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Online technology helps students through pandemic

Angela Lunsford, principal of Jackson Community School, helps deliver meals to students this week. She is assisted by JCS senior Ryan Bailey. Donated photo Angela Lunsford, principal of Jackson Community School, helps deliver meals to students this week. She is assisted by JCS senior Ryan Bailey. Donated photo

All North Carolina public schools will be shut down through May 15 after Gov. Roy Cooper signed another executive order Monday.

On March 14, Cooper originally ordered schools to close for a minimum of two weeks — essentially an extended spring break — but as the virus continued to spread across the country, it became clear further measures needed to be taken. While almost every aspect of normal daily life has been impacted by the coronavirus, the closing of schools is an incredible disruption of norms for families across the state. 

“We do not have the luxury of a wait-and-see approach. These are hard decisions but they are necessary so we can learn more about the virus,” said Cooper when he announced the school closings. “We do not want any regrets in the rearview mirror, and I am guided by one objective - doing what we must to keep people from getting sick and to make sure that those who do can get excellent care.” 

Cooper has appointed an Education and Nutrition Working Group to support families while schools are closed. 

“I am standing up this new working group to ensure that children have enough food to eat, families have care in safe places for their young children, and student learning continues,” he said. 

 

Logistics 

Beginning Monday, March 16, schools in Western North Carolina and across the state began distance learning full-time. This was a major adjustment for students and a major undertaking for faculty and staff. 

Teachers and administration through the high school level used the first two weeks of school closure to move any material and assignments that weren’t already online, to an online format, and review material instead of introducing new topics. 

“During this first week of the governor’s executive order our teachers are focusing on reinforcing concepts that have previously been taught,” said Macon County Superintendent Dr. Chris Baldwin. 

Haywood Community College decided to move its spring break to take place last week, March 16 through 20. President Shelley White said moving spring break was intended to “allow us some time to adjust to moving everything online. We got to work with our faculty and our online resource department to assist in getting lessons prepared and getting everything ready for what will likely be a lengthy closure.”

Most schools in the region already have a big online presence. Teachers use tools like Google Classroom, Google Meet and Class Dojo to augment the learning experience. Now, teachers will have to rely almost exclusively on these online tools.

“There are digital educational programs that we have been using all year that are still being utilized during this time, such as EPIC, MobyMax, and STEMScopes,” said Byron Burnette, Principal at Clyde Elementary in Haywood County.

Principal Todd Trantham said Tuscola High School is relying heavily on Google Tools. Some teachers are recording themselves teaching and posting these videos in the Google Classroom, holding virtual office hours, or using Google Meet to have conversations with groups of students. 

The regular use of technology within and outside the classroom in this day and age is a benefit to students during this time of online and distance learning. 

“Our students have grown up using smart phones, tablets and computers for educational and entertainment purposes. Using technology to communicate and stay connected in a variety of ways comes naturally to this generation of learners,” Burnette said. 

A transition over the years to using more technology in the classroom means that teachers are well-equipped to handle this sort of situation. 

“Students grow more technologically capable with each year, and so do our teachers. In just one week of this crisis I have been impressed with the adaptability of our faculty and our students. They are comfortable communicating, teaching and learning remotely and/or electronically,” Baldwin said. 

The closing of schools is forcing staff to grow those already burgeoning online resources. At HCC, White admitted to the growth that has come out of the coronavirus crisis. The college has worked to create additional resources online that were not available just one week before. These include a library chat where students can communicate questions for library staff online, tutoring services online and test proctoring online. 

“What I’ve heard from faculty and staff this week is that although this is a very challenging time, and we recognize that, it’s challenged us and pushed us to engage some things that we perhaps have been wanting to do but we haven’t had the time to do. It’s pushed us to go ahead and put some things in place that we’ve wanted to do for a long time. It’s forced us to shift our priorities to support online resources,” she said. 

This ability to learn effectively via online sources does not mean that schools are relying solely on technology while closed. Faculty and staff understand the importance of pulling the focus away from screens when possible. Administration at Tuscola is urging teachers to get creative and regularly include learning activities that don’t involve screens. Things like reading a book, interviewing a parent about a time period in their life, or doing an activity with siblings. 

 

Making online tools accessible

Schools are making it a priority to provide as many resources and options as possible for students that don’t have access to the internet, or other technology necessary to complete online learning activities. By the end of the day Tuesday, March 17, the staff of Haywood County Schools had “distributed hundreds of educational activities in paper and digital form, and loaned students 948 Chromebooks and other devices,” said Superintendent Bill Nolte. 

Additionally, administration is providing students and parents with ways to access the internet if they don’t have it available at home. 

“Part of the resources we’re sending home, we’re including where public Wi-Fi sites are available. We always tell them, you can pull up in our parking lot and catch the Wi-Fi signal from that, and there’s a number of hot spots that are being learned about, like the parking lot of your favorite pizza place,” said Alex Masciarelli, principal at Junaluska Elementary. 

Schools in Macon County are also opening their parking lots to students to connect to wireless internet during the day from 6 a.m. until 9 p.m. Although Macon County cannot provide devices for every student at this time, Baldwin said the school system hopes to have this worked out after the initial two-week closure. 

“Of course, we will always make paper copies of assignments available to students who need them,” he said. 

 

Personal connections

Several teachers and parents have said their children miss school, friends and teachers. These are obvious side effects of the isolation of self-quarantine. Faculty and staff are making every effort to keep up regular communication with students.

“Teachers (at Clyde Elementary) are expected to make communication attempts with every family, every day in some form or another. Our administration is posting on social media, our school website, and we are sending out phone messages in the evenings, giving parents information,” said Burnette. 

According to Trantham, Tuscola is advising every teacher to check in on how they can better support students. They hope to use this feedback after the initial two-week closure to provide the most accessible teaching possible.

“Students are very equipped technologically to operate in this environment, but when a young person is beginning to develop their personality and who they are, one of the most important things we can do is create personal connections, face to face contact and engaging conversations. And if you’re not careful, an online environment doesn’t lend itself to that. So we’ve got to put the effort in, to make sure we’re having engaging conversations with young people because those conversations matter,” said Trantham. 

Keeping personal contact alive and well during a time when teachers and students are separated physically is a struggle Macon County is trying to defeat in the early stages of school closure, to set the tone in the long run.

“Macon County teachers and teacher assistants have been very proactive in reaching out to families in our district. They understand the burden that this crisis has placed upon families and have communicated their desire to be a resource for students and parents until this event has ended. Our guidance counselors have been particularly focused on touching base with families to help meet emotional needs that might have arisen as a result of the stress that the pandemic has placed on everyone,” Baldwin said. 

 

Other efforts

In addition to providing distance learning, school faculty and staff are working to provide students with daily meals, lunch and breakfast. Each day meals are prepared by cafeteria staff and delivered by school bus drivers to the multiple drop-off points around their counties. This effort will help to keep families fed during a time of uncertainty. Administration from around the region have expressed how proud they are of the staff in their districts for all the hard work they are doing to keep students fed, connected and learning. 

Jackson County Schools delivered 921 meals in just one day while Swain County delivered 605 meals to students. 

“Please make a note of how awesome our staff is and that they have re-invented what it looks like to teach and learn in an elementary school and that I am very proud of them. I consider it an honor to be the principal at Clyde,” Burnette said. 

HCC is working closely with emergency services in Haywood County. If necessary, HCC would make its facilities available for emergency purposes. 

“We’re continuing to work with our local emergency personnel on how the college may be able to help respond at this time. We’re working with them on potentially utilizing our facilities for the emergency response,” White said.

 

Future

Haywood County Schools transitioned to essential services operations only on Thursday, March 19. This means that teachers are authorized to work from home without taking accumulated leave. System-level administrators, principals, full-time classified employees and part-time employees are to report to work, or else take accumulated leave. 

The announcement that schools will be closed until May 15 means that schools will have to rely on the systems they have put in place over the last week and a half throughout most of the rest of the school year. As with any novel experience, schools, teachers and students will learn how online and distance learning work best as the weeks go by. 

“Online learning is not sufficient, but it is better than no instruction at all. I am confident that our instruction will continue to improve for the duration of this event, but I will be extremely happy to see our students walk back through the front door of our schools,” Baldwin said. 

On March 23 the state board of education acted to eliminate state and federal standardized testing for this school year. Along with the extended school closure all extra-curricular and similar activities are suspended through May 15. More updates about the logistics of shut down schools will come from the state and federal level. 

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