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Jim Thorpe reflects on e-learning

Jim Thorpe Area School District’s efforts to implement e-learning during the COVID-19 shutdown will prepare them if students are unable to return to classrooms full-time this fall.

Administrators recently reflected on their first attempt at e-learning, and the lessons which will help them improve the experience for students in the future.

“This was our best shot to go forward with e-learning at the eleventh hour. I thought we did a good job but there’s certainly a lot of room for improvement. We want to learn form this experience,” Superintendent John Rushefski said.

While other schools used online learning for ungraded enrichment and review, Jim Thorpe decided to go forward with continuing education, including deadlines and grades.

The principals credited their teachers with learning new skills to engage students online, and sharing their successes with other teachers in the district.

“The teachers are talking more, sharing more and learning more from each other than ever before,” L.B. Morris Principal Holly Mordaunt said.

The teachers hope to reuse the lessons they’ve developed in future years.

“All the departments are organizing and digitizing their materials so they’re prepared if this should happen again,” High School Principal Tom Lesisko said.

Lesisko said online classes have revealed new tools that teachers can use to engage students.

English teachers assigned students to record themselves performing scenes from plays.

The German teacher led virtual tours of Germany. The math department uses Google Earth. The gym teacher has students use their phones to track their workouts.

Across many subjects, a program called Edpuzzle allows teachers to show videos online and ask questions to make sure students are keeping up.

“There’s a lot of positive things going on for teachers now, sharing, learning the hard way the best way to reach the kids and keep them engaged when you’re not seeing their face, not seeing their responses,” Lesisko said.

They also engage students offline. A social studies teacher had students assemble a backpack of supplies they needed for a 30-mile march.

More than 345 district parents responded to an online survey about the online schooling experience.

The majority said they were pleased with communication and at least somewhat comfortable with the level of difficulty.

Roughly half said their students spend between 30-60 minutes per day per class.

Parents also submitted their own comments about the experience, which administrators will use to refine their approach for the future.

The experience was not without challenges.

Teachers found that it is harder to get students to attend online classes. The participation rate for classes ranges between 50-90 percent of students. However, teachers have reported that students who aren’t regularly attending classes are still turning in assignments.

“They have to be creative - how do they keep students learning and active with the weather and students’ obligations to watch their younger brothers and sisters? It’s been a challenge but they’re pleased with the participation rate,” Lesisko said.

Teachers also need to be available to answer questions for more hours of the day, Penn-Kidder campus Principal David McAndrew said.

“The perception from some people in the public is that they’re at home doing nothing. It’s so far from the truth. Teachers have put in 8-10 hours per day, emails at 3 p.m. in the afternoon, 5 at night, 8 at night,” McAndrew said.

Board members who have children in the district said the experience has been positive. TJ Garritano said his younger children have adapted particularly well.

“It wasn’t an ideal situation but we came out smelling like roses. Hopefully in the fall we’ll be back in school,” he said.