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Virtual learning takes root

Dawn Rountree was in Baltimore last week attending the 82nd annual International Technology and Engineering Education Association conference when word began filtering among attendees about schools possibly being closed and others colleagues who were already on travel bans.

Rountree, an engineering teacher at Nansemond River High School, began her planning then, collaborating with other teachers at the conference on distance learning options to take home. And after Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan ordered bans on gatherings of more than 250 people last Thursday, she returned home.

That same day, Suffolk Public School teachers also received emails telling them to plan for a possible school closure. At that point, the division’s teachers and staff began putting together their digital resources and learning packets, doing this while staff and students were in school ahead of the statewide school shutdown order from Gov. Ralph Northam.

On Monday, Rountree said teachers were getting crash courses in digital learning tools such as Google Classroom, Google Forms, Screencastify and others, while parents of students who had not yet received their learning packets were able to pick them up.

“Amidst all of this uncertainty, teachers felt a little more confident about becoming distance learning facilitators,” Rountree said.

Teachers across Suffolk Public Schools made their plans, distributed them last Friday and Monday, and have since been staying in touch with students remotely, helping them with their work.

While it’s a challenging time, Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III said everyone has the best interests of students at heart.

“That’s been, probably, the most important part besides feeding our students, is making sure that we’re going to have a continuity of learning,” Gordon said.

Adrienne Miller, an ACCESS adviser at King’s Fork High School, was in the middle of helping high school seniors prepare financial aid forms and other college materials before the pandemic closed schools last week.

Now, she’s continuing that work, but she is doing so remotely, getting questions about financial aid and scholarships.

“The good thing is the majority of my seniors have done what they’re supposed to do with me,” Miller said. “However, I’m still filing (financial aid forms) and talking to colleges in reference to financial aid and missing documents.”

Gordon said the timing of the division’s SPS Connect initiative, to provide Chromebooks for middle and high school students was “like a godsend,” and students have at least 40-plus online resources to help them.

Elementary and secondary school teachers have also set up office hours communicating with parents and students by email, and some, like Mack Benn Jr. Elementary School fifth-grade teacher Jeff Seneca, are holding online classes.

“I know there are quite a few teachers who have set up online classes and meet daily with their students,” Seneca said.

Other elementary school teachers across the division have been posting videos online, reading books to children and sharing positive messages with them.

Gordon said the work sent home with students is not to introduce new material, but to reinforce what has already been taught, and to provide review materials that normally would have been used for unit tests or Standards of Learning tests.

He addressed public criticism and questions by some staff members about why student work would not be graded.

“We don’t know what other responsibilities these kids have, and a lot of them are taking on the responsibilities of being adults and taking care of their siblings, et cetera,” Gordon said.

He also said the guidance the division received from state Department of Education called for a continuity of learning to ensure equity among all students.

“No new material can be taught during this time because students may not be able to have the resources or support needed to learn the material,” Gordon said, “and you also don’t know if kids are working on the work by themselves. There’s so many reasons why the grading part of it all is so secondary than providing them with an opportunity to work.”

Gordon believes students do not want to merely sit around, and he said they have an incentive to complete their assignments, as teachers can check for completion and offer extra credit.

With student learning interrupted with just 11 weeks left in the school year, and with SOL writing tests for eighth graders and high school students that were supposed to start next week, Gordon wants to see SOLs canceled for this year.

He also wants waivers for seniors who need to take any additional tests. Gordon said with the time left in the school year, there would not be enough time to review material, then adequately test and retest students. Teacher evaluations would also have to be adjusted.

“I think everybody’s in that same boat,” Gordon said, “where we just don’t see the ability to be able to test this year being an option.”

The state Department of Education has already extended the testing window for the early round of SOL testing. State Superintendent Dr. James Lane said Tuesday the department “is planning for further flexibility.”

The federal Department of Education said it would consider issuing waivers for individual schools impacted by COVID-19, but Lane said the state is beyond that point now and is seeking statewide relief.

Lane is also directing state Department of Education staff to review state laws and regulations to determine what steps will be needed to make sure seniors who would otherwise graduate this year are not denied diplomas.

Gordon said he is not sure what will happen with Advanced Placement exams scheduled for later this year for students in those classes. The College Board, which administers the AP exams, issued a statement on its website Monday that said it is working on ways students could take the test from home depending on the situation in May.

Gordon said the division is making plans in the event of an extended closure into April or beyond, as has already happened in a number of school divisions.

He said it would continue to be the division’s priority to have students fed while schools are closed. Gordon said he weighed heavily the anxiety students face about the pandemic in the decisions he and other administrators have made in how to structure their time away from the classroom.

“They don’t know when they’re going back, and they don’t know if it’s safe to go play with their friends,” Gordon said. “Those are the things that I really made sure that we kept in mind when we were making these decisions for this school closure.”

As for the virtual learning, Rountree said she has heard from colleagues that students are submitting assignments even in the absence of due dates, and that her students have been reaching out and asking questions.

“Not every student may be able to stay engaged,” Rountree said, “but many are.”