How Local Schools are Handling Distance Learning

School closures to stem the spread of coronavirus are prompting educators to explore new instructional approaches. It's all about technology.
Frank Romero Unsplash

Photo by Frank Romero on Unsplash

With area schools closed to slow and prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, education officials are looking for ways to offer remote instruction, and have found that desperate times call for technological measures.

A silver lining to the current situation is timing. The Digital Age means that many families have access to computers and the internet at home, and school districts say they are able to provide those tools to families who don’t. The goal is for thousands of students to be able to maintain some semblance of normalcy and continue learning in the age of social distancing.

As of March 20, the U.S. Department of Education is waiving all federal standardized testing requirements for students in kindergarten through 12th grade for the current school year.

Here’s a look at what’s happening around the region.

Arlington Public Schools

When schools closed March 16, APS was ready with online content for students in kindergarten through fifth grade via ParentVUE, and for 6th- through 12th-graders via Canvas. ParentVUE is a digital communication platform for parents and caregivers of the 28,000 students who attend APS’s 40-plus schools and educational programs, while Canvas is an online learning management system.

Students in grades 3-5 were asked to bring their school-issued iPads home for distance learning. Some schools also made instructional materials available in hard copy.

APS began planning its coronavirus response in February, according to Bridget Loft, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning. Students in third through fifth grades were permitted to bring school-provided iPads home, while 6th- through 12th-graders continued to use their assigned MacBook Air devices as usual. Students who may not have consistent internet access at home also received Mi-Fi devices that serve as mobile hotspots.

“Department of Teaching and Learning staff developed online resources and lessons activity in what we call choice boards,” Loft says. “So for each content area – English and reading, science, social studies, math – the Department of Teaching and Learning (DTL) staff developed several learning activities that kids could participate in via their iPads. That’s a foundation of learning activities and then the teachers build on top of that to make connections with previous learning.”

But children in kindergarten through second grade don’t have school-issued devices. For them, DTL has developed 10 days of learning activities that are pushed out via ParentVUE.

“Teachers have tremendous autonomy to determine how they’re delivering learning activities and interacting with students,” Loft says. “That said, they’re getting pretty explicit instructions in specific areas from the Department of Teaching and Learning.”

APS will be closed at least through April 14, so officials decided to move the end of the third-quarter grading period from April 3 to March 20. As a result, teachers and students spent much of this week tying up loose ends. For learning experiences running from March 23 and beyond, DTL encourages work that reinforces already mastered lessons, Loft says. Teachers may introduce new learning, but should not grade it.

“We’ve really emphasized the difference between formative assessments and summative assessment,” she says. “Summative assessment is really assessment for mastery. You’re at the end of a unit or at the end of a designated time period, [and] you want to say [to students] what do they know and have they mastered it. That’s typically the type of grade that would end up in a gradebook. Formative would happen several times during a lesson, at the end of a lesson, and it’s really to inform instruction, so it’s what I call a dipstick. How are they doing on this concept?”

Loft credits parents, teachers, school administrators, food service providers and custodians with supporting the APS community during this unprecedented time.

“While it does feel like controlled chaos, I get a true village perspective that we’re all villagers in this together, so I am very grateful for that,” Loft says.

Families can check the APS Coronavirus Updates page for new developments.

Falls Church City Public Schools

At the end of February, the FCCPS administrative team had a planning retreat that turned into discussions on how to respond to Covid-19, according to Peter Noonan, FCCPS superintendent. On Feb. 28, he asked administrators to prepare 20 days of lesson plans that would be ready to roll out on March 11 through the district’s Schoology platform. FCCPS has five schools with 2,750 students in pre-K through 12th grades.

“For the most part, the lesson plans were done by grade-level team and by content teacher leads throughout the division, but it was a huge collaborative effort,” Noonan says. “First and foremost, the plans that are there are meant to keep the learning going. The idea was to reinforce content that has been taught previously and to build on some of the skills our students already have.”

When schools closed March 16, students in pre-K through 2nd grade took home a combination of physical and online work materials in the areas of math, reading and number sense. Third- through 5th-graders got more defined assignments, particularly in the areas of reading and writing. Middle and high school work is more robust and includes specialty programs such as PE, band, choir and Spanish, Noonan says.

“In all circumstances, our teachers are holding what are called ‘office hours’ and so for two hours a day our teachers are online and students can show up and ask questions and talk with the teacher about the work that’s been assigned,” he says. “It’s a day-by-day calendar that students are working through.”

Because guidance from VDOE is for teachers to not grade the work, FCCPS is asking parents to help students take ownership of their learning so they don’t miss a step during the time away from the classroom, he says.

Schools have provided laptops and Mi-Fis to families who need them, and the online lessons began March 19. Should schools remain closed beyond the planned reopen date of April 14, FCCPS will continue to use its online platform.

“I can’t say enough about our teachers. They really have rallied and come together in a strong and powerful way on behalf of our kids,” Noonan says. “We are doing the best we can to provide the most robust program as possible while we’re out of school.”

Visit fccps.org for ongoing updates on new developments relating to the coronavirus.

Fairfax County Public Schools

FCPS – the 10th largest school district in the country, with about 188,000 students at 198 schools and centers – had called for an emergency teacher work day and planning session for distance learning to take place on March 16.  But when the district closed schools abruptly at almost midnight on March 12, it shut down that plan, too. Originally, schools had intended to open on the 16th so that students could retrieve necessary learning materials, including laptops. That, too, was canceled in response to the fast-moving virus.

As a result, Fairfax County schools and teachers are now working to provide ungraded learning opportunities on their own through Blackboard, the digital platform FCPS uses. Some teachers are emailing students and parents to notify them that recommended (but not mandatory) assignments are available on Blackboard and Google Classroom.

The most recent update from FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand, issued March 19, states that the county is working with schools to distribute laptops and Mi-Fi devices to families who need it, and that officials are in conversation with principals regarding third-quarter grading plans.

“If FCPS schools cannot reopen as scheduled on April 14, our plan is to begin distance learning either online, or by learning packets at that time,” Brabrand wrote in a March 19 email advisory. “Over the next two weeks, we will begin distance learning training for teachers and give teachers the opportunity to plan and prepare for distance instruction and reconnect with their students.”

In the meantime, he said, students should take advantage of the Continuity of Learning module posted at FCPS 24-7 Blackboard. Families can also watch for new announcements on the FCPS Coronavirus Update Page.

Congressional School

For a private-school perspective, we also checked in with the independent school in Falls Church, which has about 350 students ranging in age from six weeks old through 8th-graders, and about 90 faculty and staff members. Congressional had been preparing for a distance-learning program for a while, says Edwin Gordon, head of school, in the event of weather or other situations forcing a long-lasting closure.

“Ensuring continuity in teaching and learning is essential to our operational effectiveness and ability to meet the mission of the school,” Gordon says. “While we are closed now for this unfortunate global pandemic, we feel like we’ve been preparing for something like this for quite some time.”

The school has a 1:1 technology-to-student program that starts in 3rd grade, when students receive Chromebooks. For students in 3rd through 8th grades, the Lower and Middle School staff developed a modified school day schedule to complete online.

Rather than enforcing the usual 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. schedule, the online version has students “in school” from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. with shortened classes. And whereas in-person classes run 55 minutes (grades 5-8) and 45 minutes (grades 3 and 4), the online classes are 40 minutes with 10-minute transition times in between, plus a half-hour morning break and an hour for lunch.

“The students are in class, if you will, throughout the day,” says Brent Hinrichs, associate head of school and director of Lower and Middle School. “Our primary platform is Google Meet – Google Hangouts, specifically – so every morning at 8:30 we actually are taking attendance online so there’s a little bit of accountability going on there, too, and that’s again at least in grades 3 through 8.”

The classes, which are either 40-minute lessons or mini lessons with time to complete work, are not optional, he adds. “Parents are eager to have their children online. No parent is telling their student it’s vacation.”

For the younger students who don’t have school-issued technology, teachers have developed lessons that are shared through a private YouTube channel, says Kim O’Neil, assistant head of school and director of early childhood and Primary School. For instance, teachers might record a video of themselves reading a book to the students because some students might not have the book at home.

Plus, “teachers have shared what the daily plan typically looks like for parents, so trying to keep routine and consistency and some normalcy in their lives even though they’re not able to come to school,” O’Neil says. “My Primary School children, who are preschool through 2nd grade, they get a daily email every morning from their homeroom teacher, and in that email is a list of activities from language arts, math, social studies, science, world language, PE, music – whatever would be on the schedule for the day.”

Some are online resources, and some are games and activities. “When we decided Friday morning to close that afternoon, we sent home students with notebooks, scissors, crayons and putty so they could have resources at home,” she says. “The teachers are using those materials to keep students engaged.”

Given the age of the younger students, participation is not required and teachers are not taking attendance, O’Neil adds.

Should the school remain closed beyond April 13, Congressional will extend its online operations.

“Teaching and learning will continue during any closure that we have. We’re prepared to continue operations under any range of circumstances of disruption,” Gordon says.


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