groups to find solutions on their own to problems he poses. He is there to ask them questions that help guide their thinking as they work through hands-on projects and experiments — a model particularly difficult to translate online.
Keefe ran into various setbacks. Students sometimes didn’t have access to the right software to complete certain assignments. If they had been in class, it would have been as simple as drawing a line on a piece of paper.
Keefe set up cameras everywhere in his classroom so that when he ran an experiment, students could watch it unfold from a variety of angles.
This term, Keefe has a mix of in-person and online students. Still not ideal, he said, but much better than what was happening in the spring. There are still cameras everywhere.
Students work together in groups with the in-person students running the experiments for those who are online. Keefe bounces between groups and screens, holding up images and items, asking his pointed questions, graphing things on paper and computer programs.
Student Kyle Talley, who is attending class in person, says it works well enough for him. He wants to go into education eventually and the extra work it takes to help walk his online classmates through projects feels like he is practicing being a teacher.
But Keefe does not see it as sustainable long term. He has come up with numerous ways to work around the limitations, but none of these are tools he sees as improvements over what could be offered in a fully in-person physics class.
“Oh gosh no, this is awful,” he said. “Normally there’d be a real scientific community that develops.”
He is fortunate, he said, that his students have stepped up to the challenge with him.
The Book Buggy
All of the educators who spoke with The Astorian noted the limitations of screens. For some students, online learning means they have yet to meet their classmates or teachers in real life. Others have lost access to resources only readily available to them at school.
Charlet Robinson, a first grade teacher at Astor Elementary School, knew from firsthand experience and from talking with other teachers that the only books many kids might have in their homes come from school libraries.
When classrooms met regularly, teachers of younger students might read to them during transition periods or any free stretches of time, Robinson said. Now that opportunity — along with school libraries — is either gone or looks much different than before.
So she decided to start The Book Buggy. It’s just Robinson, her car and dozens of donated books separated in plastic bins by type and reading level. She drives to various Astoria parks and sets up shop.
Sometimes parents stop and pick up books for their kids. Sometimes kids wander through on their own. Robinson’s 8-year-old daughter often accompanies her. She’ll tell the other kids playing at the park, “Come get books from my mom.”
The first time she dropped off books, Robinson found herself in tears. Two or three of her students happened to be at the same park at the same time during the drop-off. It was the first time these classmates had ever met in real life.
The books Robinson provides are free and do not have to be returned — though people are certainly welcome to return them after reading, she said.
Besides encouraging kids to start or keep reading, Robinson has another big goal with The Book Buggy: To get teachers’ faces out in the community.
“Just for (students) to see us in the community is huge,” she said. “To see a friendly face that’s another adult. We still care about you. We still care about your education even though you’re not in a classroom.”