Editor’s Note: This is one story in a series that sheds light on the local impact of the novel coronavirus and related shutdowns on Northland schools.

CLAY COUNTY — Schools are out, but virtual learning is in. Kearney, Liberty and Smithville districts have embraced virtual learning models as schools will be closed for the remainder of the academic year. But the online learning process is not without issues.

“There’s just been so many technology issues,” Kearney junior Lance Bolles said, “like teachers having trouble working with Zoom and Google Classroom and stuff like that. It’s tough, but it’s also kind of nice because you can work at your speed.”

“I had an online class over the summer, so the whole virtual learning thing, it’s not that new to me,” Smithville senior Cameron Nuckolls said. “I’ve kind of adapted to it.”

Kearney School District Superintendent Bill Nicely said the district has created a “robust” digital learning initiative across the district, but there is a digital divide with some district families not having computers or internet access at home. To address these needs, families were surveyed and devices provided to students including hot spots to boost or provide internet signals.

Art Smith, a teacher for Liberty Academy, said coronavirus-related school closures shine a light on the inequity throughout Northland communities.

“Some kids have access to this, some kids have access to that,” Smith said. “Some kids’ parents are at work, some parents are able to work from home.”

As far as how lessons are taught, plans across Northland districts are similar. Plans include online coursework as well as printed paper assignment packets for students with specific needs. These packets are often delivered by the district.

“It depends on the grade level. Grades (kindergarten) through eight, teachers are focusing on reinforcing concepts that were taught before the closure and providing participation grades,” Smithville School District Superintendent Todd Schuetz said. “Any new concepts introduced will receive an introduction only without penalty for not mastering it. High school is a different beast as courses are provided in sequence, so it is important that students get the concepts in one class before advancing to the next.”

“What’s happening now in our online coursework is really to supplement what students have learned before,” Nicely echoed. “We do not believe there will be a detrimental impact to grades.”

Smith said it can be hard for districts to come up with a one-size-fits-all plan for learning with so many changing factors.

“Thankfully, there are a lot of businesses that have been very supportive of the need to educate students,” Nicely added. “What we are seeing is cellular phone companies as well as cable and internet providers kind of step up and provide free services for a period of a couple months.”

Other organizations are also helping fill some gaps associated with the digital divide. Kearney School District Education Foundation approved $30,000 to go toward technology and repairs in his district, Nicely said.

Technical and logistical issues aside, Nicely said the district is seeing successes, but added in-person learning is always preferred. Online learning, school leaders said, requires self-motivation.

Motivating oneself, said Bolles, can be hard, especially when you may not understand the concept being presented by teachers.

“If you don’t understand something, you can’t just ask a simple question. You have to send an email,” Bolles said. “If that simple question prohibits you from trying to get your work done, then you have to wait until they answer you.”

Best practices during this time evolve daily as educators are also learning and adjusting each day, Nicely said. Teachers and parents have been working together to help educate students.

“As teachers really try to navigate, in many cases they see both sides of it because they have their own children,” Nicely said. “They’re really trying to work on communicating with families and instructing them. In some cases it happens in the evening as well. We’ve really had to have conversations with all our instructional staff about not doing too much … so they aren’t trying all day and all night to connect with kids because that will just wear you out.”

“It has been very stressful,” Schuetz added, “but our staff, parents and students have been very supportive.”

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