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Fossil School District ready for distance learning in COVID-19 era

By Stephen Allen

Jon McMurray wears several hats at the Fossil School District. Mr. McMurray teaches Social Studies, Spanish and Computers. He is also the Technology Director at the Fossil Charter School.

Recently, Mr. McMurray has been responsible for making sure that the Fossil School District’s efforts at distance learning have been as seamless as possible.

The closure of schools throughout the country has dealt a significant blow to public education. Most schools are ill equipped to provide online learning opportunities for their students. It is not like flipping a switch. Setting up distance learning takes time.

This is where the Fossil School District is well ahead of the curve.

Nearly a decade ago, former Fossil School District Superintendent Mr. Brad Sperry saw the shrinking student body and saw the writing on the wall: if a change wasn’t made the school would likely not survive.

Mr. Sperry and the school board embarked on a mission to provide free online learning opportunities with certified teachers to students throughout Oregon.

Over the years the program has developed and is now offering distance learning for kindergarten through eighth graders in Oregon. The distance learning program has become a robust source of revenue for the district.

It also made it easier to teach local kids online.

During our visit, Mr. McMurray was preparing to make a video for his History Class, which is studying World War I. The model that Mr. McMurray uses is similar to the Khan Academy model, which gives students video lessons and assignments that are to be done on their own time. Then, in a video session with a teacher, the student discusses what was learned and works through the subject with the teacher.

With kids from Fossil now doing video lessons, the school changed the distance learning format somewhat. Teachers do have 1 on 1 lessons with students but also do Zoom and video sessions with the entire class.

Lari Whitbeck teaches math to 1st and 2nd graders. Mrs. Whitbeck says that she teaches two hours by video each day, Monday through Thursday. Sessions are 30 minutes long. Students also get 30 minutes of individual instruction each week and some require more.

During our visit to the school, Lari did a quick check-in with each student and then jumped into the daily lesson. Of the three kids that joined, all seemed perfectly comfortable with the technology. The class reviewed measurements and how to make estimates of size and length. “It has been fun,” Mrs. Whitbeck says after the lesson completes. “We don’t get through as much as we would in a normal, regular school day and there’s probably some things they’ll miss by the end of the year, but I check-in with the 3rd grade teacher to see where to prioritize to prepare the kids for next year.” In the session, only one student had a problem with the internet speed but it was not overly disruptive to the session.

Mr. McMurray says that some students do struggle with slow internet speeds in Wheeler County that make distance learning from home impossible. “We’ve discussed with students the best way to deal with it. We will allow kids to come sit in the parking lot in a car. We’ve taken benches outside so they can get on our wifi (internet).” Mr. McMurray says that the school also has made paper packets available to students who do not have internet access and to some who prefer to do their work on paper.

However, Mr. McMurray has seen some students thrive who were not meeting their potential. “One student was barely at a baseline level, we were concerned about them moving to the next grade. The student has now excelled through distance learning.”

Wheeler High School Language Arts and Creative Writing teacher Mollie Carter misses students but appreciates the distance learning tools that are available. During our visit, Mollie was working with Mr. McMurray on Google Classroom, which sends assignments to all students by email and gives students the due dates for their work. The school is also using Flipbook. The technology allows for students to not only watch instruction by video link but to also send videos of themselves as part of their work. Mx. Carter says that video and more visual tools do help some kids.

School Superintendent Jim Smith says that the quick transition to distance learning for the kids in Fossil is an achievement. “What we’re doing for parents, kids and teachers is super impressive. We’ve had some kids that didn’t do well in school that are really thriving in this environment.”

Students are not being graded on their work, as equality of learning that is required by the Oregon Department of Education is difficult for any district to meet, especially those in rural areas where online access is not equal.

Looking to the future, Mr. McMurray says that the school is looking at expanding distance learning to high school students in Oregon and that the school sees an opportunity to reach more students.

The long-term consequences of school closures due to COVID-19 are hard to predict but it is likely that schools (and workplaces) reliance on technology will never be the same.

Who would have predicted that one of the smallest schools in the state could emerge as a leader in this arena?


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