The Van Cleve family of Lynden does schoolwork at home. (Courtesy photo)

But the social aspect of school is missed by all

   LYNDEN — Starting last week, schools had to be providing structured at-home learning for students during the statewide shutdown due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. 

  Up until then, public schools could focus on setting up food distribution programs, childcare options for frontline workers and just general learning opportunities. 

  Jordan Vander Veen, a teacher at Lynden High School, said he has been teaching online courses to his Advanced Placement students from one week after the closure in mid-March. The AP test has not been canceled, just switched to an online format, so the AP program is needed. 

  Other courses in the district did go to “learning opportunities.” Vander Veen describes them as student- and/or parent-led chances to review materials already taught, so regression wouldn’t happen while the schools and state figured out logistics for structured learning. 

  Lynden School District elementary students were given a “menu” to choose from. 

  “(The menu) had different school categories like math, science, PE, etc. Then within each category there were different activities to choose from. Most of those activities were review-type activities that just kept their brains active,” said local parent Melissa Van Cleve. 

  Van Cleve has school-aged children. At first after closure, they were loosely following a structure. 

  “We started out pretty loosely as we were all adjusting to the transition,” she said. “But as it’s become more of a reality, they are good at getting up and getting in their work right away. I like to give them a fun goal to work toward, like a fun activity that I know they enjoy doing. My younger girls like crafts, so I bought a bunch of dollar store craft products and when they get their school work done they can have fun while also being creative.”

  Mom said she is pleased with the new structured lesson plans.

  “At first it was pretty sporadic and seemed too slack. But now that things are more in order, it seems to be going pretty good,” Van Cleve said. “Lessons are coming through this week and my kids seem to be able to do them. It can be difficult for those that don’t have internet or computers. I have four kids and only one computer, so I’ve requested a loaner from the school.”

  Vander Veen said the district has set up a way to help families receive internet and computers if needed for online learning.

  Anh Johnson, who has two girls, ages 6 and 7, in Fisher Elementary School, also is happy with how the school has handled the transition. 

  “I have been pleased with how communicative the school has been once they had a game plan,” Johnson said. “Our girls’ teachers called them as soon as they were able to, which we deeply appreciated.”

  Johnson works at Faithlife and is able to work from home herself while also helping the girls with school work. 

  She said one of the more difficult parts of this experience is the “mom guilt.”

  “I am home, but I am not available because I am working,” Johnson said. “Feeling inadequate to educate them. And not having our family, our church community and our friends be able to show up and just offer help or a hug. And not being able to help or hug them on the hard days.”

  “It has been difficult for me to shift to this new season of working from home (with) me also schooling my kids. My husband works at a bank, so he is essential,” she said.

  She says her girls both miss school. She has learned that both of her children thrive on structure, but she fears the lack of the social aspect of school will set them back. 

  “They are thriving with structure at home and doing their work faster and they are going to be set back because they are lacking the incredible social interactions that help them develop,” Johnson said.

  Van Cleve also said her children miss seeing their friends and socializing.

  “We are homebodies, so being at home now hasn’t been a big issue. But they all miss the social aspect of it. They miss their teachers and staff and, of course, their friends,” she said. “My senior is very disappointed to be missing his last season of track. He was able to find a job, so that was something that helps him not just be holed up in his room.”

  Vander Veen also expressed a concern for students of all ages missing out on the social part of school. 

  A large part of schooling in person happens in the small interactions teachers can have with their students, he believes. 

  “It’s a lot easier to hide or disengage at the minimum level in the online format,” Vander Veen said. 

  He also misses the daily check-in he has with students that can clue a teacher in on something going on in the student’s life. 

  “So much of teaching is body language — to read whether it’s making sense, whether other stuff is going on, reading emotions — we really can’t do that right now,” Vander Veen said. 

  Also, some of teaching is being reactive, he says. That dimension is not possible in this new format — which makes group work difficult. 

  Students in online video conferencing automatically mute themselves. To combat that, he has been trying to get his students to react with big hand movements or shakes of their head. 

  Vander Veen has set up an area in his house for teaching. One of two cameras is focused on him while the other is on his hands for writing something down like a math equation. He said his instinct upon going to online learning was to lecture, but he is being more interactive now that he knows the process and the technology. 

  When Vander Veen first set up online learning for his AP students, he was “super impressed” at their participation. “I sent the students information about how to log in, and when I got on every single student was logged in.”

  He says “students really want to keep learning.” 

  In schools’ closure Vander Veen has been spending more time working than before, helping with administrative stuff and assisting other teachers with technology. 

  There have been several high school all-staff meetings, with Wednesdays as a work day when several staff meetings happen online as well. 

  Some things still need to get figured out, such as where classes will pick up from next year. Vander Veen sees it as depending on what sort of learning and teaching can be accomplished in the last seven weeks or so. He also said the way grading is done has been brought up. It may have to be according to the level of mastery of a subject, rather than assignments turned in. 

  Vander Veen said he’s been impressed by the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. Recently, a 79-page instruction plan was sent out for the rest of the school year. He read through it all and found it very thorough, even bringing up how to implement a sense of community. 

  “It’s been fascinating watching how the state has been implementing procedures and policies and how the schools are doing them over the time to create more opportunities with students,” he said. 

  Lynden Christian Schools switched over immediately to an online learning structure, no delays.

  Parent Janell Neevel has a high schooler and a third grader at LC. 

  “The hardest part was getting the curriculum together because our school had never done this before,” she said. “And the high standards of our curriculum translating over to the new normal was hard. Because no matter what, it can’t be the same.” 

  She felt at first that teachers were trying to continue with their same type of teaching and assignments, but quickly learned things needed to be adjusted. 

  “They were trying to teach and give out homework like normal, and this is not a normal situation,” she said. 

  But she says the community coming together has been the best part of the experience. 

  “The cool part about it was having our school come together as one! And giving a lot of grace to figure out what’s best for the students. And having a ton of communication between parents of students and teachers,” she said.

  Neevel said it’s been a learning curve for everyone, but she said Lynden Christian has been giving a lot of grace as everyone figures out the new system.

  “I won’t lie, there have been frustrations. But there has not been one frustration that I have shared that has gone without being heard and been fixed,” she said. The school system went above and beyond making sure every student had internet access and computers for learning. 

  Neevel said parents and teachers alike need to receive recognition for being able to adapt to the changes. 

  Johnson expressed similar sentiments.

  “For parents (the ones working remote and the ones who are not), go easy on yourself. No one we know has been through a pandemic before, especially our kids,” Johnson said. “Let’s commit to coming out of this thing stronger as families and as a community.”