Schooling Under Quarantine

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WAHS students Kimball (junior) and Darrah (sophomore) Sheehan work on AP Calculus test prep in the comfort of home. Submitted photo.

“Up and down.” That’s how local teachers described the early weeks after schools were shuttered across Virginia in March. “When school closed and we didn’t have much information, I told [my students’ families] that this whole experience was like being on a roller coaster ride, and I was on the ride with them holding their hand!” said Crozet Elementary third grade teacher Atlanta Hutchins. “I might not know what’s coming, but I will be there to support them.”

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic threat, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced a two-week school closure on March 13, followed by a full closure through the end of the school year on March 23, only the second state in the nation to do so at that point. The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) issued guidelines for school divisions on how to deal with graduation requirements, class credits, and “continuity of learning” for students, while leaving issues such as grading policy, instructional content, and delivery options up to the school divisions.

New normal

As with everything else that was “normal” just eight weeks ago, education has been flipped on its head. Students are now at home, working on lessons from their teachers who are also at home, with varying levels of aid from parents and similarly home-bound siblings. “I do appreciate the opportunity to spend more time with my own children every day,” said Adam Mulcahy, director of the Environmental Studies Academy at Western Albemarle High School (WAHS), “but I miss seeing my students and interacting with them. Distance learning loses much of those connections.”

The first few weeks after the March 13 closure were chaotic as Albemarle school division officials wrestled with whether to ask teachers to present new material or to focus only on review, and how to implement the state’s mandate for “equitable access and support for a variety of learning needs.” Educators at all levels spent two weeks performing “check and connect” activities with their students to touch base and determine how many had adequate internet access for distance learning, and then a further two weeks learning online technology and preparing lessons in internet-accessible formats.

Murray fifth grader Quinn Fusco does his online learning as pup Oreo waits patiently. Submitted photo.

While the division had attempted rough estimates of students’ ability to access the internet from home over the last several years, the closure forced a sudden reckoning. “The information our teachers have collected from students regarding who have no internet access at home totals 648 [county-wide], which is approximately 5% of our student enrollment,” said Christine Diggs, chief technology officer for the schools. Diggs reports a total of 152 students without access across the six western feeder pattern schools, including 40-50 students at Henley Middle School and fewer than 20 at WAHS.

Teachers had to ramp up quickly, delving into online learning platforms both familiar and new—Schoology, Seesaw, Google Classroom, and Zoom (a video conferencing app)—to deliver assignments and lecture content to their waiting students. “We’re still mastering the use of the Seesaw tools and discovering all the possibilities this program holds,” said Brownsville third grade teacher Bethany Robinson. “Teaching virtually is vastly different than teaching person to person, where we can use manipulatives (real objects) and take cues from students.”

The long delay before schools “re-opened” frustrated some teachers, and a few, like WAHS chemistry teacher Carol Stutzman, resisted the transition’s slow pace. “[The division] was being cautious about equity in online access, but the AP tests weren’t canceled, and I was getting a lot of inquiries from my students,” she said. “We couldn’t wait four weeks.” Stutzman surveyed her classes, asking about internet access and whether students had other responsibilities at home, and found most to be eager to keep going. “A lot of kids told me, ‘I’m sitting in my house bored and worried, and this [work] would be good,’” she said.

Stutzman already ran her classes in a “blended” format which paired online lectures with in-class problem solving, and her students were well-prepared for the jump to all-online. “The very next week [after the closure] I signed my AP kids up for Zoom classes during their regularly scheduled class times and off we went,” she said, and she also created a set of teaching videos and online notes to help 40 other students fill content gaps to be ready for AP Chemistry classes next year. The county required that subject teachers must all use the same materials and common assessments, which greatly restricted their flexibility, but Stutzman says they’ll “reinvent the wheel” if they have to. “Everybody’s willing to try the new tech,” she said.

Overall, school division officials are pleased with how the transition is going thus far. “This is a totally new circumstance and our teachers and administrators have been designing and building the proverbial plane mid-flight,” said White Hall School Board representative David Oberg. “I think the ACPS employees are doing an amazing job under these circumstances.”

Private pivot

Local private schools retooled more quickly to the new format. Miller School of Albemarle (MSA) reopened on April 6 with on-demand class content and project-based learning. “Community is most important now,” said Peter Hufnagel, MSA’s director of innovation and marketing, “and we are working with students to make sure they are engaged but not stressed by schoolwork. We want to ensure students’ health is good, and with this in mind, we don’t want students spending too much time on their computers.” Hufnagel said that teachers have created new lessons that are flexible and enjoyable, and most classes have moved to “super neat” projects with check-in points.

Field School’s transition was the speediest of all. Though by its own admission a “happily low-tech school,” Field’s faculty spent three days learning and setting up a Zoom system and surveying families to make sure everyone had the necessary equipment. They then launched a full schedule of online classes two days later, a mere one week after Virginia closed schools statewide.

“We have each academic class meet for 30 minutes daily with electives in the afternoon (art, music, reading, etc.),” said Todd Barnett, Field’s head of school. “We have been able to replicate much of the usual day in this format.” The staff has been creative in offering online special events as well, such as concerts, a Q&A with a child psychologist, a town hall for parents, and a speaker on civics. During the school’s spring break, it hosted a two-hour optional class on the history of pandemics plus a stretching and yoga session for students.

“The parents have really appreciated the structure, and the kids have enjoyed the community feel,” said Barnett. “We teachers have gotten more adept at running the classes online over time and in addressing security issues.”

Remote learning

The distance learning experience for Albemarle county students in each of their classes varies by their teacher’s approach to online learning. While some teachers check in with students weekly and assign packets of worksheets or long-term projects, others counsel and instruct individual students daily, record morning greetings and video lectures, and create entirely new sets of lessons and materials tailored to online instruction. Student workloads tend to be 30 minutes to two hours per day in elementary school, and three or more hours per day in middle and high school, depending on how much optional material students choose to do. 

The new “check and connect” dimension of teachers’ jobs takes time and patience to perform well. “Most students have a way to connect but it’s sometimes difficult to maintain that connection,” said Betsy Agee, fifth grade teacher at Crozet Elementary. “Not everyone has the support system in place where they’re able to reach out for help with their work, and the kids we worry about the most are the hardest to get in touch with. We don’t want to place any more stress on these kids.”

Crozet Elementary fourth grader Grant Pinson works on science assignments on a school-issued laptop. Submitted photo.

One experience shared by all of the teachers who spoke with the Gazette for this story: the deep ache of missing their students. Crozet Elementary’s Hutchins said that teachers didn’t find out about the school cancellation on March 13 until after classes had already boarded their afternoon buses. “I think that was what hit the hardest for me initially, was the fact that I didn’t really get to say a real goodbye to my class,” she said. “Overall the hardest part hasn’t been the learning and technology, but the social distance. All the kids miss their friends and the social interaction.”

Hutchins reflected on the novelty of the situation for teachers. “When the majority of us went to college, we weren’t learning about how to teach online,” she said. “We weren’t using Zoom or Seesaw or Google Classroom. We definitely weren’t solving problems about how to be a teacher from home for an entire class of kids whom we can’t see in person. It seemed so abstract in our [professional development] training, but now I’m living it daily!” 

Pam Koury and Amelia Bochain, social studies teachers at Henley Middle School, designed a kind of time capsule project where students think about the essential question—What should future generations know about what’s happening today? “It’s a pretty surreal time and I anticipate that much of the student work produced for our class will reflect that,” said Koury. She has been glad for the weekly check-ins with students where she can be responsive to individuals in ways that are not always possible in the classroom, but misses all of the casual interactions that happen in person.

“I especially miss forming connections with students during Sting [study hall], while engaging in extracurricular activities and learning more about their interests,” said Koury. “The most difficult thing for me is making sure that all students are supported, while not having to be attached to a computer 24/7.”

Parent participation

Amid the adjustments teachers and students are making to accommodate online learning, Phil Giaramita, strategic communications officer for the school division, has been particularly struck by the closure’s impact on parents. “A majority view that I hear from parents is, ‘I don’t know how to be a teacher,’” he said. “I think they probably are struggling to cope with their sense of responsibility to step into this void, and they wonder, ‘Am I doing it right? Am I doing enough?’ while trying to balance all of their normal responsibilities.” 

The role of “technology assistant” falls disproportionately on parents of younger students. One parent described the frustration of helping her child set up Schoology on an iPad. “I had about seventeen tabs open trying to figure out how to do it, and I was almost in tears,” she said. Parents on social media also noted the quirkiness of Seesaw, lamenting its counterintuitive navigation system and formatting issues on desktop devices. “I just can’t teach my son geometry,” said another middle school parent, shaking her head. “I can’t do it.”

“During the first week, rolling out Seesaw for the first time to families, there were some technical difficulties,” said Brownsville’s Robinson. “I believe some families experienced more challenges than others, and therefore, may have also felt more frustrated. [In the second week and beyond], it seems that the students have adjusted, and hopefully families are having a better experience.”

Crozet Elementary kindergartener Lottie Pesch works on Seesaw assignments.

Per school division guidance, high school students can only be assigned a maximum of two hours of work per week per class (three hours for AP classes, 1.5 hours for electives), which includes any online lecture time. WAHS science teacher Mulcahy estimated that these limits translate to an 85% loss in instructional time for students over their last 10 weeks of the semester, as compared to the typical mix of class instruction, homework, and other enrichment activities that a student would experience each week during in-person school. 

The limits were set with the best interest of students in mind, said Mulcahy, but they represent some of the challenges teachers face in delivering content. “Educators have to choose what they can reasonably accomplish in a finite amount of instructional time to cover a very limited amount of material,” he said. “It’s hard to decide what 15% is most valuable and to do justice to the learning.”

To stem a potential “covid slide” in student learning and retention during the weeks of the school closure, the county is considering several “continuity of learning” options for younger students. One option is a face-to-face summer instructional program, now being tentatively planned for all 4,000 K-3 students and about 750 students (by invitation) in grades 4-8. Division officials are also considering other possibilities, such as opening elementary schools 12 days early in August or extending the school year to June 25 of 2021 for all students to close learning gaps and make up for lost instructional time.

The summer instruction option would take place over 24 days (M-Th) from June 22 to July 30, said Assistant Superintendent for Student Learning Debora Collins at an April 23 School Board virtual meeting. “We hope to be able to provide a valuable summer experience for our students,” said Collins. “We’re estimating we will need a total of about 250 teachers and staff [for the program], and we anticipate that we will be able to cover the cost from our $1.2 million federal stimulus fund allotment.”

By the book

Albemarle county is following state guidelines to allow students who were on track as of March 13 to graduate from high school. “Every student who was on a trajectory toward earning a diploma should be able to graduate on time,” said Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane in a March 24 statement. 

State graduation rules have been loosened to waive requirements such as Career and Technical Education (CTE), fine arts, and personal finance credits. The VDOE requested and was granted a federal waiver from all SOL testing, so teachers will judge for themselves whether each student has made sufficient progress to “pass” the tests for this year, and additional testing may take place in the fall.

The division has decided that student grades will be determined by a mix of factors depending on what they are taking. The current plan: No student work submitted since March 13 will be graded, though it will be recorded as completed and students will receive feedback. The default grading scale for all students K-12 will convert to a Pass/Fail/Incomplete system to assign a course grade for the year. However, in certain cases high schoolers may opt to receive a course grade based on their first semester grade, plus a one-letter-grade bump up if they have turned in all online fourth quarter assignments. (Different rules will apply to Dual Enrollment and non-year-long class grades.)

Schools are still striving to serve their most vulnerable populations during the closure. Breakfast and lunch meals are being provided to 1,100 students per day at over 20 sites around the county. Internal school Wi-Fi networks have been aimed outward so families who lack home internet service can pick up a signal in school parking lots, and the division has distributed about one hundred hotspot devices for students to access the internet from home. Schools are also working to maintain ESOL, special education, and mental health and counseling services for students.

Beyond the turmoil of trying to meet current student needs, another hurdle looms. The school division’s balanced budget proposal for 2020-21 has been upended, as revenues from state and local sources are predicted to shrink dramatically as the economy contracts. The county expects a $4.6 million loss of revenues from the current year’s budget, and a $15 million decrease in projected funding for next year’s budget. This level of funding “will not provide the necessary resources to fully fund a year-over-year growth of 500 enrolled students,” said Superintendent Matt Haas, and the division has accordingly made “very painful decisions” about how to manage the shortfall.

For the 2020-21 school year, planned increases in teacher and classified employee salaries will be cancelled, as will a minimum wage increase to $15, which together represent $7.8 million in savings. Planned new hires of classroom, ESOL, and special education teachers, as well as bus drivers and custodians will be mostly frozen to save another $4.8 million. 

Because of the limitations on new hires, the division projects an average increase in class size of about 0.4 (grades K-3) to 0.6 (grades 4-12) students per class, though that number will vary by each school’s projected growth. Henley principal Beth Costa said in an April 30 meeting with parents that she expects class sizes will increase by about 2 next year, bringing the average student/teacher ratio there to 1 to 24.

Take heart

Despite the unsettling future, in the present moment teachers are squarely focused on the young people they serve and so evidently care for. “Every day is full and busy, but there is nothing better than seeing the students on video, hearing their voices on the phone or on voice recordings,” said Robinson. “We miss them so much! We’re just trying to do the best we can to provide some valuable learning experiences and a little bit of love every day.”

Mulcahy, too, believes that despite the necessary emphasis on technological learning, it’s the relationships between teachers and their students that will sustain both during this strange time. “Empathize with those that have hardships in their lives, simplify under the circumstances, be patient, be innovative, and keep trying,” he advised. “The students still need the community and the love, and that ultimately is more valuable than the content.” 

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