While Gov. Cuomo announced last Friday that all schools statewide must stay closed until April 15, numerous Capital District schools are working to transition to online learning for its teachers and students.
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Bethlehem Central School District Superintendent Jody Monroe said K-12 students began formal virtual learning on Monday, March 30, after reaching out to district families about whether their children have easy access to a tablet, computer or laptop, as well as the internet. The district also loaned Chromebooks to K-5 students whose families indicated in a districtwide online survey last week that they don’t have a device.
“We don’t have a full one-to-one device availability for every elementary school child but I believe we have enough because not everyone requested one,” Monroe said. “For K-5 students, when you have two parents working from home with their devices, it’s harder for many kids to share a device.” She added that students in grades six through 12 have already been loaned Chromebooks and are more likely to own their own devices, unlike younger children.
Monroe said she met with the district’s Instructional Leadership Team — made up of around 40 administrators, teachers and curriculum supervisors — two weeks ago to discuss how to move forward. “We obviously want students to come back and we don’t want to be closed for the rest of the year yet,” she said. “The staff’s biggest concern is less about content but more about maintaining connections with the kids. The team came up with guidelines for teachers to meet their kids and what resources are available to them.”
Students would generally use apps like Google Meet, Google Classroom and Zoom to study with teachers in real-time.
According to the district’s website, elementary school teachers will work with a daily schedule by grade level that gives structure and routine for students and parents. For more information, visit sites.google.com/bethlehemschools.org/learningfromhome/home. Middle school instruction and resources are organized by the student’s team and high school teachers will individually teach content and provide resources for each course.
Monroe, however, acknowledged that Bethlehem Central “is not like a college that works with much older students. While we have lots of online resources, K-12 classrooms going virtually online does not really work automatically. Our younger learners need hands-on attention and some students are English-language learners or have special needs, and we need to support them. Being online is helpful but it doesn’t really replace the teachers in the classrooms.”
Loudonville Christian School, which has 250 students from 35 school districts across K-12 grades, transitioned to virtual learning in mid-March, according to Director of Student Life Taylor Philippi. While high school students already have their own devices, the school loaned devices to any fourth through eighth-graders who needed one after families filled out a schoolwide survey. He added that grade 4-12 students connect with teachers via Zoom for real-time instruction.
Pre-K through third-grade students use “resource-based learning where each teacher set up a Seesaw [an online student engagement platform] account,” said Principal Amanda Bigham. “It has activity-based resources for parents and their kids every day.” She added on March 16, pre-K through third-grade teachers gathered physical materials at schools, created packets of information for parents to pick up and take home. Teachers are available on school hours every day via phone or email.
Philippi said the transition has been “great, largely because of how dedicated our teachers are. We designated teachers to learn about the new apps after we closed the school on March 13. I showed them how to play around with Zoom, for example, and I rolled out multiple emails like how to get set up. On our first day of online learning, there weren’t many tech issues as some only had bad Wi-Fi for a bit.”
Philippi added the school feels prepared that its virtual learning format can work “for the long term until we hear from the state. While we want to prioritize the health of our staff and families, it’s hard to tell how long we’ll stay like this at this point. We want to be realistic.”
Bigham expressed gratitude to students and parents being supportive during the transition. “We want what’s best for the kids and parents have been overwhelmingly pleased about how engaged their kids are. We still hold kids accountable for online attendance.”
Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk Central School District Superintendent Brian Bailey said, “This has been an extraordinarily challenging time for everybody and it’s a completely different way. It’s tested us emotionally and professionally.”
He said that the district’s staff uses online tools like Google Classroom, have a special outline for how to operate office hours remotely and check up on students’ families via phone and email. Since virtual learning began in mid-March, the district initially focused on reinforcing prior learning instead of teaching new content to students, to ease the transition.
Bailey added that the district began reaching out to families about device availability. “We don’t necessarily have a device for each student but I don’t have a concern about device shortage,” he said. “We basically have a device for every middle school child and in high school, every student is pretty close to having their own device too.”
He, however, acknowledged that not every student has easy internet access or optimal reception since some families live in rural areas. He said that the district worked with local internet providers Spectrum, Mid-Hudson Cable and StateTel to offer discounted or free access for families through May.
“Having internet access significantly increases student access to educational resources and we want as many families as possible to have this opportunity,” he wrote in an email. For more information, visit www.rcscsd.org/rcs-letter-to-parents-caregivers-march-27-2020.
“The most important thing that we recognize is that everyone’s situation at home right now is different, families and staff alike,” Bailey said. “We cannot presume that everyone has the same access to resources, childcare, or even time to focus and attend to lessons at home.”
Bethlehem Central, Loudonville Christian School and Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk also have resources for students with special needs and those seeking social or emotional support.
At Bethlehem Central, Monroe said her district’s counselors and social workers have been in touch with students via phone and Google Meet to maintain a schedule of interaction. “Some kids may be struggling with the whole transition and what’s happening with the world and our counselors are available for that. They work from home too.”
At Loudonville Christian School, Philippi brought up an example of how each high school grade level has a designated virtual “hangout session” on Wednesdays which was typically study hall or lunchtime in school. “It’s in the middle of the day where they wouldn’t have classes during the time,” he said. “They can hang out, have fun, do homework together and so on.”
At Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk, Bailey said that students with special needs are assigned a consultant teacher who checks in with their families to ensure they have the online resources they need. He also said that the district’s speech teachers offer online teletherapy to their students.
“Engagement is an essential component in education and while the pandemic has forced everyone to adapt a bit, I think this is an opportunity for rebirth in terms of how we offer instruction to kids,” Bailey concluded.