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Teachers strive to keep students connected and engaged online amid coronavirus shutdown

When Virginia schools shut down and sent students home for the foreseeable future, Steve Whitaker, a teacher at Jack Jouett Middle School, wanted to feel like he was doing something to help his students and help them stay connected as a class.

So, Whitaker pulled together a list of daily activities such as making an origami box, walking outside and joining a live Zoom meeting. He shared the list with families in a bid to give students some sense of normalcy amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“We can still have a routine even if it’s all crazy,” he said.

Charlottesville and Albemarle school divisions are focusing on taking care of students’ health and well-being and offering learning opportunities online.

Neither division has immediate plans to teach students new content remotely, though area private schools are continuing classes online, following state guidance that schools can focus on enrichment and keeping students connected, rather than teaching new lessons.

“We knew there are students who are disadvantaged and it would cause them more stress,” Albemarle schools Superintendent Matt Haas said, of the difficulty trying to keep students up-to-date with regular instructional content. He added that face-to-face teaching cannot be improved upon.

Remote learning is not an option “until we have a robust platform for virtual learning and can ensure that every student has access to it,” he said.

Haas said this week in an interview with WINA that he doesn’t anticipate holding students back a grade because of missed instruction time.

Teachers, meanwhile, are reviewing lessons and working to stay connected with their students through a variety of ways. The Albemarle County school division has created a webpage with at-home learning resources for families and individual schools have handed out learning packets.

To help students access those resources and stay engaged, Charlottesville and Albemarle have distributed school-issued Chromebooks to families. At Walker Upper Elementary School on Thursday, families lined up to retrieve computers.

Teachers and principals also are posting videos/259327145227211" target="_blank">daily videos to YouTube and other social media platforms to offer tips during the closure and continue to be a presence in students’ lives.

Charlottesville City Schools said its goal during the closure is to maintain relationships between schools and families and to encourage students to continue — and to enjoy — learning.

“For the time being, these resources are offered as suggestions for families to help provide structure, maintain a connection to our schools and foster continuous learning,” spokeswoman Beth Cheuk said. “Work will not be graded. These activities are offered as a support, not a stressor.”

The Albemarle County school division is expanding Check and Connect, its mentoring program for fifth-graders, to all students, and teachers and administrators will check in with every student once a week until Spring Break, which starts April 6.

Debbie Collins, deputy superintendent for Albemarle County schools, said Check and Connect will let schools maintain relationships during the closure.

“We want to be an anchor for students,” she said.

The weekly conversations also will help the division find out students’ needs and ask if they have computers and internet access — information that will be useful if the division has to transition to teaching new lessons online.

Collins said division staff members are thinking about next steps should closures extend long-term — but said staff are trying not to get too far ahead of themselves and the current situation.

Gov. Ralph Northam ordered Virginia schools closed until March 27, though Albemarle has decided to stay shut down until at least April 10. The fate of the rest of the school year is still up in the air.

Nationally, school closures have affected about 54 million school students, according to Education Week. Friday, the federal education department said it would waive standardized testing requirements, an option Virginia appears likely to take.

“Teachers need to be able to focus on remote learning and other adaptations,” U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said in a news release. “Neither students nor teachers need to be focused on high-stakes tests during this difficult time.”

Shannon Gillikin, a kindergarten teacher at Jackson-Via Elementary School, put together a private Facebook group for her families in order to let her students see one another and to keep the classroom community alive.

“I love to see their faces,” she said.

Gillikin posts daily readings, writing prompts, math games and other activities in the group, sometimes posting videos wearing colorful outfits that she hopes will cheer children up. She’s also watching her own elementary-school-age children during the day.

On Thursday, she asked families to go for a walk and take photos of flowers along the way. Next week, students will learn about spring.

“Routine is so important,” she said. “For a lot of kids, school is a safe space and somewhere they have adults loving them, and that was taken away from them. To see a teacher’s face is really important. It lets them know we care about them and are reaching out. Academics are really on the backburner for now.”

At Jack Jouett this week, Whitaker would have wrapped up a nine-week section on chemistry and transitioned to physics. About a third of his 60 students regularly are participating in the daily activities posted to the shared document.

“To get 20 in the strangeness of all this, that’s a good return for something I threw together in a week,” he said.

Whitaker said he aims to give students a live activity that they can all do together.

“They enjoy doing something, and the kids like to get to see each other,” he said.

When he’s not working with students, he’s trying to help his own children, who are in sixth and ninth grade, “feel like they have one hand on something close to normal.”

“It helped my daughter to create a schedule, so we’re on a daily schedule written by a 12-year-old,” he said.

According to the schedule, their day starts with wake up time from 6 to 8 a.m. Then, the family gets ready and takes their chocolate lab Hazel for a long walk.

“Health and well-being is the priority right now,” Whitaker said of his students and family.


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