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FORT WALTON BEACH -- Elliott Point Elementary School is eerily quiet these days. The school is one of more than 50 in the Okaloosa County School District that closed for spring break and didn’t re-open because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
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“It’s almost like you walk into a classroom that’s frozen in time,” said Principal Kathy Ard. “There’s a pencil with a half-written story, a lunchbox, library books on the desk.”
Gone are the school’s 603 students and most of the 75 teachers and staff. Beginning March 30, the school district transitioned to an online-based learning system system where students and their teachers work from home, communicating through email and the video-conferencing application Zoom.
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Elliott Point Elementary School first grade teacher Shakira Oswald recalls her concern about making the switch from real classroom to virtual. The day before online classes were to start, Oswald went to pick up some supplies from her classroom, where she was surrounded by physical reminders of her 20 students and all the activities and learning that had taken place in that room over the school year.
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“I remember standing in the middle of my classroom and crying,” said Oswald.
“Learning through experience is normally how I teach, a lot of music, art, theater, role playing. I feel that’s one of the best ways to learn.”
That day in the classroom Oswald wondered to herself, “How am I going to emulate what happens in these four walls on a computer screen?”
And four weeks in, Oswald and her fellow Elliott Point Elementary School teachers found that it is possible to recreate the magic.
Oswald holds a Zoom meeting with her students every Monday, lasting 20 to 30 minutes.
It’s exactly like what the “Brady Bunch” looks like, said Oswald, referencing America’s first split-screen family. Individuals participating in the video conferencing call appear on a grid, where everybody can see and communicate with each other.
“We talk abut how they’re feeling,” said Oswald. “You can see their smiles, they light up. They’re laughing and they want to tell you everything that happened.”
Fellow Elliott Point teacher, Alyssa Porter, who shares a class of 47 fifth graders with another teacher, has similar experiences with the two Zoom calls she makes with her students every week.
“Half the time we are checking in with each other,” said Porter. “A lot of it is, ’Hey, how are you doing? Oh, that’s your dog? That’s your mom?’ ”
And this virtual engagement seems to be paying dividends.
“I didn’t expect that out of 47 kids, 46 of them would be actively working on their assignments every day,” said Porter. “They’ve all been very actively engaged and working very hard.”
Combined, Oswald and Porter said they have about 14 students who have already completed the course work for the rest of the year, just four weeks into the term.
“The kids are so bright,” said Oswald. “They have really taken to this form of communication since they’ve been separated from the classroom.”
And that’s a good thing since Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Saturday that online classes in Florida would continue for the rest of the school year.