School districts gearing to keep students connected to learning

Milford School District’s Jodi Messick, assistant principal for Morris Early Childhood Center, collaborates with kindergarten teacher leaders (Chrissy Meszaros, Christy Stevenson, Danielle Roach and Janelle Layton) to plan remote learning opportunities. (Submitted photo)

With school out across Delaware until mid-May, school districts are launching ways to keep students in learning mode while not in classrooms.

Gov. John Carney Monday extended the existing two-week school closure, set to expire March 27, to May 15 to limit the spread of COVID-19. That decision followed his Sunday mandate that non-essential businesses close and Delawareans stay at home except for essential travel.

In the past two weeks, school leadership throughout the state began to plan remote learning for their student populations, which vary widely across the three counties.

In addition to free meals for students, totes with grade-level educational materials and information are available to students at Georgetown Elementary School, as well as other Indian River School District schools. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe).

“Is it going to be perfect right out of the chute? Probably not,” said Appoquinimink Superintendent Matt Burrows as the district announced its program to the school board and families watching the live stream on Wednesday night.

“We’re aiming for perfect,” he continued. “We’re going to continue to work with your families and work with our teachers to improve this and make this better.”

The Department of Education in a statement Wednesday acknowledged that districts’ learning plans will differ, but some factors will be consistent statewide. Gov. Carney submitted a waiver to the U.S. Department of Education to eliminate state testing this year and state Secretary of Education Susan Bunting will request to the state school board that no district academic year stretch past June 30 in an effort to recoup lost time.

Now, school leadership is tasked with finding solutions to educate students who may have limited access to technology and the internet, who are English language learner students or who have Individualized Education Programs, known as IEPs.

Woodbridge School District was one of many districts this week that conducted a survey call to all families, posing the question: Does your student currently have internet capabilities to access online learning opportunities from home?

“The issue we have in western Sussex is internet,” said Woodbridge Superintendent Heath Chasanov, so they are using “as many different messaging services that we can” to tell families that practice materials are available at the same stops where they get “Grab & Go’ food.

“What we have done so far is we have pushed out on our website some educational opportunities for kids to be able to go and practice their skills,” said Mr. Chasanov.

The district is partnering with Communities in School Delaware and First State Community Action Agency to reach as many children as possible, he said.

“The colleges can very easily push out online learning because all the kids have laptops. All the kids have accessibility. They are used to learning that way. My son is at Bloomsburg (University) and two of his five classes this semester were already online. I’ve taken classes personally — my doctorate program — online. We don’t do that in the K-12 setting to this degree — not to every kid,” Mr. Chasnov said. “And again, and this is up and down the state, we’ve all got areas within our own districts where it is more difficult for online learning. So, we are calling it ‘remote’ learning. Because not everybody is going to be able to do it online. And we’re doing everything we can to reach every kid.”

Indian River School District, at 365 square miles one of the largest districts in the state, faces a colossal challenge with more than 11,000 students, IRSD Superintendent Mark Steele said.

The district’s initial game plan changed with Gov. Carney’s extension into May, he said.

“It looks like right now we’re going to take between now and April 30 and continue with the packets and information that we now have,” Mr. Steele said, adding that the district is surveying families to determine who has internet capability and technologies at homes, and who does not.

The Seaford School District is taking a similar route.

“We’ve already sent home to all students optional learning activities,” said Seaford School District Superintendent Dr. Corey Miklus. “We keep in contact through our all-call system reminding everyone of the optional learning activities. They are on our website. We’re just going to keep updating that work to ensure that everyone has learning activities to engage in, optional learning activities.”

Dr. Miklus added, “We understand that not all our families have access to the internet. We’re going to work to actually make phone calls with all our families. We’re working hard to stay in communication.”

Providing technology

Capital School District and Appoquinimink offered days students could pick up technology.

Capital focused on junior and senior students without access to technology.

Appoquinimink’s one-to-one technology program runs from third grade through high school, but grades three to five don’t typically take devices home, Dr. Burrows said.

The district rallied on Thursday to provide students in those grades with devices. If they have the supply, they will work with younger students next, Dr. Burrows said.

Dr. Shelton said his district is working with Comcast and other internet service providers for free or inexpensive internet service for families without access.

Tuesday morning, Mr. Steele sent a letter to parents with an alert on the district’s plans. He also reached out to parents through a video and shared information on internet possibilities.

“Both Comcast and Mediacom are offering free internet packages to parents to get through this time period. And, if we can do that, then that is going to be a big help … if we have enough devices within the district,” said Mr. Steele. “Our hope is that at that point in time we will be ready to bring our staff online to create these activities for students. These activities could be in the form of You Tube, Zoom conferences. It’s not going be necessarily instructional material to expand but to build the foundation of what we have already done this year. And that is what we really need to do at this particular point in time.”

Indian River plans to work with staff members to help them to develop lessons for various online formats such as Zoom, Schoology and ClassDoJo.

“I can tell you all the school districts right now are in the same boat — every one of them. And most districts don’t have one-on-one technologies for kids. So, right now we are working frantically to try to make sure that we do that … and at the same time working with our special needs kids to make sure we are trying to do what we can do to help them as well.”

“It is difficult and no matter where we turn, we’re going to have barriers. And that is what I hope people understand. This is a fluid situation that is constantly changing” he said. “People just have to realize that we are acting in good faith. But we need support from the community to make sure if they get a call, to participate in a survey and help get stuff set up for their kids, so that we can continue instruction.”

Bridget Amory, director of student learning for Milford School District, agreed that remote learning is a challenge with a lack of internet access and technology.

“This is especially true in our rural areas and includes students and staff. We are doing our best to identify and work around these barriers to ensure equity,” she said in an email.

Staff will determine what the best format is, based upon their students’ and families’ access to resources and schedules, she said, adding that secondary students will likely use Schoology, Clever and other online resources, that they use throughout the year.

“Many of our instructional resources include an online resource and learning management system that will be very useful during this time,” she said. “We will be sure to include access to paper/pencil activities for students as well.”

Many districts got a jump by sending students home with educational supplements during the initial two-week closure this month.

The Laurel School District on Tuesday announced its Home Enrichment Learning Portal now has Sample Home Learning Schedules, detailed by grade to assist parents with keeping “their students in an educational routine during these unprecedented times of school closures.” HELP guides can be found on the Laurel district website at www.laurelschooldistrict.org.

In the Sussex Technical School District, plans are underway with focus on equal access.

“One of our guiding principles is that we cannot offer education to some students and not others, and as a result, we are not teaching new material, requiring student participation, or grading any assignments during this time,” said Dan Shortridge, Sussex Tech Public Information Officer. “Like all other districts in Delaware, we want our students’ education to continue as much as possible during this school closure period. As a starting point, we have prepared a suite of free online resources for students to access in core subject areas for review or to supplement their classes, practicing their skills and reviewing their knowledge. Our team is also working on expanded options for online education, but the details are still being worked out.”

Some districts’ plans are already underway. At Appoquinimink’s board meeting Wednesday, the district announced it would move forward with remote learning on Monday.

“Our primary focus for the first week is to ensure that our parents, our students and our teachers are very familiar with the platform that they’re going to be engaging in, but they have tech support, and they know how to get their questions answered,” Kaila Reynolds, executive director of teaching and learning for Appoquinimink, said during the board meeting.

The district plans to give a recommended daily schedule that will allow for flexibility, to accommodate parents’ schedules, which the district surveyed.

“We want to make sure that we are intentional about meeting the needs of all and that we’re considering the needs of all of our learners, from Pre-K all the way up to 12th grade,” Dr. Reynolds noted.

In Milford School District, Dr. Amory said the district will communicate its remote learning plan to staff this week. The following week, the district will begin working with families to begin remote learning.

“Our implementation of the remote learning plan will be as diverse as the population we serve,” she wrote. “We are working to be as comprehensive as possible to ensure we are able to engage all of our students. This outreach will look different for each student. It might be a phone call, a letter, or an online instructional session. It might even encompass all of the examples mentioned.”

As they move forward, school leaders acknowledged they will work to make sure remote education is equitable for its community, which includes students with disabilities, IEPs and English language learners.

As other districts do, Sussex Tech faces two primary challenges.

“First, not every family has Internet access. Second, we want to ensure that students with special education needs receive the necessary required accommodations. This is an issue that we are working on with our special education staff in consultation with the Delaware Department of Education,” Mr. Shortridge said.

Sussex Tech’s team is “engaged in discussion with other districts and DOE and reviewing federal guidance documents to obtain best practices in delivering online instruction and provide the best educational opportunities to students within our ability,” Mr. Shortridge said.

Dr. Amory of Milford said that the district will provide support with access to the students’ teachers, support coaches, counselors and support staff.

“Our staff members are working together and connecting with students and families to prioritize a hierarchy of student needs aligned with a diverse approach to addressing those needs in the home setting,” she said.

Dr. Reynolds of Appoquinimink said that as the district gets more comfortable with this new normal, it will improve the support.

“As we continue to build upon this remote learning platform, we want to continue to expand the modifications and accommodations that we have for our students that have special needs,” she said. “We know that we’re starting with a number of variables that we have to plan for. We continue to address those on a daily basis.”

Mr. Steele said amid this gloom is a silver lining with word about the state testing waiver.

“This is bigger than what it looks like on the surface because in April and May sometimes we would lose 12 to 15 days testing students from instruction,” said Mr. Steele. “Once we return, we are free to move for-ward without having to take days to test or assess students with any type of state testing. That is huge. That is a good thing. That’s a very good thing.”


Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 1 guidance

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