Since classes resumed last month, educators in the Walker County and Chickamauga school systems have been working to make sure students learning from home are getting the same quality of instruction as those attending traditional school.
“We are trying to mirror virtually what is happening in the in-person environment,” said Damon Raines, Walker County Schools superintendent. “Teachers video record portions of their live instruction via Google Hangouts and have assignments loaded into their Google Classroom where all students have access. Feedback is offered in real time and when students are working on assignments such as Google Docs.”
Raines said teachers are required to check in with students and potentially with parents to assess progress or to discuss other potential issues.
Testing and quizzes “are still being worked through. Many of the state-required exams may result in the student coming onto their respective campus to assess in an environment that is safe during the testing window of time,” he said.
Walker School’s virtual/distance learning plan combines two approaches.
“Some teachers are exclusively working with virtual students while others have a ‘virtual block or time’ during the course of a normal in-person day,” he said.
Chickamauga educators are also working to balance their instruction between those learning from home and those in the classroom.
“Our teachers are responsible for their face-to-face learners and also to provide lessons for distance learners in their classes,” Chickamauga City Schools Superintendent Melody Day said.
Chickamauga City Schools are accomplishing this in a variety of ways, utilizing Microsoft Teams as the distance learning platform. Some teachers live-stream their lessons for students at home, but the majority record and post their lessons, Day said.
Distance learners in Chickamauga’s system are receiving the same lessons as students learning face-to-face in the classroom, Day said. Teachers also make contact and have office hours, which coincide with their planning periods, to allow them to interact with their students, answer questions, monitor students and provide feedback and assistance.
“Unfortunately, the teachers are stretched extremely thin trying to accommodate all learners equitably,” she said. “Teachers may have only three to five students who are distance learners, and it is a great deal of work to provide lessons for these students.
“I know for a fact teachers are extremely worried about their distance learners and are putting in many man-hours to ensure they receive quality instruction,” she explained. “They, our custodians, lunch ladies and maintenance personnel are truly heroes!”
Chickamauga’s distance learning students were given the option of testing online with the teacher monitoring or coming into a sanitized classroom from an outside entrance, taking the test in person and leaving the area without ever having to be inside the hallways or mix with others. Most students have opted to come to the school for testing, she said.
Students who chose distance learning were required to commit for one semester, until December, and will have the option to choose again for second semester, Day said.
Walker Schools also asked virtual students to commit through the end of first semester.
“We will continue to monitor and make adjustments as needed,” Raines said.
As the number of COVID-19 cases decreases, Raines and his team are confident and desirous that students and their parents will decide to return to in-person instruction at their respective schools, he said.
“While we are able to reach 100% of our students doing distance learning, and we understand there are very valid reasons for some families to choose distance learning, we do not feel it is ideal,” the Chickamauga schools chief said. “Therefore, our teachers are going above and beyond to ensure these students don’t miss out or fall behind on material.”
The shift to virtual instruction required some more equipment to help some students and posed other challenges.
Walker schools purchased additional devices including Chromebooks and WiFi hotspots for certain students, some of which was purchased from Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act funds and others from Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, or E-SPLOST, funds to make this process successful for students and teachers, he said.
“COVID-19 has definitely had a very negative effect on school system finances,” Day said. “Every school district has received very deep funding cuts from the federal and state governments. However, as far as finances go, since our teachers are providing the distance learning lessons, it has been a minimal cost financially for the district.”
Despite the challenges, both superintendents feel the school year has gotten off to an excellent start.
“I feel our process has been going extremely well, and we are learning more about how to make it more efficient and effective each day,” Raines said.
He praised the “phenomenal job” the teachers are doing during a stressful time. All employees are focused on the school system’s mission and vision while and they work tirelessly each day to ensure students are safe and successful.
Day said she credits the smooth start in Chickamauga schools to “tremendous planning.”
“We have been meeting administratively every week since March to plan procedures for everything from the 2020 graduation to school startup,” she said. “Those meeting are still occurring to address day-to-day operations, cleaning and safety, as well as to develop procedures and protocols for every activity that occurs.”
Educators recognize an outbreak of COVID-19 could occur any time.
“We are doing our best to educate our students so they will be cautious and protect themselves when they are not in school and are mixing with the general public,” Day said.