For North LaFayette Elementary School, like other schools in Walker County and the more than 2,000 other schools all over the state, distance learning in the wake of COVID-19 has proved to be a difficult challenge, but not an unconquerable one.
NLE Principal David Schwind said administrators met with teachers at each grade level at the school on March 12 to start formulating a plan in the event that the school had to be temporarily closed.
Using a sample format provided by the district, each grade level formulated what Schwind called “a simple effective plan for remediation and continued practice of skills for our students’ online learning.”
“We were prepared for the possibility of being out for two weeks and through spring break,” he added. “On (Friday) March 13, when school let out, we were prepared.”
Schwind said the school’s biggest policy was that “students’ grades cannot go down after March 13; students may only increase their grades.” With that in mind, he said the school staff went to work to provide easily accessible links for parents and students for every online program they had at every grade level in order for students to “work toward improving themselves and getting ready for next year without penalty.”
Using teacher-created Google Classrooms, Zoom and Google meets, call lists and the Remind app in order to be able to work with students, the NLE Extended Learning Plan was finalized and posted to the school’s website.
The 14-page document detailed links for assignments in different subjects for each grade, from pre-K through fifth grade, along with all needed codes for Google Classroom, Remind and other websites, all designed, according to Schwind, to be tailored by teachers toward their students “maintaining and progressing learned skills.”
The online document also featured information from the Georgia Department of Education on meal assistance, public library online access, additional digital learning resources and even how to get free internet service. Teachers also provided email addresses so they could be contacted by students and parents with questions or additional information.
As the shutdown continued into April, and now that schools will not reopen before the end of the school year, the challenge for teachers is to continue to find ways that will keep their students engaged.
“I am the computer lab teacher and I was already using Google Classroom in my lab,” said Melanie Ratliff, a third-grade teacher at NLE. “I have tried to keep my assignments similar to what we did in class so the students will have a sense of normalcy.”
Ratliff said educational programs such as IXL, Prodigy, Teach your Monster to Read, Study Island, AR, Education Galaxy, Seesaw and Typing.com are just a few of many that are being used. She added that teachers are staying connected with their students through video conferencing and regular voice-to-voice phone calls and that teachers are also making videos to show support for their students.
Teachers are also conducting art and PE classes online and the school has been sharing some of its students’ assignments and projects on social media as other ways for teachers and students to stay connected despite social distancing. The staff even participated in a teacher parade in late March as neighborhood roads were driven to allow teachers and students to see each other face-to-face at a safe distance.
Schwind said that the school’s media specialist, Donna Henry, even worked through the difficult task of making the Accelerated Reader program available online for students at home.
“Accelerated Reader is a program that is not typically available online for access at home because it is heavily monitored,” he explained. “This was a huge win for our students as they can continue to earn our school’s ‘AR BUCKS’ (points), which have big prizes for reading incentives.”
Schwind said the school is now moving into project-based learning projects, including a school-wide student summer art project on the school’s blacktop and a wax museum that will become a virtual tour as the idea comes together.
“The front of our school became a hub for those who wanted hands-on tools,” he continued. “Weekly, we have put out free books for all grade levels, two weeks’ worth of packets and this (past) week, we received a donation from the UGA Walker County Agriculture Extension Office of hundreds of free seeds for our students to start gardens at home. We have provided links to a myriad of sources.”
He added that everything the school has done has been done with the mindset of State Superintendent Richard Woods’ idea of “compassion over compliance” and Walker County Superintendent Damon Raines’ notion of “everything wrapped in a blanket of grace”.
Ratliff added that teachers have gotten good feedback from parents about distance learning and she feels that Walker County has tried to help its teachers as much as possible to find different ways to reach of all of their students, which she admits can be difficult at times due to a limited number of devices and limited time, among other factors.
Still, for all the triumphs in distance learning, Ratliff said it can’t replace being there in person to work with students on a daily basis.
“The hardest part is not seeing our students every day and not being able to tell if they are understanding everything,” she said. “We are not able to teach and re-teach probably as much as needed.”
“I feel the teachers have really missed our students,” she added. “We didn’t get to officially end school the way that we typically do and it has been hard on everyone. All of the teachers have really stepped up and accomplished a lot of great virtual activities to keep our students learning and that is the goal.”