Southern Illinois educators get creative to meet student needs amid COVID-19

By Kallie Cox, News Editor

Whether it’s a new spin on spirit week, performing science experiments on Facebook Live, or hosting an at-home dance session instead of PE, Southern Illinois elementary schools are finding ways to connect with and educate their students during quarantine. 

Illinois schools closed down and transitioned to remote learning in mid-March to comply with Illinois shelter in place guidelines. Now Gov. JB Pritzker has extended the state’s quarantine until April 30 and asked schools to develop comprehensive remote learning plans.

Carbondale Elementary District 95 superintendent Daniel Booth said remote learning has been a challenge in his district due to connectivity issues, but that CE95 is working hard to meet students where they are at. 

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“About 70% of our students live in poverty and we can’t have a platform or even a plan that suspects that students have access to electronic devices, technology, or internet access because we do have some students in more rural parts of the city,” Booth said. 

Booth said the district’s remote learning method has been to offer every student paper packets of work at their grade level and to provide online resources for adults in their family that can access technology.

Booth said the district is collaborating with the Tri-County Special Education Cooperative to figure out how to adjust its remote learning plan to support students with learning disabilities.

 “Our hope is to still give them services even though they may look differently,” he said. 

Booth said students and parents should continue to try to learn in any way possible.

“I’d encourage them to make sure at the very least that they are exposing their children to reading every day,” Booth said. 

He said the most important thing the community can do is recognize that learning does not have to stop because the school doors close and that learning can continue.

Unity Point district’s principal of instruction, Leslie Varble, said the district is providing students with a mixture of online and offline learning materials to reach all students regardless of their connectivity level.

Unity Point’s dean of students, Mary Beth Goff, said the school is trying to provide a cross-section of all subjects, including math, social studies, science and reading, while the students are remote, and that teachers have provided students with a daily schedule they can follow. 

“We have our special teachers that have also included activities so we are being very mindful of things like art and music and physical education as well to try to be as well-rounded as we can,” Goff said.

Goff said Unity Point’s physical education teacher is creating a video of a new dance each day for students to do at home in an attempt to keep them physically active.

Unity Point has been very active on Facebook during quarantine and has updated its page with messages from teachers, recognitions of birthdays, resources and videos.

Varble said she and Goff are streaming “science Fridays” where they dress up as mad scientists and perform experiments and post them to Facebook.

Last Friday, Goff and Varble donned ponchos and umbrellas, and taught students about chemical reactions between acids and bases by mixing lemon juice, water and baking soda to explode a plastic bag and by creating a volcano with Mentos and diet soda.

(See more: Science Friday video March 27)

In addition to science Fridays, teachers and staff at Unity Point have been reading books to kids via Facebook Live.

“We are choosing a different book and we’ve been reading the book and doing an activity whether it be science or cooking, again just in an attempt to engage kids and we are getting quite a bit of feedback with kids sending us pictures,” Varble said.

Varble said the district recently did a modified version of spirit week to honor those affected by COVID-19. 

On Monday of spirit week the theme was “ordinary deeds” so students and teachers dressed up as nurses, doctors and EMTs, Varble said. On a different day to honor those most affected by COVID-19, students dressed as elderly individuals and on Friday they dressed as scientists.

“For a lot of our kids, connection at a school is an incredibly important part of their social, emotional learning,” Goff said. “For us as adults as well, we miss the kids and so having those opportunities to connect either through meal delivery, or through the online story platform, whatever it may be to just be able to check in, connect and make sure that we’re providing our families with everything that they need.”

Goff said all of the teachers in the district miss their kids and want them to know they are cared for and missed each day. 

Varble said teachers are checking in with their students on Mondays and Thursdays.

Varble said the biggest teaching challenge for the district right now is math.

“Trying to teach new content of math is going to be a challenge because we want to make sure every kid has access,” Varble said. “ I find the challenge primarily to be fourth and fifth grade on up for us through eighth grade.”

Both district 95 and Unity Point are continuing to provide meals for their students to pick up at the school or get delivery through their bus systems. 

Booth said meals are available at Thomas Elementary School and Carbondale Middle School each day from 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. 

“We passed out around 2,600 meals a day since we started our busing so it’s a huge need and we’re meeting that need through the help of our amazing cooks in each of our buildings,” he said.

Goff said Unity Point is providing approximately 800 meals to students each day and that they are delivering meals to multiple locations including Makanda and Evergreen Terrace. 

“Part of that food delivery for us as well is that connection,” Goff said. “We want to put eyes on our kids and check on them and know that they’re ok and for them to know that we’re still here caring about them. This is incredibly traumatic for students and we want to be their constant and feel like that’s really an important piece of our mission.”

Goff said schools across the region have been collaborating together to ensure that no one is left behind.

“Our bottom line across the board for all of us is our job is to take care of the kids. Every kid,” Goff said.

News Editor Kallie Cox can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @KallieECox.

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