Students take virtual classes from teachers across the district

Some Iowa City students enrolled in the PK-12 online learning program are taking virtual classes from teachers at a different school.


Jeff Sigmund

Iowa City Community School District sign. As seen on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020.

Natalie Dunlap, News Reporter

Online classes have not only exposed Iowa City Community School District students to a new learning format, but have also introduced students to new teachers and peers from across the district.

As students and teachers are no longer limited to interaction with only those inside their physical school, and because student schedules presented a new challenge to the district, students now have classes with teachers and students from different schools online.

Director of PK-12 online learning Gregg Shoultz said, when the district was organizing classes for online students, the main focus was to enroll students in the classes they wanted, regardless of whether the teacher they were assigned was from their school.

“We were able to do a pretty good job,” he said. “But we could not match them up with teachers.”

Secondary-school students might have some subjects taught online by teachers from their school, he said, while other teachers are from a different junior or senior high. The online structure looks different for elementary students, he said, because they mostly stay with one homeroom teacher.

Shoultz added that the district has 21 elementary schools with varying class sizes in each grade.

“Now that we’re online, we tried to get some efficiency,” Shoultz said. “So, we might add 11 kids from one school to the 17 from Hills that wanted to be online. And then we created a class of 26 or something, for example. Elementary classes generally will either be with one school, like all kids from Horn, or they’ll be with two schools, like half of kids [will be] from Horn and half the kids [will be] from Borouge.”

Classes were combined based on their feeder zones, he said, so the elementary students enrolled in the same virtual class will be in the same high school down the road.

“Since we knew we had to combine them because we had these efficiencies – because we would have to hire like 12 more teachers if we couldn’t do that – we thought, ‘Well, you’ll see them now in fifth grade and then two years later you probably see them in junior high,’” Shoultz said.

Iowa City City High teacher Beth Fettweis said she teaches students in her virtual composition one and two class at her school, Iowa City West High, and Liberty High School.

Fettweis, who has been at City High for 18 years, said that having students from her school whom she previously interacted with before the pandemic has helped her set the tone of the online class.

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“Particularly this year, I have students I had when they were freshman, so to have them back as seniors, to see them both at the beginning of their high school journey and at the end, is incredibly rewarding because I get to see how much they’ve grown up and matured and developed a real interest in different academic areas,” she said. “I feel like I already know some of the kids, and they know me well enough to know how I run things and what to expect. And I think that’s made it easier for me to set the tone that I want in the online class, because I already have a rapport with some kids.”

Fettweis added that getting to know other students can be a challenge because of technological problems, or students just not turning on their video.

“We’ve had to do a lot of that kind of work through writing — through online discussions,” she said. “I’ve just tried to build in some community building activities like sharing quotes that they like at the beginning of class, so at least we get to know everybody a little bit individually. But there are definite limitations to how much you feel, like you can really develop a rapport when you can’t see people.

For West High student Aditi Borde, she said she decided to enroll in online learning to minimize her risk of contracting COVID-19. As a senior, she thought she would have a more flexible schedule with the online format so it would allow her more time to participate in clubs, Borde said.

Of the six classes she’s enrolled in, Borde said three are taught by West teachers, two by City teachers and one by a Liberty High teacher.

Borde added that she noticed most of the students in her classes are enrolled at the same school as the teachers. She feels more comfortable engaging in full class participation when she is in classes taught by West teachers, she said.

“I just feel like I know people more, so it’s easier to get myself to talk in front of 30 or 40 students and usually I know the teacher by association,” Borde said. “So, it’s a little more intimidating in classes with people you don’t recognize, but in breakout rooms I think it’s easier.”

West High teacher Karen Meyer, who teaches honors algebra two online, said the virtual format has led to collaboration among teachers across the district.

On the student side of things, Meyer said she takes extra time to reach out to students she wouldn’t have seen in the halls at West High and assure them the online space is for them too.

“I’m an online math teacher … and yes while it’s true that I’ve been a West teacher for a long time, now I’m just your honors algebra two teacher,” she said.

She organized a team of teachers from the three high schools teaching the same subject to share their skills, Meyer said. She began teaching at West in 1995 and said that new teachers have been able to learn from more experienced teachers on the team.

“I feel like we’re making good decisions together and supporting each other,” Meyer said. “And I think that’s been amazing to pull together teachers from City, West, and Liberty all for the good cause here.”