‘Be kind to yourself, it’s not easy’

Camas family shares experience with online school, offers tips for students and parents facing distance-learning challenges during pandemic

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As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage, many families with school-age children are starting to come to grips with the fact that distance-learning will likely play a role in their family’s future.

In the Camas School District, for instance, the current fall reopening plan calls for a “blended” school week for older children, with middle and high school students attending a few days of in-person classes mixed with a few days of distance-learning classes at home.

Parents, students and educators who were used to a traditional brick-and-mortar school have grappled with the sudden transition to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic and questioned distance-learning’s long-term impacts. How would remote learning impact students’ social-emotional well-being? What was the best way for teachers to reach students who needed one-on-one help? Was there an online platform that might make things more coherent for families who had students at different schools and in different grades?

For one Camas family, however, the sudden, statewide shift to distance-learning that happened in March wasn’t nearly as traumatic.

Alex Hugo, 12, a child actor featured in Disney’s 2020 movie, “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made,” several short films and a Portland Trailblazers commercial, lives in Camas with his family — parents, Curt and Tracey Hugo, and older siblings, Zack and Spencer.

He decided to make the transition to an online school long before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“As Alex’s acting career became more demanding, he had to miss some school, and it was pretty disruptive to our routine,” Alex’s mom, Tracey Hugo, recently told the Post-Record. “He needed a little more flexibility.”

Alex, who will be a seventh-grader in the fall, had attended a private school in Oregon, but was pushing to be homeschooled, Tracey said. His parents, however, were more skeptical about divesting from a traditional brick-and-mortar education.

“I didn’t feel I was qualified to provide the same support (as Alex’s former private school teachers),” Tracey said.

The family settled on Washington Connections Academy, a tuition-free, full-time, online school that serves more than 2,000 K-12 students in Washington state.

“We needed to find an education that was demanding and came with responsibility but that still had a homeschooling component,” Tracey said. “With Connections Academy, we really felt as though we were going to be receiving the same support and stellar education and curriculum … but it allowed Alex to be independent and manipulate his schedule to fit our ever-changing professional world (of acting).”

Alex said he was excited to transition into the virtual Washington Connections Academy.

“I partly wanted to do homeschool because of my acting career,” Alex said. “I was waking up at 6:30 every morning, and had to wear a uniform and drive to school. It took a lot of my day.”

Transitioning to an online learning environment was “kind of stressful” at first, Alex said, but eventually made sense for the independent, self-motivated sixth-grader.

“It’s working really well,” Alex said of his new Connections Academy schedule, which blends live lessons with homework and gives students the ability to work ahead.

A typical School day for a Connections Academy student like Alex might involve four or five “live lessons,” in which students meet with their teacher and peers online.

Before a lesson begins, students have “chat time,” for about 10 minutes, in which they can use “text pods” to chat with each other and catch up with classmates before the teacher takes down the “text pod” and puts up a private “question pod” for students to ask their teacher private questions during the live lessons.

For Tracey, one of the benefits of a program like Connections Academy, which has been operating in an online-only capacity for several years, was the fact that teachers and administrators had a better handle on virtual learning.

Connections Academy teachers guide students through at-home science laboratory experiments, require home assignments for physical fitness classes, offer online social clubs and, during non-COVID-19 times, take students on in-person field trips to supplement their virtual learning environment.

“I can’t speak highly enough about coming into a program that is so solid and that has been doing this for years,” Tracey said, “it’s a very well-oiled machine.”

The Camas mother said she feels for parents and students who have been forced to transition into a more remote learning environment.

“Families are struggling across the board right now,” Tracey said. “And I think just realizing that everybody is in the same boat, that we just need to be patient and find grace in areas where we can.”

Even though Alex was self-motivated and craving a virtual learning environment — and even though Connections Academy was used to onboarding new students transitioning from brick-and-mortar schools to an online school — the Hugo family still struggled at first.

“We allowed Alex to be that independent student he had come to be at a brick-and-mortar school, but we realized we couldn’t let him take the reins across the board (at the online school) because his grades were suffering,” Tracey said. “We had to take a step back and participate and set up processes for him to be more successful.”

The Hugos have some advice for families facing a remote or blended learning environment next fall: practice patience and ask for help.

“Remember to be patient,” Alex said. “Wait through the stress and the difficulties … and tell your teachers when you’re having trouble.”

“Just go slow and take a little bit at a time,” Tracey added. “It’s OK to cry out and say, ‘I’m struggling.’ Give it grace and give it a little bit of time. This is a scary and uncertain time, but it doesn’t have to be. There are a lot of resources out there and a lot of support. We’re fortunate to have a program that was prepared for this type of learning environment.”

Jenn Francis, the executive director of Washington Connections Academy, said she has had the same struggles many educators and working parents have had to grapple with during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’ve had a 4-year-old and an 18-month-old with me this whole time (while working from home during the COVID-19 shutdown),” Francis said.

The experience has given Francis a new appreciation for parents and teachers juggling so many plates during the pandemic.

“We’ve definitely tried to be as flexible as we could with our staff,” Francis said. “This is just a crazy time. We’ve tried to support them and communicate with them and just know that things happen.”

That may be a good lesson for school administrators to take into consideration as their own teachers return to a blended remote- and in-person learning environment next fall, sometimes while still coping with their own children’s needs at home.

For teachers who are new to distance education, Francis has a few tips:

“Be kind to yourself. It’s not easy, and it’s not something you can learn overnight,” Francis said.

The Connections Academy principal grew up in Spokane, Washington and studied engineering at the University of Washington before earning her chemistry degree at Brigham Young University. She taught high school chemistry and physics classes before becoming an assistant principal for a K-12 charter school in Hawaii and, finally, taking the director position at the Tumwater, Washington-based Washington Connections Academy in 2019.

Francis said it is good for teachers to remember that “all the best practices at brick-and-mortar schools are the same things you’ll take into your virtual classrooms.”

“Have fun with it,” she advised educators new to distance-teaching.

And, for families making the transition to a more regular distance-learning environment, Francis said parents may need to take a bigger part in their children’s education.

“You need to know your kid: Are they self-motivated? Will they get their work done? Are they committed?” Francis said. “Parents will need to recognize that there are differences between distance learning and what (their students) were doing in brick-and-mortar schools.”

When she looks at the successes Connections Academy students have had, Francis finds the biggest factor is often the connections students have had with their teachers.

“Our program really has a huge emphasis on fostering that connection,” Francis said, “whether it’s live lessons when teachers are interacting with the kids or one-on-one calls with the teacher to get extra help or popping into a live lesson to chat with the teacher … there are multiple ways our teachers are able to connect with the kids.”

Much like the Hugos, Francis urges families and students to not be shy about asking for help.

“Don’t be afraid to ask questions and get help,” she said. “There are so many resources out there and so many people who are definitely willing to help.”

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