Empty classroom

POLK COUNTY – Due to the pandemic, the landscape of education has changed all over the world — including in northeast Polk County.

Schools are closed through the end of the school year, but that does not mean learning has stopped.

Classes are being held on electronic devices via distance learning. This process has not only presented a challenge for the students and their families, it has been one for their teachers, as well.

“The hardest part for all of us is being separated from our students — I receive messages from teachers on a daily basis saying that they want to get back to our old routines because they simply miss their students,” said Celeste Stewart, the principal at Alta Vista Elementary School in Haines City. “However, as they always do, they are keeping a positive attitude and focusing on our students.”

Alta Vista has checked out more than 400 electronic devices to students. The students complete assignments using Class Dojo, Google Classroom and Microsoft Teams. The schools and teachers also connect to students and their families using emails, texts and Facebook.

“Through these platforms, we have been able to make some pretty amazing connections and have received great feedback from families,” Stewart said.

The school has also continued to conduct morning announcements using Facebook Live feed.

“We go live on Facebook to go through our normal morning routine of saying the Pledge (of Allegiance) and student creed together. Our student creed has become a very important part of the culture of our school and I did not want the students to lose sight of those things while they are away,” she said. “I follow that up with announcements for parents and end by explaining a new way that families can help their students while they are at home.”

The community at Ridge Community High School, also located in Haines City, has had to adapt, as well.

“As the largest school in the Polk County school district, you can imagine what a daunting task that virtual learning has been for our staff. I would like to say how proud and impressed that I have been with the performance of both the faculty and the support staff at Ridge Community,” said Stephen Ely, Principal of RCHS. “They have responded swiftly to this emergency and have been relentless in their commitment to our students, our parents and our community. They are continuing with the education of students through multiple pathways and with creative ideas. We will complete this school year successfully and safely.”

The schools are using the same platforms to teach the students and teachers are working hard to remain positive as everyone becomes familiar – including them in some cases – with them.

“My first priority was to make sure they (the students) could all access their student email (which, until now, many of them never used), so that any future communication would be accessed by them and streamlined,” said Chelsea Moore, a Haines City High School teacher. “I have 126 students and 60 of them had not emailed me (after my request). So, I spent several hours making phone calls, talked each of those students through the technology step-by-step, and then checked them off my list.

“It took hours, but because of that effort, it has been easy sailing since. Once I knew they all were accessing their email, I sent out concise directions on how to access, navigate and utilize their online learning platform.”

Most administrators and teachers are concerned about students becoming overly stressed about distance learning.

“'Relationships before rigor. Grace before grades. Patience before programs and love before lessons,'” read Cindy Braaten, Principal at Davenport School of the Arts. “That’s written by Dr. Brad Johnson but I agree with it. I don’t want families frustrated about schoolwork. It’s hard enough right now with everything that is going on.”