In a matter of days, education as we knew it shifted in a way no one expected. Normally, it would have been the last quarter of the academic year with spring sports, proms, concerts, graduation plans and students’ last efforts to boost their grades for the year. Those plans, however, have for the most part gone by the wayside
As the threat of COVID-19 quickly heightened in February and March, things changed drastically as schools and businesses closed and stay-at-home directives were decreed. While the public had to deal with the vast, unprecedented changes, school districts had to respond in innovative ways to continue students’ education.
In mid-March schools were closed and by the end of that month, remote learning was underway with students and teachers no longer interacting in the classroom. Plans had to be made to communicate the lessons to students while parents were now faced with an integral and more direct involvement in the educational process.
Superintendents, principals, teachers and other staff were faced with a number of challenges in their efforts to deliver the best possible educational experience under the circumstances. Decisions were often revised as new state orders created further restrictions and safety measures.
Education has continued despite the obstacles and challenges created by the pandemic, be it in a different fashion. Area superintendents have praised teachers and staff for stepping up to meet the challenge as each district has addressed the specific needs and circumstances of its locality. Student engagement and learning, however, has continued to be the theme for area superintendents, making the best of the situation in the current environment. If there is one thing they would all agree on, it’s that there is no replacement for teacher-student interaction in the classroom.
Beardstown School District
BHS principal Bill Myers recalls the timeline beginning in March and the series of events that led to an unprecedented situation in education. The COVID-19 threat resulted in school closures and remote learning, posing challenges as the district coped with a new way of educating students.
For Myers, it started Thursday, March 12, when parent-teacher conferences were being held. News came that evening from the governor that the state was going to respect individual school districts’ decisions on whether or not to cancel school. It was obvious, however, that a closure of some sort was on the way, Myers said, noting so much had changed in a 4-hour span.
The next day after the parent-teacher conferences, Myers and his family left to visit relatives in Olney.
“By the time we reached Effingham, I was getting all sorts of phone calls,” he said. “The governor declared schools would be closed on Tuesday.”
Discussion got underway with staff on what should be done on Monday prior to the closing or whether the school should even be open that day. That decision, however, was made for them Sunday when state officials advised that schools be shuttered on Monday, March 16.
Staff members were told there were no immediate expectations but encouraged teachers to prepare work on their Google classrooms if they could, Myers said.
However, by week two of the closure, it appeared that remote learning would soon be implemented.
“We needed to figure out what that meant, and inform the staff,” Myers said. “We had multiple Zoom meetings and had a meeting with union leadership and administration. The purpose of that meeting was to clarify and agree what remote learning was all about.”
Beardstown Superintendent Ron Gilbert said, “Our teachers stepped up and were able to develop a remote learning plan in a matter of days.” An emergency remote learning plan that had already been worked on helped speed the process, he added.
As they were preparing the learning plan, they knew that over 50% of their students were without access to technology. Plans had to be made for both online learning and lesson packets.
Teams of teachers prepared packets with two weeks of lessons, “thinking their way through difficult problems,” Myers said.
Times and school sites were then assigned for the packet pickups, depending on grade. The first packet pickup did not go well, Myers said, calling it a “nightmare” and noting they were overwhelmed.
After that he and other staff members met to make adjustments.
“We learned a lot (after the first pickup) and came up with solutions on how to fix it,” Myers said. “The next one went off without a hitch.”
Since the inception of remote learning, various questions have come up and eligible seniors have been offered the option to graduate early.
One question that is asked regards driver’s education, Gilbert said. The behind-the-wheel portion of the class has been put on hold until restrictions are lifted to allow a teacher and students in a car, he explained. The classroom portion is provided through the remote learning program.
The district is offering seniors an option to graduate early, Gilbert added. The third quarter grades will be used as second semester grades for those students. Seniors who are interested can go to the school’s website and fill out an application. Guidance counselors will check the qualifications and make sure the students have enough credits.
Gilbert has expressed appreciation to the cafeteria staff which has served over 7,000 meals since March 16. In addition, he said there has been assistance with maintenance and transportation.
“Everyone is just doing a wonderful job,” he said. “As far as teachers – I can’t tell you how thankful we are to have such a good staff. They are stepping up to the challenge. Kids are responding and that’s the main thing – to keep them engaged.”
Triopia School District
Triopia Superintendent Adam Dean said Monday that he expected a decision regarding graduation would be worked out next week. Districts must now take into consideration the governor’s statement last week to extend the stay-at-home order through May.
“These students have worked hard to earn their moment and with schools being closed, how can we properly honor them?” the superintendent stated last week prior to the governor’s announcement.
This has just been one of the challenges facing the district since the close of schools in March and the inception of remote learning.
The process of setting up the remote learning program has been demanding, according to Dean, but has had a lot of successes. He attributes that success to teachers.
“Our staff has worked extremely hard to be available during office hours and to provide activities to keep our students engaged during this closure,” Dean said. “Many of our students have stayed active throughout the closure. I am proud to work with a staff and community that takes education seriously.”
Triopia, like other area school districts, offers both online learning and paper packets. Most of the 7th-12th grade students, with the exception of those without Internet access, do their work online with their completed assignments electronically submitted.
For grade school students, lesson packets are mainly used along with some online activities. The packets are either delivered on lunch routes or mailed to the students. Completed assignments are dropped off in boxes located at the front of each school. Students can also mail in their work or take pictures and email it to the teachers.
Also playing an important role in the remote learning process are the parents, Dean said. He understands this can often be overwhelming for the parents as they are also dealing with other stresses such as providing for the family during the pandemic and uncertain times. Their input, however, in assisting the students and ensuring that the homework gets completed is important.
“Being away from the classroom for months and not doing anything academically is not good,” Dean said. “Students need to try to keep their mind engaged throughout this closure. If parents can continue to encourage their students to participate in the activities sent home, that is the most important thing to me.”
With remote learning to continue until the end of the school year – compounded by the extension of the stay-at-home order – more decisions will have to be made. The big one right now is graduation the superintendent said, but there are also other matters to consider.
“We also have more minor questions like, how can students get all of their possessions from their lockers, when can teachers clean out their rooms, and when can my maintenance staff begin their summer projects?” Dean said.
The situation is unprecedented, but Dean is hopeful that the challenges can be overcome.
“We are in uncharted territory,” he said. “However, I work with a lot of great people who I have confidence in that we can get it all figured out.”
A-C Central School District
Candi Shaver, middle school/high school principal at A-C Central, has been pleased with the way the remote learning program has been going.
“It’s going great right now,” she said. “We have students who are pretty engaged as we finished our third full week (of remote learning). So far so good.”
There were early concerns regarding Internet connectivity but those seem to have been resolved, she said.
All middle and high school students have electronic devices and the ability to do the assignments online.
Superintendent Tim Page said the district spent some extra money for those devices and paid for Internet connectivity for those who did not have it. He added that CassComm realized the situation and discounted those rates.
For the elementary students, it was decided they would all receive their lessons in paper packets. The packets are delivered during the same time as the lunch pickup times, each packet containing two weeks of lessons. The completed assignments are then turned in at this time also.
“It’s not the way education should be happening,” Page said. “We have to work within the options we have – this is where we’re at, this is what we’re doing and making the best of it.
“I’m really proud of my teachers. Attitudes have been remarkable. They’re dealing with the situation in an amazing way.”
The district is also offering students some incentives, according to Shaver. Teachers will input names of students who have done extremely well, completing assignments and communicating with teachers. Drawings will be held for prizes. When school gets underway this fall, plans are to have a kickoff assembly and award the bigger prizes.
The role of the parents in the remote learning process has been paramount, Shaver said.
“I honestly believe that our teachers and our families are working extremely hard to make this a very positive experience for everybody, obviously, primarily for kids.”
She also views it as a way to strengthen the partnership that is needed between teachers and parents.
Obstacle or Opportunity
There’s really no way anybody could have expected this type of situation and plan for it, Shaver said. She recalls that a former principal would ask if a problem was an obstacle or an opportunity.
“There definitely are some challenges but we are using those challenges to rise above. We’re seeing it as an opportunity for us to learn and grow,” she said. She added, for example, one way is that students will be more technologically prepared than they otherwise would be going on to higher learning institutions.
Page said he believed the learning program at A-C is going very well. “From the feedback I’ve got, under the circumstances, it’s going as well as it can.”
Virginia School District
Trying to teach students when you don’t see and interact with them face to face presents a set of challenges.
“It’s difficult when you can’t see students daily one to one,” Virginia Superintendent Gary DePatis said. This makes it harder to gauge how well things are going.
DePatis was not surprised when the remainder of the school year was closed for classroom learning. When that directive came down, the question turned to graduation, he said, and since then, of course, the stay-at-home order has been extended.
“In the meantime, we will continue to do what we are doing with students,” De-Patis said.
As in other districts, while some students are learning online, others are using packets.
The district has loaned out devices to some without computers. Others, though, have preferred the weekly lesson be delivered in a packet.
Teachers get their lesson plans for the packets prepared by Friday and on Monday morning those packets are picked up by families. Otherwise they are mailed. The completed assignments are returned on Mondays during the packet pickup. The completed lessons are scanned by administrators and sent to teachers. Those with online access, return their homework electronically.
Faculty and staff meet weekly via Zoom to get feedback and keep the lines of communication open, DePatis said. Surveys were also sent to parents and teachers. These efforts are being used to help improve the unique teaching process.
The new learning format has also meant a different role for parents.
“Parents have always been an important part of a child’s education even when we’re here face to face. We need to work as a team do to it,” DePatis said. “Now, they’ve taken a different kind of role. It’s been difficult for a lot of families.”
Not only are the families not used to the new type of role, but those who have essential jobs are still going to work and sometimes working long hours. They have to balance working and helping their children in the remote learning process.
Like other schools, the district created a plan for remote learning. The goal of the district’s remote learning progam is to align “the core belief of the importance of student engagement with learning activities provided by teachers.”
Among its objectives are the continued support of the whole learning community and giving students and families routines and structures to ensure they stay connected to schools and learning.
Overall the purpose is to provide all learners with a meaningful learning experience within a remote learning setting.
“It’s a new dynamic that we’re in,” De-Patis said, adding it’s been a learning process for everyone.