As Charlottesville’s and Albemarle’s public schools move forward with online learning, how are teachers communicating with students?
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Since Gov. Ralph Northam shuttered K-12 schools in response to the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, history and English teacher Russell Carlock has been sending emails to his students, letting them know he cares and is thinking about them.
In the emails, Carlock, who teaches at Albemarle High School, expressed he’d like to hear back from them so he knows they’re doing all right. And so far, he said he’s gotten a great number of responses. For those he didn’t hear from, he called them to talk to them or their parents.
Carlock is among hundreds of teachers staying connected with students amid the pandemic outbreak as school divisions fully transition to online teaching, with guidelines set by the state.
Both Albemarle County Public Schools and Charlottesville City Schools on Thursday evening provided updates on continuing learning during their virtual school board meetings, including graduation requirements, platform used among teachers, ways teachers are assisting English learners and conversations on child care for essential workers.
In the county schools, for instance, the division said details on how teachers will manage online learning and distance learning are being developed now by principals and central office staff. The plans will be issued in the near future and will take effect on April 13, according to the division. Assessments won’t be graded, but teacher feedback will be provided to students.
To assist students needing a computer, Albemarle schools have extended Wi-Fi access for personal devices and school-related equipment into schools parking lots. And in the city, Charlottesville City Schools have been providing Chromebook computers and Wi-Fi hotspots.
“I also recorded a video of myself explaining some of the work that I have assigned for them to do online,” Carlock said. “And if they have any questions about what they needed to do, I was able to answer those on the phone with them.”
The video was targeted towards those who have access to the internet, Carlock said, but he also had hard copy materials for those who didn’t have a computer.
There are a few students Carlock has not been able to connect with either their phone numbers have changed or their parents have not picked up.
“For those students, I am concerned because I do want to make sure that I connect with all my students,” he said. “I’m still working to try to figure out the best way to do that for the ones I have not been able to connect with.”
The best interaction he’s had with students have been through emails, he said. Still, many don’t use emails, so he’s working on ways to connect with students who do not feel comfortable using that format. He also has had good phone conversations, he said, as he answers their questions.
In the midst of the transition, Carlock said he’s concerned about those who need a lot of support to organize their time to understand what they have to do in order to meet the learning requirements.
Teaching live classes has allowed him to build relationships with students at a deeper level and respond to their questions. That has also allowed him to assist students even before they realize that they are confused about a lesson.
“Sometimes students will continue working, and they’re not making progress. They have not realized. The teacher can see if the student is going down the wrong paths as they’re completing their work and begin to address that right away by asking questions,” he said, adding that format works well for live classes but difficult to achieve online.
Another challenge includes students not being familiar with the tool of online learning, and having to assist them, he explained.
“It doesn’t mean that it cannot be done,” he said. “I know that there will be a lot of challenges.”
Transitioning to virtual learning is a critical time for educators as experts say online learning could add inequities for those who might not have access to digital devices.
Abigail Amoako Kayser, a postdoctoral research associate of the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, said the schools might not see the effects now “but in a few years, we’re going to see that kids whose parents had access to how to really homeschool and do it well, and the kids who were not able to have that, we’re going to see it in the test scores.”
Kayser stressed that teachers shouldn’t let technology affect learning, as there are people across the globe who are still learning with limited access to technology. The pandemic is an opportunity for teachers to be creative, like using materials at home like Legos, books or a playground outside to make learning relevant.
“We need to think about equity because of where the children live or have access to. This is a test to see how well you know your parents,” Kayser said, adding that she wouldn’t assign anything that young children couldn’t complete independently.
In the U.S., 1 in 10 families speak a language other than English at home, Kayser noted, explaining it’s a concern for those who may not understand the materials sent to them.
“If a teacher is going to make a phone call, get a translator on the phone so the parents can ask all the questions and the teacher can answer them,” Kayser said.
Phil Giaramita, spokesman for the county schools, said the communications between educators, parents and students will be multilingual.
“[This is] an important part of the state’s emphasis and our own focus on equity on how the learning plans are designed and delivered beginning the week after next,” Giaramita said.
At Cale Elementary School, which will become Mountain View Elementary School on July 1, first-grade teacher Katie Morgans said materials in her class, at least, have been delivered in Spanish and English. Her days include reading to students or teaching them a song via 5- to 10-minute videos. The videos are recorded, and parents can access them at any time.
“It’s very different,” Morgans said. “The nice thing is that a lot of the outside pressure has been lifted. Like right now, we don’t have to worry about report cards or SOL. [We] just have to focus on the kids and the families.”
Before the pandemic, she used Seesaw once a week. It is a digital learning platform that allows teachers to post activities, including educational videos, and also allows students to practice their Spanish language skills by recording themselves. Lately, she’s been using it daily to stay connected with parents.
Morgans said she would like to stay connected with all parents. She and her partnering teacher from the immersion dual-language program have a contact log to track who they’re talking to and what was discussed.
“Parents can do all the activities at any time. It’s all recorded,” she said. “It’s not happening live. If your time is on Saturday night, you can do it then. We’re trying to make it not a burden. The activities shouldn’t take too long.”
In Charlottesville, Jackson-Via Elementary School third-grade teacher Emily Axelbaum said she communicates with each family once or twice a week and communicates with students who log into Seesaw daily.
She posts a morning message video on Seesaw to greet them. That’s her way of communicating with them what they have to do that day. Their daily reading could include a read-aloud book on YouTube or a passage sent by Axelbaum to read and write responses.
“Their daily math includes a short lesson done through screencasting and some practice problems,” she said.
Teaching in a virtual setting is different, she said, which is difficult to compare to the classroom environment because it’s hands-on and engaging.
“It’s difficult to teach a student when you don’t know what their day-to-day experience is right now,” she said. “Where a student is emotionally and mentally informs so much of your approach in the classroom, so it is more challenging when you don’t have the same level of engagement with the students themselves.”
Click here to access online resources by Kayser.