BRATTLEBORO — “Learning curve” took on new meaning for the students, their families, and teachers of the region last month.
As schools closed their doors and shifted to the online teaching in response to the coronavirus, teachers and students have needed to navigate remote learning.
So far the shift has been successful, but teachers and administrators of the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union agree that online learning won't replace the classroom.
Across the district, teachers have shifted their classroom instruction to a combination of online and at-home activities.
“We didn't become educators for remote learning, but because we love being in community,” WSESU Superintendent Lyle Holiday said. “We recognize parents aren't educators, either.”
On March 15, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott announced that schools would close as part of a strategy to slow the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus. This executive order kicked off a flurry of planning, rearranging, and skill building for the administration, staff, and teachers.
By March 18, the WSESU launched its meal distribution system to continue providing breakfast and lunch to all district children under the age of 18. That same week, teachers organized packets for students to take home.
And with that, everyone entered the challenge of online education.
Five months out of the classroom - in a best-case scenario, with students returning in the fall - means they will inevitably drift, performing at different academic levels by the time they return to school.
Teachers have stepped up in incredible ways, said Tine Biolsi and Deb Kardane.
As math coach and curriculum coordinator for the district, respectively, Biolsi and Kardane have provided a lot of the professional development necessary for teachers to shift from in-person to remote. They have investigated online teaching platforms, provided training, and synthesized guidance from the state Agency of Education.
In the process, teachers have adapted their teaching style, assignments, and amount of screen time to match their grade levels.
Yet schools are also communities.
When schools reopen, students will return having potentially missed several months - perhaps many months - of the social and emotional growth that happens in a school community.
Modeling a growth mindset, one learning curve at a time
Holiday said that the WSESU benefited from early conversations with experts who predicted Vermont's schools would remain closed through the spring semester. The superintendent said she and her staff started working on plans for a long-term closure immediately.
“I apparently like change,” said fourth-grade Dummerston School teacher Molly Stoner, who spent the first week of stay-at-home adapting to new technologies and felt energized.
“I'm so excited by the learning of new things,” said Stoner, adding that she felt so proud of the first class assignment she created using Google Forms and distributed using Google Classroom. Not until her students returned the assignment did she realize she forgot to add a field for the students' names.
The experience has renewed her compassion for her students who are also adjusting to life in the time of COVID-19.
“I tell my students, just take one step ahead,” Stoner said. “I just feel the best way to teach a growth mindset is to model it.”
According to Holiday, the WSESU serves between 2,400 and 2,500 students, from very young learners attending Head Start programs to the 12th graders.
Holiday said that going into the school closures, teachers planned for meeting different learning styles. Administrators worked closely with special education teachers to make sure the goals of independent education program (IEP) plans were clarified and that teachers had the tools they needed.
Holiday listed other measures:
• Ensuring that pre-kindergarten through third grade students had opportunities to learn through play and outside activities was especially important.
• Teachers hold online “office hours” for students or families to drop in and ask questions.
• The WSESU has also put out a parents' survey to obtain feedback from families.
• Parents can find a resource page that includes links to information on mental health, to student-safe websites, and to a request form for assignment extensions.
Holiday credits Kardane and Biolsi for their work on determining how much online time each age group could handle.
Kardane said that because most research on remote learning has focused on adults and college students, she and Biolsi spoke with several educators in other states - such as California and Illinois, which closed schools before Vermont did - to discern which methods they had found useful for teaching young children.
Kardane said some online teaching platforms can meet the needs of younger students, while others do not. A big challenge is that children at different ages learn differently. Small children tend to learn more through interaction and tactile learning activities. Older students have more skills with books and online platforms.
The two educators say that, for these kids, the goal is to mesh asynchronous learning with synchronous leaning (see sidebar).
“You can't just mimic the school day,” she said.
Finding success through connections
On April 10, the teachers and staff of Academy School in Brattleboro held a parade. The teachers decorated their cars and drove through Brattleboro to wave at students. Dummerston School held a similar parade on April 17, and other schools across the country have started holding these teacher parades as a morale booster.
“We just want to see those smiling faces,” said Kelly Dias, principal of Academy School. “We miss them so much.”
Prior to COVID-19, Dias's favorite part of the day was meeting kids as they arrived every morning - she misses this. And holding staff meetings on Zoom results in three screens of 25 people. “It's just a different way to interact,” she said.
Yet Dias has also acquired a new level of respect for the teachers and staff at Academy School.
“I knew they were amazing, but this is a whole new level of amazing,” she said.
The principal recounted how she recently observed morning class meeting, where the teacher told her students that she would be leaving for a moment to get her water bottle. While she was off screen, suddenly a puppet appeared and talked to a delighted class. When this teacher returned, she pretended she knew nothing of the puppet.
That story illustrates how teachers are “just doing some amazing things to engage the kids,” she said.
Dias is finding as a principal that she's experiencing her own learning curves.
She said she now knows how much she misses being physically present in the school building, and the social interactions that come with it.
Instead she's spending a lot of time sitting in her home office on video meetings.
Right now, Dias's biggest task is to take in and disseminate “a ton of information for people.” This means a day full of Zoom meetings with leadership teams and other principals.
She also meets with the school's wellness team, which checks on families to ensure they have the resources they need.
In Kardane's opinion, the core of the WSESU's success is making communication and connection top priorities.
Without strong partnerships between teachers and families, remote learning can't work, she said.
Early in the shift to remote learning, Kardane said, everyone in the school system focused on developing plans, expectations, and collaborations. This willingness to step up and, at times, have difficult conversations has made the difference, she said.
“Everything needs to work for the families,” she said.
In general, she has heard that families appreciate the WSESU's efforts and feel that teachers are approachable when extra help is needed or to accommodate special circumstances. For example, sometimes assignment due dates need to change if one sibling needs to babysit younger siblings while their parents are working.
Ricky Davidson, the student assistance program counselor for Brattleboro Union High School, said it surprised him to see how much the high school's faculty, staff, and students “really enjoy being connected to each other.”
Recently, the BUHS community held a Zoom movie night where, like in the television series Mystery Science Theater 3000, everyone watched - and heckled - a bad 1950s B-movie. Davidson expects more movie nights in the weeks ahead.
“People are craving connection because they miss being with each other,” he said.
New technology, new situations, new challenges
Nearly a month into remote learning, Dias said she is seeing routines forming for the teachers and their students.
Every teacher holds a morning meeting, explained Dias, who has witnessed teachers using the time to hold scavenger hunts, talk about numbers using money, and read aloud.
“Just all the things that are normal and part of school, but also engaging kids at home,” she said.
The online classroom also offers fun moments, like watching students jump on their home trampoline or family cats make surprise appearances, Dias added.
Dias said that while the students in grades two through six have a more “vigorous” online learning schedule, Academy's kindergarteners and first graders all received packets to take home filled with a number of activities, with several taking place outside.
For example, her kindergarten-aged daughter received a tic-tac-toe activity that included going on a “five senses nature walk” and then coming home and writing a poem. There is also an activity to make an anatomy apron out of a paper bag.
The school is working on ways to track accountability and attendance, but Dias said that most of these projects for the youngest grades will not be handed in at the end of the term.
“And that's OK,” she said.
Stoner, a naturally organized person, said teaching executive functioning to students online has been challenging.
At the elementary level, students need significant guidance in developing routines and systems.
In the classroom, Stoner said she is pretty strict about the systems she's put in place to teach executive functioning - the self-discipline skills involving memory, flexible thinking, and self-control. For example, when students work on literacy assignments, they pull out purple folders; for math, orange.
Providing this guidance is more difficult when students are in their home environments, where they more easily lose track of folders and other tools, she said.
Stoner has responded with developing simple strategies for students to follow.
Moving high schoolers online has its own challenges. Davidson said he has had conversations with students that go something like this: “Email? That's for old people. You mean I have to check my school email account?” Or “We have to talk? On the phone? I'm more comfortable texting.”
“We're all struggling with a little discomfort around this [remote learning],” he said.
Keeping an eye on students' social and emotional health
A “huge limitation” of online learning is the lack of social time for students, said Holiday. She said when students return to school, teachers and staff will need to focus on rebuilding a school community that is atrophying.
Teachers will have to pay close attention to students' social and emotional learning, she added.
Like Holiday, Dias worries the most about the potential social ramifications for kids - for example, feelings of isolation, loneliness, and maybe regressing a little bit in their social skills.
It will take some readjustment for students when they do return to school and probably some reteaching on the part of teachers, she said.
“I think kids will be feeling a level of sadness that they're not used to at this time and not really understanding why they can't be with their friends,” she said, noting that the teachers' August in-service training will likely include responding to kids' feelings when they return to school.
“Each grade has a big jump developmentally, and they're so connected to their peers,” she said.
Biolsi also hoped that “students know that everything that is happening is so that we can take care of our community.” Students who rely on school for food and other types of supports should know they will continue, she said.
Davidson is trying to keep a sense of normalcy for students. Some are dealing well with the isolation caused by COVID-19, he said. Others are not.
“I try to offer support where they need it,” he said.
One area he has focused on is helping students create schedules and routines. He jokes with students that he doesn't feel like the work day has started until he puts on his socks and shoes.
“And don't attend class sitting in bed,” is something he's had to tell more than one student.
At BUHS, Davidson has noticed that some students feel relieved they no longer experience the same social pressures. Some love online learning - and others so, so, so, do not.
As he has coached students, Davidson said he's also benefited from the remote learning experience. The opportunity to interact with students in their home environments has helped him understand their needs better.
Some students help provide child care for younger siblings because parents are working, he said. This affects their remote school day and to-do list, he said. For other students, COVID-19 has made the struggles they confront bigger.
These situations have helped Davidson build a “fuller picture of who they are” and how each student handles stress.
In response, Davidson has adjusted how he addresses issues on an individual basis. This experience has also taught him to ask different questions about the students' lives outside of school.
“I'm reminded of the resilience of young people to roll with the punches,” he said.
In her new virtual classroom, Stoner is drawing on her own experiences in adapting to the new routines under duress to help her students do the same.
She recounts a meeting where she described being overwhelmed to co-workers. The teachers all attempted to help reduce her mental overload by jumping in with suggestions.
Stoner realized what she really needed was for someone to listen and say, “Yep, I hear you, and this is hard.”
The experience reminded Stoner of a student who during math class can have a similar deer-in-the-headlights look.
“I got to live her experience in that moment,” Stoner said.
Now, when she encounters students with that look, instead of explaining the math concept again, Stoner said, she realizes that it's time to put the book away and try again tomorrow.
Stoner said this realization has shifted how she teaches remotely. She pays more attention to students' body language and is not averse to shaking up the classroom routine. For example, during a recent morning meeting when the group's energy felt low, she told everyone to run outside, close their eyes, then note everything they could hear.
This week, Holiday is worried about absenteeism. For the superintendent, this concern is not just about checking off the number of days a student attends school. Her concern is with student welfare - have they missed their online classes because they choose to do so? Or because families are overwhelmed? Or because they are sick with COVID-19?
She said teachers routinely connect with their students. The attendance of a handful of students, however, has been spotty. A small number have not spoken with their teachers at all.
Principals might need to ask the Windham County Sheriff's Department, whose deputies also serve as the supervisory union's resource officers, to do welfare checks on these students, Holiday said.
“Because we need to know that our children are OK,” Holiday stressed.
Words to share with the community as a whole
Kardane hoped the community remembers that everybody - teachers, students, parents, administrators, staff, and all involved with the school system - is on the same team. It's important to remain flexible and empathetic, she added.
“That we are all in this to come out in a healthy place,” she said. “We have to help each other move through this the best we can.”
Biolsi said that, even in a non-pandemic time, teachers tend to work above and beyond contracted hours. And during this pandemic, she has witnessed teachers dig even deeper to learn new skills, new teaching methods, and to support their students.
“I've always been impressed by our teachers, but this has just reinforced how dedicated they are to the work that they do,” she said.
Biolsi's praise extends to families who are stepping up to make this new situation work.
“We really appreciate - maybe more than they know - how much work they're doing at home with their own children,” she said.
Davidson added that remote learning is not an extended school vacation.
“Real education, real learning, and real growth is happening,” he said.
He hopes the community will find a way to rally around the graduating class of 2020. The high school students are missing a big milestone and ritual: their senior year and graduation, he said. The community needs to celebrate them in some amazing way.
Holiday said, “I've just been so proud of the work our teachers are doing.”
“None of us went into education to teach distance learning,” she added. “We went into education because we liked being with students.”
Stoner said she feels impressed by the amount of commitment and courage her colleges have shown during this time.
“Our district has show a tremendous capacity to function as a team,” she said.
She, too, is also amazed at the efforts of parents.
“Parents are really rising to the occasion,” Stoner said. “They've been asked to do amazing things in support of their kids.”
Dias can relate to that sentiment. The principal is facing the challenge of schooling in the age of coronavirus not only as an educator, but as a parent juggling work with mom duties.
“It's hard,” she said. “I've had really good days and bad days and its hard to have any in between days.”
Some days, Dias said, she makes a schedule - with recess time - that lists her daughter's classes and her own meetings. Other days, her young daughter resists any type of schedule. In the end, Dias needs to go with the flow.
“It's a day-to-day thing,” she said.
Dias recently observed her daughter's kindergarten teacher holding a one-on-one meeting and then a group meeting.
“I told her she has the patience of a saint,” she says with a laugh. “Having 18 children on Zoom doing their thing - it's really funny.”
But it's still not a full substitute for the physical classroom and school community.
“I keep thinking about the day when we can celebrate that we're all back together and I can hug every single person in that building,” Dias said. “I miss hugging.”