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'Uncharted waters': Baraboo private schools shift to online learning during COVID-19 closures
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'Uncharted waters': Baraboo private schools shift to online learning during COVID-19 closures

Like public schools, Baraboo’s three private schools have had to scramble to develop plans to remotely educate their students for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic.

“This is uncharted waters ... for everyone,” said St. Joseph School Principal Denise Brinker.

The Catholic school, which teaches 4K through eighth grade, has been closed since March 16 except to allow teachers to prepare materials for their students and for families to pick the materials up on March 18, Brinker said.

Under Gov. Tony Evers’ “safer at home” order issued Tuesday, both public and private K-12 schools must be closed through at least April 24. He previously ordered schools to close for three weeks starting on March 16 but extended their closure indefinitely until releasing the “safer at home” order.

The closures are an attempt to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19, but they have created challenges for local educators, most of whom are working exclusively online for the first time.

St. Joseph middle school students have school-supplied devices on which teachers can communicate with them and assign work through Google Classroom while the students are home. Brinker said that’s what they did last week.

Fourth- and fifth-graders can use Google Classroom on personal devices, she noted, but for younger students, teachers are emailing parents and creating videos for the children to watch. Most students have access to internet-enabled devices and the internet, but any who don’t can contact the school, Brinker said.

She said St. Joseph School is currently trying to streamline its online materials by creating a website for families to access their child’s schoolwork and contact teachers. That should be rolled out after this week.

“We don’t want to overwhelm the families, and so we’re trying to make it so that if they have more than one child, they can go to one website and click on their child’s class. And the teachers will be available during school hours to answer questions,” she said.

At St. John’s Lutheran School, families picked up packets of worksheets for younger students on March 17, said Interim Principal William Otto. Older students are working online. His school also teaches K4 through eighth grade.

“I think what the teachers did was to scramble and get everything ready as quickly as they could on the 16th,” Otto said.

“We’re hoping that our families, by the grace of God and his guidance and strength, are able to get through this in the best possible way,” he added.

Because abilities vary by grade level, teachers are finding it difficult to teach young students from home, Otto said. He said some students work well independently but others will likely struggle with the new virtual format.

“That is, I’m sure, a concern of every teacher,” Otto said. “We want them to learn, but in this situation it’s very difficult. None of us really saw this coming or really had prepared for it.”

He said he doesn’t think virtual learning is as effective as face-to-face instruction, something that Brinker and administrators from Community Christian School of Baraboo echoed.

Otto can post assignments for his fifth- and sixth-grade students through Google Classroom, which they can access, complete and turn in on their Chromebooks from home. He can also post videos and answer their questions online.

“It’s not a great scenario” because it takes more time, he said. “But it is a way for me to be able to give them the core subjects, find out what they’re struggling with and do my best to address those questions.”

Rather than focusing on hours of instruction and traditional grading to measure students’ attendance and engagement with content, administrators indicated that they would be focusing more on how well students could show that they had absorbed the content and mastery of skills. That change is based on guidance from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

CCS Administrator Dale Lempa said remote instruction looks different for every class because of the age range of students, from 4-year-old kindergarten through 12th grade. Teachers have been given “a lot of flexibility” to decide on how to best teach, he said.

“They’ve been working very diligently to make themselves available” to students by having video calls and communicating via email and discussion forums, Lempa said. “I want to applaud them for jumping into this with both feet, this being new territory for us. They’ve really responded very proactively to make this happen.”

Younger grades are using worksheets and textbooks, while fifth- through 12th-graders are receiving instruction almost entirely online, he said. At the direction of Principal Rob Westerlund, teachers sent students home on March 13 with enough materials to last for two weeks. Westerlund said the school now is working on digitizing everything so homework can be assigned and turned in online going forward.

Teachers are adapting their existing curriculum for online lessons and are giving students immediate feedback, keeping track of their progress and offering online tutoring, Westerlund said. He said the school is relying more than usual on parents to help with homework and make sure their children — of any age — are doing their homework.

For those who fall behind, Lempa said the school is ready to provide one-on-one or small-group instruction once schools reopen, which he’s hoping will be by April 27.

Three CCS students are on track to graduate this year, and Lempa doesn’t expect that to change.

“That’s one of the major reasons why we definitely want to continue this,” Lempa said. “We don’t want to jeopardize that (graduation) for them.”

Westerlund said he was recently looking through his grandmother’s 1918 high school yearbook in which she wrote about the difficulty of catching up after schools were shut down due to the “Spanish flu” pandemic.

“So I look at that as encouragement that we’re doing the right thing in doing everything possible” to continue students’ education, Westerlund said. “One might contend that, yeah, they aren’t getting quite the same academic rigor at home as they would be in the classroom, but I have a philosophy that whatever work we can progress in is to their benefit and will help them in the long run.”

All three schools are on spring break this week.

Follow Susan Endres on Twitter @EndresSusan or call her at 745-3506.

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