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Parents, teachers figuring out how to improve as West Shore School District starts Fall fully online

As the school district starts fully online, a teacher we spoke with is grateful for the extra time online while parents worry about the quality of education.

LEWISBERRY, Pa. — Teachers and parents have a few weeks to better prepare for the fall semester after the West Shore School District announced it will start all classes online as part of their phased reopening plan.

Alex Peffer is a third grade teacher at Highland Elementary School in New Cumberland, Cumberland County. He's grateful for the decision.

"There's really no easy way forward," Peffer said. "There's no easy answer to what the right choice is right now. It's because we care about our students so much that we really put the safety here first."

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As an elementary school teacher with 20 students in his classroom on average, Peffer says, in his opinion, it would be nearly impossible to contain a potential COVID-19 spread in schools.

"If you have ever spent any significant time in elementary school classrooms, you know germs spread no matter how many lessons you teach on hand washing and hygiene," Peffer said. "You literally can watch one germ pass from one kid to the next over the course of a few days."

Some parents, though, are ready for the transition back to the classroom.

Tonya Wilhelm is a mother of three and a teacher herself in a different school district. Her concern is with the type of learning capabilities different children have, something she deals with in her own household.

"I think it can affect different kids depending on what their learning style is. If they're hands on or visual, it could be harder for them," Wilhelm said.

Her trust during a non-COVID pandemic time lies with the school district to protect her kids, and she says the same could be said now. Though, she does acknowledge things change day by day.

"I think any time we send our kids to school, we are already trusting the administration and the people that are in charge there with responsibility to our children's safety," Wilhelm said. "We have to be willing to be flexible if we're sending our kids back at this time. Rules keep getting rewritten, it seems every two weeks there's a new set of rules. They don't always make sense. Sometimes they contradict each other and it's just because it's all new territory."

Wilhelm said she does feel comfortable, if school started today, to send her kids back. Though, at first there were some concerns across the board with the quality of education the kids were getting.

Peffer said teachers in his district acknowledge not everything went to plan.

"There were things that we just did not do well. I think we recognize that and because we're teachers, we care about doing our best," Peffer said. "We are going to use this next month our so to really hone in on how we can do the best possible start to the school year even if it has to be online."

And while the national conversation around schools staying online has led to questions from the Trump administration about funding schools choosing to stay online, Peffer says his work is even more difficult from home.

"Yes, I did work from my couch and it was nice. But, the workload has really intensified with distance learning," Peffer said.

Teachers like Alex immediately had to come up with ways to turn learning from the books into learning online, while mimicking interaction with students during the lesson time. On top of office hours he has for his students all day long, he's created videos for his students to watch on their schedule, tracks more than 100 assignments per day in real time and is generating new lesson plans each and every day when school is in session.

You can see an example of a lesson from Peffer here.

When asked if he believes his students are getting a quality education, Peffer said the answer was a resounding 'Yes!'.

"We have the experience of this past Spring to look from. I see that as a gift to see 'what did we do well? What did we not do well?,'" Peffer said.

 "We are not throwing in the towel anytime soon. It is a high quality education even if it has to happen at home right now."

And while the debate on when schools will go back in session in person, parents like Wilhelm say that, despite its shortfalls, their kids' teachers did their best last semester.

"Grading wasn't the same, but I do think they completed a lot of the curriculum and assignments, especially since we didn't see that happening," Wilhelm said.

And even though he craves the classroom, Peffer said he's confident his district can succeed staying online for as long as necessary.

"Of course, we as teachers, value classroom time. I promise you, your kids teachers want to be in the classroom so much," Peffer said. "There is no substitute for the classroom environment when you just get to give your kids a high-five in the morning. We will do what we have to do to rise to the challenge and make online school as rigorous and effective and meaningful for students as we can."

You can find more information on the West Shore School District's phased reopening plan here.