After the coronavirus pandemic caused all schools in Arizona to abruptly switch to distance learning in March 2020, seventh-grade teacher Beth Vartola of the Santa Cruz Valley Unified School District had to adapt to a form of teaching she had never tried before.
The following months, Vartola now recounts, were a rollercoaster of obstacles, mistakes and accomplishments as she and her fellow teachers at Coatimundi Middle School rummaged through different techniques to adapt to the new format.
“At first I was overwhelmed, like how am I going to do this,” Vartola told the NI in early February. “At my age, 64, I was not very technologically savvy and I had to really push myself out of my comfort zone to quickly learn the technology.”
The first couple of months were focused mainly on redoing her Language Arts lesson plans to accommodate the distance-learning model. Looking back, Vartola said, she now cringes over the lessons she was delivering.
Once that first online semester ended, she dedicated her summer to teaching herself how to use the online programs and incorporate different technology into her lessons.
One big help, she said, was that SCVUSD had made resources available to the teachers to help them learn about its online model.
By the time the current school year was about to begin last August, Vartola said, she and all her colleagues were ready for any education model – in person or distance.
“Watching all of my colleagues just give their best to the students and how we’ve tried to reach out to parents, it kind of makes me proud to be a teacher,” she said. “I feel pretty good about the lessons I have developed online. I’ll probably use some of the stuff… when we come back to the classroom, whenever that is.”
SCVUSD opened its classrooms for in-person classes for about five weeks in October and November, before returning to online-only instruction after COVID-19 infections surged in the community. The district was set to try again with a hybrid in-person/distance model starting March 15, shortly after this section went to press.
Although her students were away from campus for several months during the school year, Vartola said the teachers continued to deliver online lessons from their own classrooms. This approach turned out to be quite helpful, allowing them to quickly lend each other a hand in the case of technical difficulties.
Still, the online model continued to bring new challenges in addition to the technological adjustments.
“It’s also how to keep the kids engaged in the lesson… and it’s really harder to establish relationships with kids online,” Vartola said, adding that months into distance learning, she still struggled to get some students to log into class. “I think I’ve made more phone calls to parents this year than I have in my whole 20 years (at SCVUSD).”
Vartola explained that she had to find interactive ways to engage the kids and get them to participate in class. That includes breaking them up into virtual discussion groups and using online tools to have them answer questions during class time.
However, it could be a challenge to determine how much the students were actually learning through the new model.
“Some students have done well, but I would say that others are suffering,” she said. “Not having the social interaction that you would get in school, I think, is tough.”
To help those students who have been struggling a bit more than others, Vartola worked with Coatimundi’s parent liaison to lend a hand to student families.
Filling the gaps
Parent liaison Yara Sanchez connects with Coatimundi families to stay aware of any deaths in the family, financial hardships, or any instability at home that might cause students to have trouble focusing in school.
Sanchez then gathers donations to help address any gaps among the students.
Vartola has made monetary donations to that cause, and since the pandemic hit, she has ramped up her usual contributions to address the greater need.
“I think of way back in college when I was in the education department. They always stressed that the kids need their physical needs met before they can learn, and so that always made such an impression on me,” Vartola said.
“I can see how a kid feels insecure because they don’t know where they’re living or they don’t have enough food or they don’t feel safe,” she said. “How on earth are they going to want to come to school to learn?”
She credited Sanchez for doing the most difficult part of the job, which was building connections with the student families and making arrangements to help the kids succeed.
But Sanchez returned the gratitude.
“At the end of the day, no program functions if we don’t have generous people wanting to help us,” Sanchez said. “She’s so generous with her time and dedication as a teacher.”