Katie Mae Imhoff-Smith, an eighth-grade teacher at Toki Middle School is concerned for the wellbeing of students as schools remain closed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
All Dane County schools closed indefinitely on March 15, with later confirmation that they will now be closed through the end of the school year. As students battle the transition to the new norm of at-home learning, Imhoff-Smith is working to combat the unique struggles students are facing, as well as to improve their overall personal and academic development.
For years, Imhoff-Smith noticed apparent gaps in education throughout Dane County. She saw a huge disconnect between students, families and home-life, leading her to help start the one-to-one trained mentorship program, Intentional Mentoring Inc.
“Our goal is to connect the mentors to schools in different ways, and to be able to support the students across lines that other mentoring programs are not always able to,” Imhoff-Smith said.
Fortunately, the mentorship program had already connected mentors, students and their teachers through consistent phone calls, emails and virtual meetings prior to the pandemic. These direct relationships helped ease the transition for students and showed Imhoff-Smith the obstacles that many students will face by spending more time at home.
Imhoff-Smith says the transition to at-home learning has not been smooth for all students, especially those who were not well-served in the traditional school structure, or those who have inadequate resources for learning, such as the internet.
“You get all the ‘they're not participating in the coursework’ comments, but that's not the concentration of the schools right now,” Imhoff-Smith said. “We are trying to figure out why they don't have Wifi and how we can support some of the roadblocks that are happening in their home outside of that as well.”
A few months ago, Imhoff-Smith began working with the district's ROCKiT Team, pausing her role as a teacher at Toki. The ROCKiT Team is an innovative research-based team connected to the district with a grant from American Family Insurance. Since the pandemic, Imhoff-Smith has been primarily focused on pursuing ROCKiT’s baseline initiatives, which include tackling educational systematic challenges.
“It started with the intention to be able to look at systemic challenges in the school district and improve them in new, innovative ways,” Imhoff-Smith said. “Now, the ROCKiT Team is working on some of the district-level challenges, like Wi-Fi access and working from home. But we are also trying to keep pursuing our traditional ROCKiT work.”
While the ROCKiTt team’s central goal is grounded in supporting all students, there will always be challenges. For example, Imhoff-Smith notes that sending out work packets to some students, such as those without Wi-Fi access, and not to others, will create unfair learning opportunities. Imhoff-Smith remains dedicated to supporting students’ challenges in today’s stressful climate.
“I think what we are learning is just new ways of working, and I think it's less about the teaching component and more about how to connect with students and families that need it. We want to make sure that support is given outside of just the curriculum,” Imhoff-Smith said.
The problems that Imhoff-Smith sees now have always existed, though they are further exacerbated during this chaotic time. She sees a transition in focus from all school faculty, from stressing students’ scores and academic achievements to looking out for their wellbeing in everyday life.
“This new nature of things has basically brought to light a lot of issues that existed prior but people and structures were in place that didn't allow us to actually acknowledge them,” Imhoff-Smith said. “So, this is just kind of highlighting the stressors of each individual group of people differently.”
Currently, Imhoff-Smith is back at Toki (although, this time online), teaching eighth-grade science. She believes that the present struggles that students are facing may cause unforeseen learning gaps going into the next school year. However, she hopes students and families feel supported, as teachers and administrators are trying their best to create programs that close the gap between students and reduce any potential harm.
“I don't even teach science regularly, but this was the biggest need,” Imhoff-Smith said. “I went where they needed me.”