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Online learning a challenge for SC students studying art, music, other hands-on fields

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St. John's High School resource teacher Sara Juergens helps students with geometry during a virtual class Wednesday, March 25, 2020, at her home on Johns Island. "I went back (to school) for the white board" said Juergen after her first few days of teaching from home " I was using so much paper." Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

In order to keep up with their studies while schools are closed, hands-on learners across South Carolina are making do with what they can — getting music lessons via video chat, searching for natural clay outside to make art projects at home, even building makeshift iron forges in their backyard. 

Widespread school closures amid the rapid spread of the coronavirus pandemic mean hundreds of thousands of students, teachers and professors across the Palmetto State have been forced to adapt to online or long-distance learning, especially those studying music, art, cosmetology, carpentry, medicine and other tactile fields.

Fifteen-year-old Charleston County School of the Arts student Evy Massey usually meets with her bassoon tutor once a week for a private lesson.

Those weekly lessons now take place via Skype.

“I think just adjusting to everything overall has been really hard and weird and confusing,” Evy said.

She doesn’t mind meeting with her tutor virtually, but it does make things more difficult. What she really misses is being able to go to rehearsal with her friends and get real-time feedback from the band director.

“I miss all my friends, and it's going to be a lot less stressful than working from home and not having feedback from teachers and not being able to ask questions as often when you need to ask questions,” she said. “That's going to be a lot better if I get to go back to school at some point.”

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St. John's High School resource teacher Sara Juergens helps Joshua Carter with geometry class work during a virtual class Wednesday, March 25, 2020, at her home on Johns Island. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Shannon Cook, principal at School of the Arts, said each of the school's nine art areas has had to adapt differently to online instruction.  

Fashion students are working on sewing masks to donate to a local hospital, Cook said, while visual arts students have been asked to channel their emotions surrounding the pandemic into their work. Middle school music students have had ensemble rehearsals with their director using an online video conferencing tool. 

It's helpful for students to be able to hear themselves all playing together, Cook said, although the transition to online rehearsals isn't always seamless. 

"Even a half-second lag means that you’re out of sync when you’re playing or dancing or singing," Cook said. 

Still, it's better than nothing, she said. 

School of the Arts Theater Students

Theater students at Charleston County School of the Arts debate different musicals for a "March Madness" style bracket as a way of learning from home while school is closed. Charleston County School of the Arts/Provided 

Other hands-on teachers like Sara Juergens are trying to use the devices to establish a sense of normalcy for students.

Juergens, a resource/special education teacher at St. John's High School, met with students via an online video streaming platform on Wednesday for a group academic coaching session.

Even though school is closed, "our expectations have not lowered," she said. She's already been video chatting with students one-on-one over the past week or so at their request but hopes to implement these sorts of group lessons every day.

"I really just feel like the longer we are out, I just think it's more important for us to be interacting with our kids not just through email because I really think they need the face-to-face interaction," she said.

The hardest part is encouraging students to complete their work at home independently, she said, without her being there to coach them through it.

For high school students working toward a job certification through their school's career and technology center, many of the state's accrediting boards, including the Board of Cosmetology and Board of Barber Examiners, have relaxed certain seat-time requirements because of the global public health emergency. 

"Students who were on track to get those types of certifications through their career programs will be able to continue with that and have a great degree of flexibility on how they get those," said Ryan Brown, spokesman for the S.C. Department of Education.

Making do

Daniel Bare, a lecturer of art and ceramics at Clemson University, said face-to-face instruction is paramount for his students.

Like at many universities across the state, Bare and other Clemson professors are required to shift their coursework online for the remainder of the spring semester.

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"We do a lot of hands-on manipulation of clay in the studio. It’s a studio-based environment, so we need that studio to learn about the process and realize the ideas through material manipulation," he said. 

But students have been given instructions on how to forage for what he calls "wild clay" in their local communities. They can use it to create art projects at home and then fire them in the kiln once the university reopens. 

"That was one of my assignments to fill the gaps," he said. 

He's thankful that technology has allowed for some form of instruction during the closures, like video lectures, but acknowledged the severe drawbacks to online learning for art students. 

"The in-person experience is exponentially way better. You can’t replace a face-to-face conversation," he said. "You can't replace the studio experience with just online activities."

Hands-on learning

At the American College of the Building Arts, a private, liberal arts college in Charleston where students can study blacksmithing, masonry and architectural stone carving, all courses have been suspended for now. 

“So many of our classes just don't lend themselves to online learning or distance learning because they're hands-on classes,” said Wade Razzi, ACBA's chief academic officer. “You need to have the professors there watching because there are physical techniques that are involved.”

Not to mention the equipment students would need, Razzi said. Most students don’t have ready access to table saws or other heavy-duty tools, but he knows one student who has managed to set up a makeshift forge in their backyard.

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St. John's High School resource teacher Sara Juergens calls students Wednesday, March 25, 2020, to remind them to get signed in on the computer for to their morning class meeting. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Before schools were shut down earlier this month, one student was in the process of carving a finial for the National Cathedral as part of their final senior capstone project, said Chad Urban, chief financial officer for the ACBA.

“You can't complete a hands-on project for the National Cathedral on a browser,” Urban said.

The school has opted to not offer online courses during its closure. Even if they did, they’d still need to get clearance from their accreditors and the state’s Commission on Higher Education.

The school hopes to reopen by May. If that happens, students technically only need four more weeks of instruction in order to finish up their academic requirements for the semester. 

But if the school can’t open by June or July?

“There are a lot of unknowns,” Urban said.

Much like those studying art or music, journalism students also often rely on face-to-face group settings for their courses. 

Lexi Torrence, a fourth-year student at the University of South Carolina is one of 30 or so students participating in the journalism school's capstone senior semester — where students spend every weekday in the newsroom to produce web stories and a daily broadcast news show.

"I can't do anything like I used to do. And it’s a whole different way of reporting stuff," Torrence said, who will be tasked with reporting on local news in Columbia from her hometown of Charlotte. It could be worse, she said. One of her classmates is back home in Alaska. 

Students have been instructed to conduct phone interviews if possible, Torrence said, instead of meeting people in person.

She worried about how the closure will affect her writing portfolio when she applies for jobs. 

"It’s hard because even our teachers don’t know what’s going on. They're just as lost as us," she said. "We look to them for advice to guide you through college, and they’re equally as confused and stressed as we are."

Contact Jenna Schiferl at 843-937-5764. Follow her on Twitter at @jennaschif. 

Jenna Schiferl is a Columbia native and a reporter at The Post and Courier. She has previously worked as an editor at Garnet & Black Magazine.

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