The coronavirus pandemic sent shock waves throughout Virginia starting with the public school system.
Gov. Ralph Northam signed an executive order in March closing all K-12 schools for two weeks then canceling the school year because of the pandemic.
Because the situation was fluid, districts like Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools and the York County School Division worked on plans to transition to remote, virtual learning for their students.
In the spring, educators worked on converting teaching materials to remote learning modules, said Robin Ford, director of elementary curriculum and instruction for WJCC Schools.
Then in June, Northam announced a plan for schools to reopen in phases, giving the school districts options on how to limit the spread of the virus.
Ford said over the summer, teachers were divided into teams and worked with “curriculum coordinators” to create a “digital textbook” ––classes in Canvas––for the students using the SOL requirements for each course.
“We took a slightly different approach for elementary students,” Ford said, adding they also organized the classes on a weekly basis through the website.
Some 300 teachers were involved in the process.
So what are the expectations of students, parents and teachers in this virtual learning environment?
Ford said the students have both synchronous and asynchronous learning where they engage with teachers and their peers.
For example, elementary students have a morning class meeting and now that the students have transitioned to blended learning with both in-person classroom days, they already have relationships in place.
Ford did not elaborate further.
When asked what the administration has learned from the new teaching curriculum format, Ford said they learned about their teachers’ skills in the virtual learning classroom.
“First and foremost, we’ve learned that our teachers have an incredible ability to collaborate to focus on what’s more important which is obviously our students,” Ford said.
Teachers were able to create “dynamic curriculum,” learn new student engagement tools while giving them individual attention, she noted.
Because the traditional school changed its class format to virtual learning, did the school division add more homework to the new curriculum to compensate for in-person instruction?
Ford said the teachers and curriculum planning starts with the “intended learning outcomes” and there are “engagement activities” where teachers can assess their students’ needs.
“Our teachers work very hard to differentiate their instruction along with the engagement that we asked them to participate in,” Ford said. “How students practice and how long that takes and what the outcome is can vary based on their needs.”
“I think in our current situation, again there is so much individual variation on how much it takes for a student to complete an assignment,” she added.
When asked how WJCC rates the level of learning among its students, Ford said the teachers access the students through different means from synchronous learning, submitted work assignments and most recently, observe them during blended learning.
She added the teachers can give the students “appropriate assessments” and determine “the next appropriate learning opportunity for them.”
“We are very very proud of our students, our teachers, families,” Ford said. “It’s been such a collaborative effort, every step along the way, from the teachers to our operations staff….it has been a truly community effort and we just simply could not be prouder.”
Katherine Goff, spokeswoman for the York County School Division, said parents have reached out to her and her team with concerns about workload.
“A way for parents to share their concerns is to talk to the teacher, principals and reach out to the school board so that we can support them,” Goff said.
YCSD conducted a survey at the end of October to find out how parents and students were dealing with the transition.
One of the questions asked families how they would compare the amount of time their child is spending on their schoolwork in comparison to the prior year — 78% of families who responded to the survey said their kids are spending the same amount of time or less time doing school work.
Candi Skinner, YCSD’s chief academic officer, said the division may not understand that kids could be working additional hours beyond what they would want, so teachers are very willing to adjust for the students as needed.
“We just have to have our parents talking with us. And so that’s one of the reasons for the survey question,” Skinner said.
“We really want to make sure that we’re not overwhelming children or families. It’s never our intent. And we’re always willing to adjust instruction for our students,” Skinner added.
Curriculum is the same as it is regulated by the state, but the way students are being taught is different.
“How they have adapted to teaching in this environment is nothing short of amazing,” Goff said.
Is it the ideal learning situation for students?
“I don’t think there’s an educator in America that would say that it is and we’re really hopeful that we can continue to refine our practices and get back to a place where our students are in the building,” said Christie Pica, the instructional coordinator for the school division.
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