TACOMA, Wash. — The coronavirus pandemic complicated students’ return to school this fall unlike any other year, and Tacoma is hoping to smooth some of the hiccups from spring’s rush to online learning.
Tacoma Public Schools is currently distributing laptops to all students grades sixth through 12, ahead of online classes starting Sept. 9. Eventually, the district plans to get to 1-to-1 with all students, but a shortage of machines as districts nationwide scramble means younger ones will have to wait. There are more than 15,000 students enrolled across Tacoma's middle and high schools, and 13,000 kindergarteners through 5th graders.
The return to online learning certainly means some strange first impressions for incoming freshman, like Alex Lindgren, who is starting at Stadium High School and came to get his laptop Monday.
He said he’s disappointed to be missing out on the in-person high school experience for now, though his family supports the district's choice to keep kids home.
He noted that spring online classes came with some difficulty.
“It was all right,” he said. “I’m better communicating verbally with teachers over here, than online school.”
“For us, we understand why we’re starting the year virtually, so we’re having an open mind and an open heart about the process,” said his mother Vanessa Lindgren, who is a counselor in the Fife Public Schools. “And we’re putting our faith in our school and school district that things are going to fall into place and kids are going to have their needs met.”
She voiced some concern about balancing working from home with managing children – but noted many families are in more difficult positions.
Lorena Lievanos brought her daughter Isabel, who is also an incoming freshman, to Stadium to pick up her laptop
She expressed similar worry.
“We’re just going to have to do the best we can, what we were doing last year which was check on them if they have questions, and stepping away from work for a while,” she said. “It’s harder with the little ones obviously, because they also need attention that’s not school-related. But I think we all just take turns.”
Stadium High assistant principal Dwayne Folsom empathized with parents feeling overwhelmed as the pandemic keeps kids home.
“I know, I have a high school-age son as well,” he said. “Take it day-by-day. Celebrate those small successes that we can, and keep it positive. I think as parents and educators, it’s what we’ve got to do.”
The Tacoma district hopes the laptops will help smooth the online transition – making sure every student has access to a usable device with the right software already installed. They’re also rolling out new “one-stop-shop” learning management software called Schoology, which will help parents and students get a better handle of the assignments and deadlines.
“It will make a dramatic difference for the families' experience of managing their students and their work,” said Kathryn McCarthy with Tacoma Public Schools.
Training and rollout on the software are still underway, but the district said it plans to continue using the software after students return to school buildings. The need for a simplified tool was a lesson learned from spring’s scramble to go online, McCarthy said.
Simplicity is needed especially now as families try to make this situation work.
“We know we have 30,000 students, and there’s 30,000 different scenarios,” she said. “So we’re trying to find something that will support all those students and their different needs.”
Folsom recommends making sure students stay connected with their teachers and peers.
Tacoma Public Schools will still run extracurricular clubs, to keep students in some feeling of normalcy, while balancing the need for social distancing.
Though for Alex, his first experience of high school – with mask and laptop, outside historic Stadium High – is one his mom won’t forget.
“I love it, his first day on his high school campus,” she said laughing, as she snapped a picture.