‘We have had zero preparation for this’
By Jason Starr
Vermont’s public schools are taking their regularly scheduled April break this week.
Although students have been out of school for six weeks due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and will be for the remainder of the school year, retaining this weeklong pause gives educators and students a chance to evaluate their remote learning efforts so far.
Gov. Phil Scott and Education Commissioner Dan French have mandated school districts create and implement continuation of learning plans. Educators have been working from home to adapt their instruction for remote learning, implement new methods of communication with students and parents and ensure all students have the devices and internet connections needed to access materials.
“It’s been a really big lift for our teachers and our administrators,” Champlain Valley School District Director of Learning and Innovation Jeff Evans said during an April 7 meeting of the district’s board of directors. “I can’t say enough about the spirit with which our teachers are embracing this work. We’ve had virtually no experience with this, or training, or preparation.”
According to the plan, students in grades K-4 should aim for 1-2 hours of work each school day; grades 5-7 should do 2-3 hours; and grades 9-12 should aim for 3-4 hours. The fact that high school students have multiple teachers in multiple subjects complicates remote learning, Evans said.
Allen Brook School Principal Angela Filion sent out a reminder in an April 1 post on the school’s blog that this can be a time for families of young students to embrace nontraditional learning.
“It’s OK!” she wrote. “It’s OK if you aren’t on a regimented schedule every single day — this promotes flexibility and a sense of adventure. It’s OK if you want to stay in your pajamas and play board games as a family — this helps children learn how to take turns and win/lose a game gracefully … It’s OK if you don’t feel like you can ‘teach’ your children — this allows teachers to support and engage with you in ways that help us stay connected.”
Williston Central School Principle Jacqueline Parks had a similar message in an April 15 post: “Although we want students to make progress in their learning during this remote learning time, the most important thing is the well-being of your child and family,” she wrote.
HOPES FOR JUNE
Parents may have noticed a subtle shift in remote learning that started last Monday. What had been a more informal effort to “maintain learning” transitioned to a state directive to advance learning in accordance with the typical school year curriculum. This second phase comes with stricter expectations for communication between teachers and students, taking feedback from families and recording student participation (i.e. attendance).
Teachers have been given leeway to create their own plans in compliance with the district’s expectation that students and teachers remain connected and engaged in learning.
Josilyn Adams, one of Williston’s representatives on the school board and a parent of children in the district, said parents are looking for clearer communications about what to expect from their teachers during this time.
“I don’t think anyone questions the connection and the responsibility our teachers feel for our children, but everybody just … they don’t know what to expect,” she said. “So more information, even if it’s murky, is helpful.”
The decision to take this week off was made statewide by Education Secretary French, with input from superintendents and administrators from around the state. Not only does it comply with teachers’ employment contracts, it also keeps the possibility alive that students could return for a few days in June — assuming public health emergency restrictions are eased — for a closure, especially for graduating seniors and eighth-graders.
“People are … definitely hoping that we have the chance to come back, even if it’s just for one day at the very end in June, to see everyone before we go,” said Kate Gruendling, a student representative on the board and senior at Champlain Valley Union High School.
The break will also allow teachers and administrators some needed decompression time, Evans said. After creating the continuation of learning plan and implementing it for one week, the time off will help educators think about future improvements.
“We have had zero preparation for this,” Evans said. “We are learning on the fly. I think it’s going to evolve and look different a month from now.”
GETTING EVERYONE ONLINE
Remote learning requires an internet-connected device and an adequate internet connection. The school district’s central office maintains a list of families that lack internet access at home, Jeanne Jensen, the district’s chief operations officer, said.
Some families not on that list have realized that, if their only access is through a smartphone, that may not be enough to support student learning, especially if there are multiple students in the home. Other families have realized that the materials being shared by teachers will require more bandwidth than they currently have.
Mike Kanfer, the district’s director of network services, has worked with internet providers Comcast and Consolidated Communications to temporarily increase bandwidth to some homes and sign up other families for new service.
“Mike has gone to people’s houses. He has been on the phone with Comcast and others on behalf of families and teachers,” Jensen said.
The district has also distributed laptops to all grade 3-12 students and some K-2 students, as well as distributed its limited supply of wifi hot spot devices.
With last Monday’s official start of the continuation of learning phase, students with disabilities have the same right to receive public education and support as they do while school is in session. But the challenge of remote learning is amplified for these students, said Meagan Roy, the district’s director of student support services.
“Kids with disabilities may or may not be able to access their education remotely,” she told the board.
“We have very creative special educators thinking about what service delivery will look like,” Roy continued. “But we know remote learning is not going to meat all the needs of all kids.”
If schools are allowed to reconvene in June or July, a summer session would be beneficial to catch students up on what they may have missed, she said.
Whenever schools are back in session, academic testing of all students will be called for to help evaluate what students may have missed, Evans said.
“We are going to have to figure out a way to make some adjustments to our common assessment system when everyone is back to get some baseline data about where students are,” he said.