Teachers in Alachua County have struggled navigating their changing classrooms during the COVID-19 pandemic. Volunteers are now helping ensure in-person and online students don’t fall behind.
The Alachua County Public School volunteer and business partnership program aims to alleviate the burden of catering to virtual classroom needs by introducing digital classroom assistants this school year.
“We have never done anything like this before,” said Kelley Kostamo, the ACPS volunteer services coordinator.
Those wishing to volunteer for a single semester can attend an orientation through the ACPS website. Once they have attended the session, they’re required to fill out an application, which is also available on the website. Volunteers can sign up for as many shifts as they want in different schools and classrooms.
Though anyone can apply, most of the volunteers are college students, especially those who desire hands-on experience with students in the classroom.
Classroom assistants would usually go to a school and interact with students in-person. Now, volunteers for HyFlex classes are expected to take attendance of students on Zoom, answer questions from the chat and facilitate games and other activities.
“I think people will find their way,” Kostamo said. “Different teachers might choose to use it in different ways. I think they’ll use it in a way that helps them to be more successful and helps their students be more successful.”
Colette Kania, Kostamo’s intern, helped test out the new program. The 19-year-old UF economics and education sophomore popped into some Zoom classes and observed what actions were most helpful to the students and teachers.
“It’s been nice to see how much the teachers appreciate getting any level of help,” Kania said. “They are really torn this year between the distractions that kids have at home, the kids in class and trying to keep them all focused.”
Kania fears for some of the students who will be completing the school year from home.
“For the students who already struggle or have less support in their homes, this is going to be a really big gap for them because they’re not getting that individual attention that’s gonna encourage them,” she said.
Despite the virtual divide, Michele O’Neil, a third grade teacher at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Elementary School, said she can develop personal connections with her students.
Throughout the week, O’Neil said she sees 15 students in-person and another nine online. She asks her volunteers to play math games with students, listen to them read passages for fluency practice and inform her of their progress on independent assignments.
“I wanted to think through how I could use the volunteers to support academically instead of just, ‘Hey, mute yourself,’ or ‘Hey, turn your video on,’” O’Neil said. “All of those things are helpful, but I wanted to think through how can I use them in a way that’s really benefiting the kids, too.”
O’Neil said she and the volunteers have been working creatively to foster an atmosphere of effective learning, despite the circumstances.
“It’s kind of just been taking it day by day,” she said.