With the Covid-19 pandemic spiraling out of control, face-to-face classroom instruction is no longer an option when the school year reopens Monday. Guam's education system is forced to shift gears exclusively toward online teaching, with no weeks left for further training. Prepared or not, Guam teachers will just have to jump right to it.
"Most teachers had to switch to an entirely different teaching mode that they never experienced in the past. Many lessons were learned about distance learning," said Juan Flores, superintendent of Catholic Education.
At the beginning of the public health emergency earlier this year, Flores said, the schools had to implement various forms of distance learning. Some used internet-based instruction such as Google Classroom. Some teachers prepared printed instructional materials that were picked up, reviewed and graded, and then returned to the students. Some communicated with students via Zoom and Google Meets.
"I have been teaching for 35 years but this shift to digital learning is quite intimidating for me," said a teacher at Santa Barbara School, who requested not be named. "My daughter has been guiding me. I am a student of this new system so I learn as I teach."
However, he said the challenge for him is not just navigating the technology but adjusting to remote teaching itself. "I'm a 'baby boomer,' so obviously, I'm old school. I have to get used to teaching students in front of the computer screen instead of standing in the traditional classroom I have been familiar with all my life."
Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero has moved Guam back to Pandemic Condition of Readiness 1 beginning 12:01 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 16. The new directive entailed the closure of all school facilities, at least during the two-week period of observation or until the Covid-19 numbers drop.
The Archdiocese of Agana announced that Catholic schools will now shift to conducting distance learning for its students next week.
"Adhering to PCOR 1 restrictions, the Archdiocese of Agaña will close its school buildings and transition from holding classes on-site to teaching its students remotely through the internet," the archdiocese said. "The Office of Catholic Schools emphasizes the importance of strong communication between parents/guardians and schools at this time."
All communications with parents will be done through the schools' official websites and Facebook, the archdiocese said.
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Prior to the declaration of PCOR1 last week , the Guam Department of Education announced the postponement of the face-to-face classes for all GDOE schools for two weeks.
“The safety of our students and employees has always been at the forefront of our planning and decision-making regarding school openings this year,” GDOE Superintendent Jon Fernandez said.
“I have remained in close communication with the Governor’s Office, Public Health, and the Physicians Advisory Group regarding the ongoing health situation in Guam, and based on their guidance, a two-week delay for traditional face-to-face instruction is the right decision.”
Last week, the education department closed F.B. Leon Guerrero Middle School and Simon Sanchez High after finding employees who have tested positive for Covid-19. Contact-tracing is currently ongoing, while the school facilities are being disinfected.
“The board has always entrusted me with the authority to determine the closure of any school facility due to health or safety issues,” Fernandez said.
“I have assured them that this authority will always be exercised with great care and concern for our students and employees. While I know that our department has worked hard over the summer and is prepared to carry out our mission as planned, I have based my decision to delay face-to-face instruction on the advice of our health care experts and on the data that we have been monitoring daily.”
For this school year, GDOE parents were given the options to register their children for distance learning or traditional face-to-face instructional models.
GDOE said approximately 62 percent of students are registered for the distance learning options, which include Home Learning Online Instruction and Home Learning Hard Copy Curriculum; the remaining 38 percent of students were registered for face-to-face instruction, which requires physical attendance at school on an alternating schedule. When, or if, schools reopen, GDOE estimates that only 16 percent of total school enrollment is expected on campus on a daily basis, and class sizes are expected to average around eight students per classroom.
The department said a few parents have opted to homeschool their children.
The University of Guam, meanwhile, announced the delay of the start of classes to Aug. 26, in light of the island’s return to PCOR1. Classes were previously scheduled to start Aug. 19. "During PCOR1, the UOG campus will be closed to the public but will remain open and will operate in a limited capacity. Non-essential in-person customer service functions will be suspended," UOG said.
Prior to the PCOR 1 declaration, Flores said, some families have requested distance learning.
"Some schools will have distance learning if the classrooms cannot accommodate the number of students according to the protocols," he said. "Some of the distance learning can take place on campus (in gyms, cafeteria, libraries, auditoriums). Some schools, mainly the high schools, will allow distance learning from home."
Flores said the pandemic has taken its toll on classroom enrollment. "There may be reductions in overall enrollment if parents who are affected by the pandemic financially are not able to re-enroll their children," he said.
In general, Flores said, many parents have been anxious about the reopening of schools. "Some schools are seeing lower enrollments than they did at the same time last year because parents were not sure what Catholic schools will do," he said.
Some schools, however, saw increased enrollments, "because of their responses to GDOE plans," Flores said. "Parents are concerned that they want their children in school every day. The schools are prepared for that by offering distance learning on the school campuses so the students will come to school every day."