By MJ APFEL
Published Nov. 12, 2020
The transition from in-person instruction to distance learning has revealed the complexities regarding how to manage the attentiveness and well-being of students in an online format, and with the adaptation of both traditional and new techniques, the Carmel Unified School District and its staff have made committed efforts to continue the high level of individualized education and care in the student services department.
Teachers in student services face challenges due to the distance-learning model preventing them from giving hands-on instruction, influencing them to incorporate more interactive educational websites in their lesson plans to keep students involved. The Zoom breakout room feature also allows teachers to give additional help to students in more personalized settings with one-on-one attention.
“[Teaching] is not as easy because most of the students are more visual and kinesthetic learners… so we usually point and do a lot of that, but you can’t do that on Zoom,” says Diana Govan, a Carmel High School student services teacher. “Most of us, I think, are really feeling terribly disconnected in that we miss our students.”
The CHS student services department chair Sandra Mettler, a CHS resource specialist and case manager, shares a similar concern for distance learning and the hurdles that accompany technological issues.
“Many students need one-on-one and in-person help to learn new content, so finding time to work with students individually has been very difficult,” Mettler says. “Also, many students have issues with internet connectivity and hardware.”
The video-calling capabilities of Zoom have been helpful in giving teachers and students the tools necessary to emulate parts of the classroom environment, but teachers have noticed students expressing increased levels of disinterest in the material due to new distractions many face by participating in school at home.
“Many of our students seem to disengage more frequently,” CHS teacher Adriana Giacomelli says. “They turn off their cameras because they can, and it’s more difficult to keep our students connected, interested and learning at a consistent pace.”
The role of student services teachers has stayed the same, but the means by which their duties are performed has evolved. Staff are trained in both the intervention and assessment of students who may need additional assistance. CUSD offers classes and programs accessible to all students, emphasizing study skills and learning techniques, and if more assistance is needed, referrals are made to counselors who then contact an intervention team including psychologists, school counselors, administrators and one of the student services teachers. Many of these duties are functioning in the same capacity in the distance-learning format, using Zoom to schedule and host meetings.
In light of the lack of in-person instruction, CMS and CHS have continued to incorporate the co-teaching model in online classes, emphasizing an inclusive learning environment. With two teachers creating lesson plans and sharing the responsibilities of instruction and individual support, lessons can function at a pace more accommodating for a wider variety of students. Teachers use the breakout room function to create small groups for students in academic study halls as a divide-and-conquer approach to helping students with their homework.
Some students have benefited from the transition because of the increased use of online resources and the incorporation of interactive educational websites.
“Many of the students that struggled in a traditional learning environment are now doing really well.” says Mettler. “Platforms like EdPuzzles are really good for practicing skills. There is a video and immediate practice. This is great so students can go back to review if needed.”
Aside from managing the logistics of online teaching and the engagement of students, student services recognizes the importance of mental wellness sources during the pandemic. With mental health issues resulting from quarantine and isolation, those who manage and provide assistance for students with special needs have pursued avenues to provide further assistance for those families.
“Nationally, I think everyone is experiencing heightened anxiety because of the challenges that everyone is facing and that the pandemic is placing on us,” says Steve Gonzalez, the CUSD director of student services. “We are, for staff, students and families, thinking about ways to support those three paths.”
CUSD has coordinated and partnered with Care Solace, a company that helps people find free mental health resources in their area and whose website is accessible on the CUSD website. The district has also partnered with the Monterey County Behavioral Health Department, which provides a mobile crisis unit response team accessible at all times.
The district has been working with the state to support families with nutrition, provide transportation to and from school for families without WiFi, give in-person instruction at the school site for students with connectivity issues and provide staff members with child care.
Distance learning inherently makes it difficult for some students to learn, and the pandemic has also challenged the families of staff and students alike because of mental health, wellness and logistical concerns. In spite of these difficulties and the literal distance that divides students from teachers, those in student services have been able to adapt to online learning, while providing families with the resources necessary to meet the needs of their situations.