Shortly after the first COVID-19 cases appeared in “The First State,” Delaware Governor John Carney initially closed schools for two weeks on March 13th. The closure was then extended to May 15th before the official shut down of the remaining academic year. Much like millions of teachers in America and around the world, Sarah Betlejewski, a Millsboro Middle School 7th Grade Science Teacher who recently won the 2019 Delaware STEM Educator Award – Middle School, was asked to shoulder the daunting task of replicating the functions of school for three months without in-person interactions.
With only one half-day training session on the chosen EdTech solution by the Indian River School District, Millsboro Middle School teachers had to effectively translate their subjects to online application. Five hours of weekly Science lesson plans were cut in half to 2.5 hours of e-learning in a matter of days.
The scrambling didn’t stop there because Miss B, as she’s lovingly referred to by her students, also had to make attempts to bridge the digital divide. While the chasm wasn’t as wide as it could have been because Miss B and her students had won $44,000 in Samsung technology resources and classroom materials for her school in the last few years, she still had to fill a 34% and a 5% gap of 7th graders who didn’t have a home computer/laptop and proper broadband internet, respectively.
“I have a couple of students where, due to their at-home circumstances, logging on is not a reality. I made it my mission to prioritize their well-being, devise workarounds, and provide the extra support my students’ need through dedicated weekly office hours, daily discussion boards – both for schoolwork and for fun – and phone calls,” said Miss B. “Also, as weeks turned into months, remote teaching brought on new stressors for teachers, but we made every effort to keep going – our students needed us.”
Let it be known that Miss B is no stranger to bridging gaps. America has been struggling to keep up when it comes to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. Miss B first began incorporating STEM education via hands-on project-based learning in 2014 and integrating digital tools into her Science curriculum in 2016. Since 2014, she’s encouraged her students to take part in the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow (SFT) nationwide competition that challenges public school students to showcase how STEM can be applied to help improve their community. Already a four-time SFT competitor, a three-time State Finalist, and 2018 State Winner, Millsboro Middle School competed yet again and was named a Delaware State Winner in January 2020 for its proposed plan to address the spread of Lyme Disease.
Despite having embraced digital tools and being among leading-edge teachers that are making a meaningful effort to provide access to urgently needed future-proof skills, this STEM education champion found the pivot to all-remote challenging. But the herculean challenge was made easier by two factors: her immediate community of teachers and a national Samsung Solve for Tomorrow teacher network.
“My Science teacher cohort has been tackling our lesson plans as a team. We each have specific jobs to do every week that makes the load easier. For instance, I have been the ‘go-to’ teacher to place lessons into our eLearning management platform and shared drive,” said Miss B. “Also, my relationship with Samsung has provided me with professional connections across the country. Because of that network, I have learned of many tools offered across various districts and states that I can use to reach my students more effectively. Moreover, Samsung supplied us with a list of digital resources, including the invaluable mindSpark Learning, a non-profit partner of Samsung Solve for Tomorrow Teacher Academy, a weeklong professional development practicum that I attended last summer.”
As the school year winds down, Miss B is reflecting upon this unforeseen experience. Among her takeaways:
- Empathy is paramount. Not all at-home situations are the same and, for some students, school is their safe space. We should not expect the same output from them. Besides, school is much more than academics; it is also a place to foster social skills.
- Don’t overstress. From grappling with unfamiliar technologies and retrofitting lesson plans to worries over students’ wellbeing and fears about next fall, us teachers have to do our best to not feel defeated.
- Build a support system. Your peers are your best support system. When teachers collaborate and share information, resources, and ideas, learning becomes more accessible and effective for students. Remember, it takes a village…albeit a remote one in this instance.
While there are benefits to virtual teaching – for example, some students enjoy learning at their own pace, the hardest part on Miss B and her peers is the loss of regular face-to-face contact with students. Nothing can truly replicate the experience of being together in the same classroom. Regardless of the path Millsboro Middle School and other schools take in the fall, the pandemic is likely to be a turning point as far as the role of technology in public, K-12 education.