Editor’s note: Herald/Review Media is launching an in-depth series on education in Cochise County. (More on the series here). This is the first in the series, and the first of two parts.

COCHISE COUNTY — It has almost been 11 months since schools closed to prevent further spread of COVID-19 when Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey issued his “Stay Home, Stay Healthy, Stay Connected,” executive order on March 30.

Ducey let his executive order expire May 15, and schools across the state have cycled through distance, hybrid and in-person learning formats to accommodate safety guidelines.

With the hasty transition to distance learning over the past school year, and the recent surge of cases in Cochise County and Southern Arizona, how has this format affected students, parents, teachers and school administrators?

When the Herald/Review reached out to parents in numerous community groups on Facebook, the majority said that they prefer in-person learning over distance learning, saying the 4-6 hour period of Zoom or Google classroom meetings weren’t productive nor engaging for their children.

Athena Reynolds, whose son is enrolled at Bella Vista Elementary School, noted how as a single mom and student herself, the distance learning format was challenging.

“He sits on a computer for six hours a day,” Reynolds said. “I would work until 3 a.m. because I couldn’t work on anything until my kid went to sleep.”

Reynolds was seeking an associates degree in business administration from Cochise College when schools closed in March. She received her degree in May.

“It was an interesting few months having to babysit him, I can’t imagine how it’s like for parents who have two or more kids. … .It’s been really rough as a parent and as a student,” Reynolds said. “The world is it at its impasse. I don’t know what we can do to fix this beside getting vaccinated and wearing masks. We need to support each other, our teachers and moms so we can get through this.”

JoeyLynn Boykin, a single mother of 6, is concerned about distance learning for her three school-aged children, saying the learning model has created stressful complications in shuttling her children to various locations for distance learning and supervision during her work hours.

“At (the Center for Academic Success), two of my children are able to go to the Safe Place,” Boykin said. “I take three of my (younger) children to daycare, one goes to my mother’s house for virtual learning. For her day, she’s on the computer from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. as a kindergartner.”

Safe Place is a program for working parents to drop their children off at the center for virtual learning.

One of Boykin’s sons has autism and is in an Individualized Education Program for special needs, but she said he isn’t getting the level of instruction he needs while at the Safe Place.

“After work, I check all their assignments, because no one is directly supervising their work,” Boykin said. “Both of my sons used to be in high honors and now I’m getting notices that they’re failing. I feel terrible as a mom because I can’t be there during the day.”

Another parent, requesting to remain anonymous, shared their thoughts with the Herald/Review on distance learning.

“I have two children doing virtual learning AGAIN,” the parent said. “My kindergarten student is doing great, his teacher maps out a daily schedule for him and includes him with his class. My fourth grader, on the other hand, has been completely dropped! She is NOT included with the rest of her class and is being forced to do schoolwork through a program called ‘Odesseyware.’ She (absolutely) hates this program. The program does allow her to do the work independently on her own time but completely lacks teacher direction and support.”

Some OK with distance learning

Some parents said their children preferred distance learning, saying it offered more flexibility and less distraction.

“My daughter is attending the online program and we really like it,” said Lydia Kiebler Rod, whose daughter is a freshman at Buena High School.

“Due to my daughter attending online we have more time for her to learn things the school does not teach, example crafts, things about nature, cooking, etc.,” Rod said. “Overall, a wonderful experience – having more time together taught my daughter self-responsibility and-self discipline, taught us how to overcome challenges, and how to make the best out of an unwanted situation.”

Persephone Marie, a working mother whose daughter attends school in Willcox Unified School District, said her daughter’s grades were higher when WUSD was implementing distance learning. The daughter’s grades dropped when the district went to hybrid learning.

“Honestly, my dad is homeschooling my daughter during all of this while I work, and her grades are better while doing distance learning than they are doing the A/B schedule,” Marie said. “She loves her teacher but I think the A/B affects her work ethic at school, if I’m honest. She’s always had high grades in school and last quarter during the distant learning she got all A’s and slipped to B’s when doing the A/B schedule. I just (don’t) think she is completely focused in school when she is going back and forth.”

Elisabeth Tyndall, whose daughter attends SVUSD, said distance learning for her daughter includes 30-minute blocks of live streaming with the teacher. The rest is devoted to independent work on assignments.

“My daughter is in third grade,” Tyndall said. “There are half hour (or less) instructional blocks then time to complete the activity, with free time in between reflecting what the classroom is like. There are videos to watch in case a lesson was missed.”

Structure like online class

Many parents believe distance learning should be structured more like an online class, in which all assignments and lessons are opened at the beginning of the week, encouraging independent study, with assignments being due by the end of the week.

Boykin suggested the school should revert to the original paper packets of assignments assigned at the beginning of the week and returned to the school at the end of the week, noting how she could better help her kids after work.

“Having the packet system from the beginning of the year would’ve been easier,” Boykin said. “I have to leave (work) on average three times a day to pick (her children) up to take them to other places.”

Boykin also would like to see more specific feedback on her children’s grades so she could identify which areas they are struggling in.

“We’re not seeing the areas where they need work on, we’re just getting a grade,” she said. “But when they get a 10/20 correct, what was the 10 that they got wrong?”

Reynolds suggested a weekly newsletter from the teacher with a list of the curriculum, topics, assignments and their due dates.

“It’s a lot easier to keep track of what they’re doing of you have a checklist,” Reynold said. “I don’t expect it to be individualized, but I just want to know basic, what are they covering in class this week.”

Michelle Sitze, whose children attend school on Fort Huachuca, said distance learning should be structured more like an online class.

“If they’re doing distance learning, it should be daily assignments and the teacher should have ‘office hours’ to answer any questions,” Sitze said. “Its hard on essential-employee parents especially but (I’m) sure even those who CAN sit with their child during the scheduled classes are ready to pull their hair out. None of this is the teachers’ faults, though I’d like to add (they’re) making the best with what they’re given. They’re pretty much having to rewrite their curriculums as they go.”

The toll on teachers

Teachers have expressed concerns about distance learning and its affect on students.

Jennifer Thrasher, the sixth-grade math, social studies and science teacher at Coronado Elementary School, said the current distance learning model has imposed challenges in getting materials out to her online and in-person students.

At the time of Thrasher’s interview, Palominas Elementary School District was implementing its hybrid learning model, providing the option for students attend via distance learning or in person. Thrasher said Coronado Elementary School returned to distance learning on Jan. 10 for two weeks.

“Honestly, I am exhausted,” Thrasher said. “I have spent countless hours planning for both in-person and online instruction, including converting all my social studies and science tests into more compact, Google Forms versions of them.”

When asked about her schedule for balancing the online and in-person students, Thrasher said she begins the day meeting on Google Classroom concurrently with her online and in-person students to discuss the day’s math and English language arts assignments that need to be completed independently by the students via the Odysseyware program.

Thrasher checks in with her online students before lunch, addressing any questions or concerns on course work.

After lunch, online and in-person students reconvene for social studies and science lessons. The online students join in via Google Classroom with the rest of the class in the hybrid model.

“They attend and do everything with us including any text to read, videos to watch, etc.” Thrasher said. The only difference is that I have converted my social studies and science tests into Google Forms versions that the online students take instead of sending paper versions back and forth.”

Jordan Gee, a kindergarten teacher in the Tucson Unified School District, said distance learning has been challenging for her 5- and 6-year-old students.

“As a teacher, the hardest thing has been that we are expected to do everything as if we were in the classroom,” Gee said. “Keeping our students engaged and having families that are willing to help the students do their work/ stay engaged has been difficult. This virtual model has proved to have some perks, I am getting through the content with students having higher success rates because I am not having as many behaviors. I am also able to have more productive small group times and even have been able to fit in some tutoring times.”

Gee said the expectations for participation need to be reconsidered moving forward.

“Just because a student is logged in, doesn’t mean that they should be counted present for the meeting if their video/sound are off and there is no engagement,” Gee said. “I know that I feel like I’m working way harder than I did when I was in person to keep my lessons fun and engaging. I am exhausted and having an even harder time separating myself from my work since it is in my personal space. I wish I could record some of my lessons for students to watch asynchronously, but there is not enough time to do so.”

Coming Jan. 27: View from the administrators