LANCASTER COUNTY, Pa. (WHTM) — Students are returning to class — but not necessarily to school — as winter break comes to an end. Teachers from districts around Lancaster County share some of the successes and challenges of distance learning, and they offer advice for students, parents and teachers enduring remote education.

Listen to their full conversation with abc27’s Avery Van Etten:

One major difference between distance learning and in-person instruction is the lack of social interaction between students. Taylor Good, who teaches third grade at Neff Elementary School in the Manheim Township School District, says, “Personally, one of the best things I feel public school in a brick-and-mortar offers is the socialization.”

He says that breakout rooms — a way to organize students into smaller groups within a virtual classroom — have been helpful in encouraging students to engage with one another. Lauren Ciemiewicz, middle and high school music teacher in the Penn Manor School District, has also found success with breakout rooms.

Ciemiewicz uses breakout rooms to separate her chorus into groups based on their voice parts (soprano, tenor, etc.). “It feels much more collaborative for the students,” she says, adding that “it also allows for some student leadership.”

Technology has been both a help and a hindrance in this new world of virtual learning. Whether still in school or not, many are familiar with the experience of “Zoom fatigue,” that feeling of exhaustion you get from a video call — or a day full of video calls.

Eric Spencer, social studies teacher at J.P. McCaskey High School in the School District of Lancaster, says that distributing functioning tech to all students was also a challenge, but one that the district stepped up to.

In the face of technological struggles, teachers are finding ways to make distance learning engaging. “Without a doubt, the applications and the tools that we’re starting to use and learn are redefining how education can work, which is pretty cool. We’re kind of forced into it,” says Good.

Spencer says he’s found success using technology that enables lessons to be interactive. Students take quizzes, complete game activities, and answer extended response questions or polls during online lessons.

Good says that while he wanted to “keep school feeling like school,” he’s also finding ways to take advantage of the fact that students are learning from home. For example, he has students do a version of spontaneous show-and-tell. Students get a prompt like “show me something you’re proud of,” and then they run off to find something in their homes that meets the criteria of the prompt.

Even as teachers creatively adapt to remote education, distance learning, combined with COVID-19 concerns and everything else going on, can be challenging for students.

“I think the thing that I see my students struggling with the most is just a sense of feeling overwhelmed,” says Kelly Rigg, eighth-grade math teacher at Ephrata Middle School in the Ephrata Area School District. “We’ve asked them to flip everything that they’ve ever know upside-down and take on a lot more responsibility.”

Rigg encourages her students and their parents to reach out to her when they need help, and she also prioritizes reaching out to students who may be struggling. “Sometimes you get that response and sometimes you don’t. More times I think, though, in this environment, when you’re telling them, ‘I care, and that’s why I’m looking out for you,’ they do respond, and…they’re thankful.”

Ciemiewicz, Spencer and Good agree that maintaining contact with students is imperative when everyone can’t be in the classroom together.

While distance learning poses several challenges for students, Spencer says it is also helping them learn self-advocacy and develop skills for post-high-school life. He notes that many colleges and employers offer online courses and training — and had started doing so even before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Good observes that students are also developing problem-solving skills that they may not have needed in a typical classroom setting. “They’re not just coming to me and saying, ‘Hey, Mr. Good, what should I do next?’ or ‘I’m stuck on this,'” he says. Instead, they’re learning to find answers in other ways like collaborating with peers.

Ciemiewicz says that while her choral students lost the collective nature of participating in a music ensemble, they gained accountability and ownership of their work when they each had to record their parts individually for a virtual concert.

If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s how to adapt to unexpected and new situations. Ciemiewicz encourages teachers to develop plans but be ready for them to change.

Good urges educators to remain positive. Rigg suggests that teachers look for the good in each day, and then, “even though it may sound cliche, write those things down, so then when you’re having a hard time, you can look back at it and remember that what we’re doing is really great.”

“We got into education because we were passionate about learning, passionate about teaching kids,” says Spencer, “and teachers need to remember that passion.”

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