When the island’s schools first shut down in March with the first confirmed case of COVID-19, the teachers at Luis P. Untalan Middle School in Barrigada wanted to ensure they could still reach their students.

Many of the Wildcats teachers already had a leg up, with more than half of them using Google Classroom and other online learning platforms to keep their students engaged.

Juvy Cariño, one of the teachers tasked with creating the school’s online resources for its students, said it was easy to pull teachers in and get them to pool their resources so that distance learning will be available for students stuck in quarantine.

A proactive approach

“Our school is very proactive. Even before schools were closed, my principal, Agnes Guerrero, was already asking the faculty suggestions and options for distance learning,” she said. “We had Zoom sessions already during the first week of schools being closed. So, we as a faculty have been brainstorming early on. And once the district encouraged the principals to create their plans, Mrs. Guerrero was ready to implement it for our school.”

The website is comprehensive, offering parents more than a handful of resources that they can use to extend the learning at home. Online resources from the librarian allow them to download books for free.

“We also have online resources from our counselors to help our students cope with the pandemic,” said Cariño, acknowledging the mental and emotional strain children may be feeling in these uncertain times.

Teachers are reporting a good percentage of students participating online. Zoom sessions, WhatsApp chats, Instagram and Google Classroom are helping teachers bridge the gap and reach as many students as possible, she said.

Cariño's team, the Jaguars, made up mostly of pre-Advanced Placement students, is showing a 90% rate of student engagement.

“These students were already doing online work since the beginning of the school year, so it was a smooth transition,” she said. There’s lots of room for growth, she said.

“They're all still learning when they do webcasts with their students, but my team has posted pictures of their sessions and the students are engaged for the most part,” she said.

Reaching those they can

Eighth grade reading teacher Madrid Borja said her engagement with her students has been higher than others in her team.

“I'm lucky because I’ve won grants and also personally invested in tech for my classroom. so I have a class set of Kindles which has allowed me to use tech almost daily,” she said. “I've been using Google Classroom, forms, etc. for years, so my students are well versed in how to use it, so I get more responses than some of my colleagues.”

When the pandemic shut down the island, her students were knee-deep in "The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins. To keep the learning going, she decided to try filming herself reading aloud. But, she wanted to avoid YouTube and having her students open accounts that can’t be monitored, so she created her own video.

“That was hard for me to figure out. It's 28 minutes long – just one chapter!” she said, adding she still had four chapters to cover with her class. Borja said she spent a day just practicing, making notes, shooting and editing.

While Borja said she’s happy she has students who understand how to access the lessons, she acknowledges a huge part of the puzzle is to reach the “two-thirds of them who don't have the capability from home.”

“We can teach and prepare and provide, but we're only one part of the puzzle,” she said, ticking off other issues that must be addressed to ensure all students are learning. “Resources, support, motivation, environment … so many different factors. … It’s sad that it takes something like this for everyone to see it, too.”

Moving forward

While Cariño says there are still kinks and the school is still working on ways to reach those kids without internet access, the teachers have embraced the opportunity to make distance learning a reality.

“Our school is very progressive in that many teachers already conduct online lessons and incorporate technology, but we have areas of improvement that we can work on for next year to ensure greater student participation,” she said. “The silver lining in all of this is that this is a great time for distance learning on Guam.”

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