Teachers and administrators in Grant County continue to teach students and themselves as distance learning enters its fourth week of implementation amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

Special education administrators in Grant County shared their experience on how distance learning has been a learning experience for teachers, students and parents.

“In our district, our case managers looked at each kid’s (Individualized Educational Plan), and we talked about what they were going to need, their technology capability, and if their parents are still working,” said Rhonda McCumber, the director of special education in the John Day District. “And of course, lots of checking in and making adjustments.”

Wendy Burrill, the Grant County Education Service District Special Ed Director/Specialist, said she can say the same for other schools in the county with how individualized distance learning has been for students. Some kids adapted quickly when using technology, but there were other kids that struggled.

Each situation at home may be different, but individualized education and helping parents is a priority for administrators as distance learning is applied in different ways.

At Prairie City School, Julie Watterson, the special education director there, said she sat and met with her aids and decided from the beginning that the best way for them to teach students was to gather weekly packets and hand them to students every Thursday at 10 a.m.

Another priority for Watterson is to schedule a time to reach out to parents to see how they are doing and respond to emails she receives.

Shelley Myers, the speech language pathologist for Grant County schools, said she called all the parents and set up times for students to teach through Google Meets. Many students are met twice a week for their speech and language therapy.

Technology provides the biggest challenge in distance learning for the county since it is a learning process for students and teachers.

“Learning the technology was the big one and getting everybody trained on how to use Google classroom, and by everybody I don’t just mean the students, the teachers had to learn this stuff too,” McCumber said. “Older kids can understand the technology quickly, but we start going into the primary grades, and we have to rely on mom and dad to help them, but sometimes they are struggling with it as well.”

Myers added that technology has been difficult at times due to the delay in audio between the teacher and student, which makes speech therapy difficult, but they continue to make it work.

Another struggle has been trying to accommodate the supports students had at school with distance learning, according to Burrill. She said speech-to-text or audio books were used with the help of staff at school, but with distance learning, the staff is learning how to continue to provide these supports from a distance.

When Watterson talked to parents, a shared difficulty has been for parents still working full time and finding a way to manage their time with work and finding time to help their kids.

“If they’re working from home now and figuring out that schedule with their kids’ schedule to help them with school work, usually it was things here and there that students could finish at school, but now it’s everything,” Watterson said.

With the increase in participation from parents in their kids’ education, it has added a new stress when making sure their child is learning and prepared for the new school year. However, Grant County ESD Superintendent Robert Waltenburg wants to assure parents not to worry and know that teachers and administrators continue to provide support.

“Don’t worry, when they come back in the fall and things return to a more structured setting for us, we’re going to get your kids where that kid needs to be, and we appreciate their work and partnership,” he said. “Where we’re at is where we’re at, and we are going to get there.”

Even with the challenges at hand, schools and families continue to work together to overcome tribulations.

“Our teachers across the county have stepped up, and I would venture that, if you were to interview the teachers, (general education) as well as (special education) teachers, they’re going to tell you, ‘Yeah, I used to work from 7:15 in the morning to 4:00 in the afternoon.’ What I hear now is: ‘Holy crap, I’m up at 6. I’m worried about this. I’m working until 7 in the evening and then Sunday I come in and try to figure out how to do this or that,” Waltenburg said. “We have some rock stars across the county.”

At the start of distance learning, Watterson and McCumber shared that parents and educators have come a long way since they started.

Watterson said her conversations with parents were about 20-30 minutes long when distance learning started because they were figuring out the best way to implement distance learning. Now the phone calls average 5-10 minutes.

“At the beginning our parents were really stressed and asked, ‘I don’t know how to do this,’” McCumber said. “From then to now, I think a lot of territory has been covered, and I am proud of our families, kids and our teachers of making the best of the situation.”

Watterson added that schools and educators around the county are in this together to overcome the current obstacle.

“I feel that together we are one, even though we are at different schools, serving different kids, we’re all in this together and we all understand what our needs are,” Watterson said. “Even though we’re in different places and different situation, we’re in this together.”


Rudy Diaz is a reporter for the Blue Mountain Eagle. Contact him at rudy@bmeagle.com or 541-575-0710.

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