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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Classrooms at Jefferson County Public Schools have been closed since March, but teachers like Jeffersontown High School’s Mark McKinney have taken advantage of every opportunity to meet or reconnect with students in person while they are learning from home.

Students in McKinney’s engineering classes were busy at home during the first semester of the 2020-21 school year designing items like cellphone stands, which McKinney would create on a 3D printer at his home and personally deliver to their doorsteps.

“I’ve done quite a few deliveries,” McKinney said.

Some of his students initially said they would not redesign their work because they didn’t want him to have to deliver replacements, he said.

“But I really don’t mind, because it’s the least I can do to help them to understand the design process and how engineering really works,” McKinney said.

Teachers like McKinney in the district’s Academies of Louisville programs, which provide in-depth instruction for students in given career pathways, have had to adapt their hands-on lessons and projects for the virtual learning space as JCPS classrooms remain shuttered during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Superintendent Marty Pollio has said the district could begin gradually reopening its schools to in-person learning as teachers and staff get coronavirus vaccines. Starting such a reopening plan in mid-February with the Jefferson County Board of Education’s approval would be a “best-case scenario,” Pollio recently told the school board.

For now, Academies of Louisville teachers and students are making the best of their experiences with distance learning.

“Our teachers have taken on the challenge,” said Kristin Wingfield, coordinator of school business partnerships for the Academies of Louisville.

Kimberly Bruce, who teaches nursing in Marion C. Moore’s health science academy, has a mannequin and medical supplies at home that she uses for her virtual lessons.

Students in her classes have also taken home supplies such as bedpans and medical stockings with help from Louisville-based Supplies Over Seas so they can hone their skills remotely, she said.

Recording and uploading lesson shas been beneficial for her students, and the online platform allows students to break into small groups for various projects, Bruce said.

McKinney, too, has found benefits in recording his lessons for students. Class time during distance learning in his engineering courses is mostly spent working on assignments, he said.

“The downside that really, really hurts almost is that engineering is an incredibly fun class to take, and it’s like 90% projects because I’ll teach a concept and then there’s a project that follows that concept, and then I teach another concept and then there’s another project,” McKinney said. “When we don’t get to do a project … it almost feels like it’s a bunch of math.”

Some of Bruce’s students have gotten help from family members in their demonstrations.

“Maybe some of them have already been taking care of their grandparents, so this is an opportunity for them to show what they know as far as range of motion, how to position them in the bed, how to put them in a Fowler’s position when they didn’t even know what Fowler’s was at the time,” Bruce said.

“Then I have students on here that are doing these skills with their brothers and sisters. I love to see them interact.”

Dylan Vatter, a junior, is among those who have gotten help from younger siblings in demonstrations, casting his 8-year-old brother in the role of patient for various assignments like testing range of motion.

“He doesn’t really mind,” Vatter said. “He kind of enjoys being involved with my school.”

Local businesses that work with specific programs have also had to adapt during the COVID-19 pandemic, Wingfield said.

Despite schools being closed amid high coronavirus infection rates in Jefferson County, JCPS students can continue their internships, co-op programs, apprenticeships and other learning opportunities with area businesses through the Academies of Louisville.

Any local companies that provide such opportunities for JCPS students must follow public health guidelines enacted during the COVID-19 pandemic, Wingfield said.

“Our students are excited about the opportunity to work,” she said. “They certainly have a little more flexibility with (nontraditional instruction) to be able to get out there and be in the workplace and learn those hands-on skills.”

Nursing students have been allowed to work in long-term care facilities and hospitals during the pandemic, giving them a hands-on and in-depth look at how medical professionals are dealing with COVID-19 on the ground, Bruce said.

“As long as they’re tested and they’re able to work, then they’re given the opportunities,” she said.

Nontraditional instruction at JCPS has also taught students like Wynstyn Perkins, a Jeffersontown High senior, better time management skills while they learn from home.

“It really made me think about the time that I took for granted, the times where I thought, ‘Oh I still have time to go and do this,’ or, ‘I still have plenty of time. I can just kind of push this off and not worry about it,’” Perkins said. “It certainly kind of changed how I go about doing things and how I value my time.”

Learning from home has been easier for Arijana Sisic, a senior at Marion C. Moore. Nontraditional instruction has helped her stay focused on her work, she said.

“When you’re at home, you have a set routine every morning and every day to get up, join your classes, do your work and then get off and proceed with whatever else you have to do,” Sisic said. “… I kind of enjoy being at home.”

Still, distance learning is not without its downsides for students and teachers in Academies of Louisville programs.

“It’s more like real class, but it’s still not the same in-school feeling,” said Jonathan Dooley, a Jeffersontown High senior.  “I’d rather be in school. Classes are going fine though, especially Mr. McKinney’s.”

For McKinney, losing contact with students has been one of the most frustrating parts of nontraditional instruction at JCPS.

No matter what he does, some students simply do not – or cannot – report to his virtual classes.

“That just hurts as an instructor, and I know other teachers feel the same way,” McKinney said. “They just want the student to show up, and then we’ll work out how to get this, actually help them learn this.

“But if you don’t show up and never report, it’s really hard to do NTI.”

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