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Survey: MSD staffers, students voice concerns

Medford teachers want to connect more with students and are concerned about distractions kids are facing during remote learning, while students long for more social interaction, according to a survey conducted by the Medford School District.

Conducted in October and released Monday by the district, which serves 14,444 students with a staff of 706, the survey results provide a snapshot into the minds of those who used to spend their weekdays inside Medford schools before COVID-19 and state mandates led to a pivot to a combination of remote learning with limited in-person instruction.

Among the notable responses from MSD staffers, including 260 core teachers and 39 elective teachers, were concerns regarding a lack of in-person instruction and students’ ability to focus. According to the survey, the top two “professional concerns so far this year” are “not being able to teach/support students in person” and the “learning curve with teaching online.” About 55% of that question’s 591 responders identified those two concerns in the survey, with “technology issues” coming in third (about 38%) and “in-person instruction/risk of contracting COVID” fourth (about 36%).

Jackson County schools transitioned to distance learning when COVID-19 hit Oregon last March and, in accordance with state mandates, have been there ever since, albeit with limited in-person instruction allowed this school year. Since the county’s hopes for a return to full in-person school are tied to local COVID-19 case counts and test positivity results, the recent spike in cases does indicates that comprehensive distance learning will be here for some time.

Medford School District began ramping up its limited in-person instruction Oct. 12, but regarding the staff’s technology challenges Medford School District communications and public relations specialist Natalie Hurd said the district’s technology integration specialist (Tisha Richmond) has been providing professional development training exercises and online tech support. Still, Hurd said, the switch to online school has proven to be a bear for both teachers and students.

“I think what you’re seeing there is just a reflection of having so many new tech tools that we had to implement so quickly based on the amount of time we had to transition to comprehensive distance learning,” she said. “We wanted to implement and utilize the best tools out there and it took some time to first identify those tools and then get them integrated within our current system. Then teachers came back from summer break and had to really hit the ground running. There was a huge learning curve with the new tools needed.”

Both the answers to survey questions and the written responses revealed concerns regarding the nature of remote learning, specifically students’ ability to focus amid home distractions and screen time overload. Three-quarters of staffers (75.97%) named students’ “ability to focus” as one of their biggest concerns, while 68% said the same for “too much screen time.” Another 62.3% marked “lack of motivation” as one of their biggest concerns, and “possible unsafe home environments” was clicked on as a major concern by 46% of staff responders.

Families and students surveyed also named screen time as one of their top concerns, although “lack of social interaction” was at the top of the list for both cohorts.

“Too much time on a computer” was named by 50% of responders in the family survey and 53.7% of responders in the student survey as a struggle. On the family survey, “not enough direct contact with teachers” was selected by 39.3% of responders. When students were asked how the district could improve their experience, their top two answers were “less homework” (58.7%) and “less computer time” (56.3%).

Some of the comments attached to the surveys addressed the issue specifically.

“Have the day shortened,” wrote one teacher (the responses were anonymous). “Expecting young students to sit and be on a screen all day is unrealistic. By lunch time students become fidgety and less focused. It is also difficult for younger students to work independently and need our assistance for the majority of the day, so ALT (asynchronous learning time) ends up being teacher facilitated.”

Asynchronous learning is the unsupervised learning that occurs away from a live lesson such as a Zoom class — examples include reading and watching instructional videos.

One parent who responded to the survey felt the learning curve was too steep and pleaded for the district to ease up: “It took us three weeks to figure out what’s happening, now she’s behind and can’t seem to catch up and is failing her first term of HS. What’s that going to do for her GPA and college?”

When asked if the district may decrease its workload for students in response to the survey results, Hurd said that’s a possibility.

“We’re currently looking at that very thing with our leadership team,” she said, “and we’ll be engaging with teachers on this topic as well. But we’re hearing not only from teaching staff but also from families and students, too, that the Zoom time is just too much. So we’re trying to figure out how to stay within the parameters set forth by the (Oregon Department of Education) and possibly look into reducing the amount of time that kids are on Zoom.”

In response to the families survey question about student struggles, “lack of social interaction” was selected by 77% of the responders. Lack of social interaction was also the most selected answer when students were asked the same question (54.8%), which may have something to do with students’ responses to the question, “How is distance learning going for you?” The top two answers were “OK, but not ideal” (54%) and “not well, I’m struggling” (33%).

School-run activities such as athletics and clubs can help fill those gaps, Hurd noted, while a parent suggested that perhaps more interactive projects may be part of a solution. On the bright side, when staffers were asked whether they’ve been able to make a personal connection with the majority of their students, 60.4% said yes. And when you disaggregate that data, Hurd said, about 90% of the teachers surveyed indicated that they’ve been able to make personal connections with students.

Regarding social interaction, Hurd stressed that there are options, albeit with all the usual COVID-19 restrictions.

“Kids do have the opportunity to do athletics in the Medford School District,” Hurd said. “We also are able to do choir and band, drama and all of those types of things, there are just limitations, and they are the same limitations as our limitations in limited in-person instruction — keeping the cohort small, social distancing, wearing masks.”

Hurd added that MSD will soon be launching after-school activities at McLoughlin Middle School and are exploring ways to use limited in-person instruction to support the need for social interaction.

“We’re having conversations with our educators right now about that very thing,” she said.

Hurd added that on average, 100 students are going to each school every week to take advantage of the district’s limited in-person instruction, which like everything else is regulated by the Oregon Department of Education. The previous limit of 250 per building per week was lifted last week, and the size of each cohort increased from 10 to 20 students.

“We’re talking about how we can safely expand (limited in-person instruction),” she said, “so there are opportunities for that.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at jzavala@rosebudmedia.com or 541-821-0829.

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