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Area school systems chart new learning paths amid shutdown

A week after Gov. Ralph Northam abruptly closed schools across the state, teachers in Louisa County schools were ready to teach remotely — a step that many area divisions are taking this week.

The Louisa division handed out two weeks worth of alternative learning resources March 20, and 98% of families picked up the packets through a drive-thru distribution system. Since then, packets are being mailed to students.

“We started planning for the closure a week ahead,” said Doug Straley, superintendent for Louisa schools. “We really had been planning for [schools to be closed for] two weeks. We felt like something was coming.”

Straley said the division wanted to ensure that all students had access to materials, even those who don’t have reliable internet access, which is why staff members decided for paper resources rather than online activities.

“We’re trying to make the best of the situation,” he said.

Across Central Virginia, school divisions have spent the last several weeks planning how to continue learning while students are at home. Many, including Charlottesville and Albemarle schools, started remote teaching this week — a month since Northam’s initial order. He later closed buildings for the rest of the academic year.

A state task force that is focused on continuing learning during the closure emphasized that divisions should focus first on all students and their social and emotional needs and to target essential knowledge and skills for the different grade levels and content areas.

“This is a devastating time for all Virginians, and we must put the needs of our students before all else,” the task force wrote in a report released last week.

School divisions are heeding that call, and many have plans to regularly check in with students.

“It’s just as important to continue with learning and make sure we look after the social-emotional well-being of students,” Straley said.

As school officials developed plans, they grappled with similar issues such as how to ensure access to learning activities for all students, including those who don’t have internet or computers at home, according to a review of public plans. School divisions have responded by extending WiFi to school parking lots, handing out technology to students or mailing resources.

[Related: OC Schools line up laptops and lessons for next week’s move to online education]

For the most part, lessons are focused on essential knowledge and skills that students need to know for the next level, according to the plans. None of those lessons will be graded but teachers will check to see if they are completed and give feedback.

“We will prioritize learning that is meaningful, responsive to the needs of this situation, considers where the learning is taking place, and does not reinforce inequities,” wrote Anna Graham, superintendent of Madison County schools.

Madison County started a four-week fourth quarter April 13, and the division is looking to advance learning goals and incorporate the home environment and student interests as much as possible.

[Related: COVID-19 shines light on lack of broadband access]

Seniors on track to graduate will be able to do so, according to the state and school systems, and how final grades will be determined varies. Most districts in the area have said students will be allowed to move on to the next grade level unless discussions about retention started before March 13.

In some school systems, final grades could depend on whether students complete the remote assignments and divisions are giving students the opportunity to turn in work in order to raise their third-quarter grades.

The Charlottesville and Albemarle school divisions have given students laptops and internet hotspots and have switched most instruction online, though specific approaches vary depending on grade levels.

“One of the things that we’re very cognizant of is our youngest learners and how we can give them additional time,” said Debbie Collins, assistant superintendent for student learning for Albemarle, at a recent School Board meeting. “So we’re looking more toward summer and next fall in providing more time for them, instead of relying on the online learning options for pre-k, kindergarten, first and second grade.”

Albemarle officials gave families three options for distance learning — six weeks of virtually learning starting April 13, summer school or an extended 2020-21 school year. The division recommended the virtual learning option for students.

The lessons were developed by teachers in their professional learning communities, and the division intends to collect data on student learning to start planning how to catch students up.

High school students in Albemarle should expect about two hours of work per course per week. Full online class meetings are limited to 30 minutes per week. These sessions are being recorded for students who can’t participate live, but it is not mandatory for students to attend these meetings.

Charlottesville City Schools has handed out more than 1,000 laptops and 80 hotspots to prepare for remote learning from April 13 to June 5. Lessons for students in second grade and higher will be online while the division mailed workbooks to those in preschool, kindergarten and first grade.

“As [Charlottesville schools Superintendent Rosa] Atkins told us when we started down this journey, there is no way we can replicate face-to-face instruction,” said Gertrude Ivory, a consultant for the city schools, at a recent School Board meeting. “While many of our teachers have dabbled in creating online and blended learning activities, many have not. This new approach to teaching and learning is having an even greater impact on our families and students as they deal with fundamental life issues.”

Teachers will be looking to see which students are participating in the online activities and reaching out to families, officials said. If they can’t reach a family, the principal will get involved and work with social workers to connect with students.

For Charlottesville’s distance learning plan, division staff identified the specific content that has not been taught and developed ways to incorporate the missing content, said Jim Henderson, associate superintendent for the city schools.

Henderson said the division is aiming to provide consistency for students, equity and flexibility “so that continued learning is encouraged and supported, and most of all our families and staff can focus on their own well-being.”

For K-1, the division is recommending 20 minutes per day of instructional activities for literacy, math, science, social studies and specials. For grades second to fourth, 40 minutes of literacy and 30 minutes for other subjects is recommended.

Ivory said the first set of lessons was designed by continuity of learning teams, led by coordinators, but teachers eventually will be responsible for developing more activities.

“Our fifth through eighth grade students and teachers are delving more deeply into virtual learning, and it is not virtual learning in its purest sense and is more like emergency remote teaching,” Ivory said. “… What we’re doing is providing access to instruction and instructional support in a manner that was easy to implement and as reliable as we can make it during this emergency.”

Charlottesville High School Principal Eric Irizarry said at the board meeting that he expects the beginning of next school year to include a lot of review for students.

“We’re going to know exactly where those students were when they left,” he said at the board meeting.


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