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This page offers all of Delaware Public Media's ongoing coverage of the COVID-19 outbreak and how it is affecting the First State. Check here regularly for the latest new and information.

First State schools scramble to ramp up remote learning

Delaware Public Media

Schools in the First State remain closed until at least May 15th under Gov. John Carney’s emergency order.  That means at least a month and a half more of school trying to educate students remotely.

The challenge of doing that it’s a huge one.  Delaware Public Media contributor Larry Nagengast checked in this week with districts and schools around the state to see how they’re faring – and found approaches and preparedness vary.

As they sail into the uncharted waters created by the coronavirus pandemic, some Delaware educators believe their schools haven’t missed a beat, while others hope that they don’t.

During the original two-week shutdown period that ends today, schools have followed divergent paths. Some used the time as an early spring break, others worked with their staffs to develop online learning platforms, and still others jumped right into a new instructional regimen even while their buildings were closed. Regardless, next week virtually all schools will be in an instructional mode that is likely to continue until May 15, the end date given in Gov. John Carney’s executive order closing the state’s public school buildings.

Michael Benner, the assistant head of the independent Wilmington Friends School, put it this way: “We are not stopping instruction. The building is closed, but school is open.”

While every school faces the same challenge – how best to deliver learning to students who cannot enter their regular classrooms – the means of meeting that challenge can vary greatly.

“Every district is in a different place,” says Jeffrey Menzer, installed in February as superintendent of the Colonial School District.

Well before Carney ordered the school shutdown on March 13, that possibility had been on the radar of every school official contacted for this report. But readiness levels varied significantly.

“Most of the [public school] districts had been ‘planning,’” Menzer says, “but that meant like talking, ‘what does this mean?’ On March 13 we realized, this was really it.”

"We want to see learning going on, but it's going to look radically different from before." - Colonial School District superintendent Jeffery Menzer.

Some schools, especially the smaller ones, were ready to go.

“We’ve had instruction online since Day One [March 16],” says Aaron Bass, CEO of the East Side Charter School, located in one of Wilmington’s poorest neighborhoods. On March 13, the school distributed learning packets to all students before they went home. The school has audited families, checking on whether tech devices and internet access is available, and delivering lesson plans to the homes of students who are unable to get online.

Similarly, the Charter School of Wilmington, which serves grades 9-12, and Sussex Academy, a middle and high school charter in Georgetown, let their students take their school-issued laptops home on March 12-13 and began offering online classes the following Monday.

In contrast, it took the Christina School District until the middle of this week to survey families on the types of technology devices and internet access available in their households.

While the lessons, in most cases, are following the sequence set out in the course curriculum, the setting certainly isn’t. Teachers will most often be working from home, sometimes in their living rooms, delivering instruction via online platforms like Zoom, and often hoping that their work isn’t interrupted by their own kids who are home for the duration. Students, at least those who don’t have school-issued laptops, may have to compete for computer time with siblings and parents who are now homebound. Students with limited internet access – or none at all – will be working on printed instructional packets, sometimes delivered by the buses that are distributing school meals to their neighborhoods.

“We want to see learning going on, but it’s going to look radically different from before,” Menzer says. “It’s not going to look like a regular day.”

Sussex Academy students, for example, spend Monday and Tuesday doing work assigned by teachers, then log in to online classes teachers deliver via Zoom on Wednesday and Thursday, with Friday devoted to teacher office hours, tutoring and other assignments, says Eric Anderson, the head of school.

Charter School of Wilmington follows a different pattern, says James Capolupo, the school president. Online classes are held each morning on a regular schedule – four one day, and four the next, with afternoons set aside for reading, research and projects.

Younger students are less likely to remain attentive in front of computers for extended periods, so instructional patterns for them can differ, and more parental support is typically required.

At Wilmington Friends School, students in first through fourth grades aren’t issued laptops, “and we aren’t making assumptions about access [to the internet],” Benner says. “We have [online] resources for parents, posted for their use when they’re able to do so.” In addition, the school sent home hard copies of resource materials with the students the last day they were in an actual class.

“We’re partnering with families,” says Rachel Valentin, head of the elementary program at the Charter School of New Castle. The school has assembled learning packets that parents or guardians can pick up at the school and online options are being rolled out next week. “It’s a new normal. We’re encouraging everyone to do the best they can,” she says.

The online elementary curriculum will be aligned with the state’s standards, says Laretha Odumosu, head of the middle school program and the parent of a kindergarten student there. Online elementary programming will be designed to be “more esthetically pleasing” to younger children, she says.

No matter what the school or district, or the age level, students – and their families – can expect a blend of instructional modes – textbooks, worksheets and the online instruction, which can be either synchronous (delivered at a specified time for an entire class) or asynchronous (recorded and posted online for students to access when it is convenient for them).

In addition to regular curriculum materials provided by schools, the state Department of Education has created this page with supplemental resources that families can use. The department expects to add more links to the page in the coming weeks, spokeswoman Alison May said.


While Carney has ordered that public school buildings remain closed through May 15, there is still uncertainty as to whether the ban could be extended further or, if schools do reopen, how their calendars might be adjusted to make up for lost learning time. The federal government’s decision not to require annual assessments of student and school performance will mean that, if classes are resumed, schools will be able to follow the regular curriculum, rather than devoting time to test preparation and administration.


Regardless of when schools reopen, Carney has stated that the school year should not be extended beyond June 30.


"We know that, no matter what we do. there will be learning gaps." - Brandywine School District's Acting Superintendent Lincoln Hohler

Some schools are already working toward that contingency. The Brandywine School District’s administration has prepared an updated calendar but Acting Superintendent Lincoln Hohler said he couldn’t release it until it’s approved by the district’s school board. Both the Christina and Colonial districts are anticipating extending their school years.


“We don’t want this to be something permanently detrimental to a child’s academic future,” Colonial’s Menzer says.


At least two independent schools – Tower Hill and Wilmington Friends – and two charters aren’t anticipating any calendar extensions.


“We didn’t skip a beat. Our teachers are fully equipped to do online instruction,” says Capolupo at the Charter School of Wilmington.


At Sussex Academy, Anderson expressed a similar sentiment. “We’ve had full programming continuously and we have evidence that we’re getting work done.


Then, he added, “I don’t think there’s much productivity in that. Every district is different, but I think we’d have kids sitting around doing nothing,” not to mention students wanting to start their summer jobs and the prospect of buses getting stuck in beach traffic while picking up and dropping off students who live in coastal towns.


At East Side Charter, Bass is concerned that the closure might last longer, making a calendar extension more likely. “We have this date when we will go back, but we haven’t checked with COVID,” he says.


Although his teachers were well prepared to transition to online lessons, Bass is concerned that his school’s population – largely low-income minority students, a demographic whose academic outcomes tends to lag behind state norms – may fall behind because of the interruption. This, he says, can have a long-term impact.


“What is the cost of this education loss, and how do we mitigate it?” he asks. “Their future teachers won’t care if the reason they’re reading below grade level in high school is because of coronavirus in third grade. Nobody’s going to give them a free pass.”


A widening of the learning gap between children who have internet access and strong family support and those who don’t is “probably the unfortunate truth,” says Alva Mobley, public information officer for the Christina School District.


In the Brandywine School District, Hohler anticipates teachers having to play catch-up with an undetermined number of students this fall, and next year as well. “We know that, no matter what we do, there will be learning gaps,” he says.


“We’re all scrambling,” Mobley says. “And, what happens after May 15, well, we don’t know.”

Proms, finals and graduations

High schools are doing their best to maintain their best to preserve traditional activities for their seniors but it’s too soon to tell how it will all work out.

Sussex Academy canceled its senior prom, scheduled for April 4, and head of school Eric Anderson held an online town hall with his 70 seniors this week to discuss options and the prospects for graduation. “Teachers and parents are working so we have a prom, but we have to figure out where it will be,” he says. “And we will have a graduation, even if we have to do it in August.”

The Charter School of Wilmington has pushed its prom from April 3 to May 29, school president James Capolupo says. Commencement exercises – set for June 5 – are unchanged, at least for now.

In the Brandywine School District, plans for senior proms, scheduled for the second half of May, haven’t changed, but school officials are checking alternate venues and dates, just in case, Acting Superintendent Lincoln Hohler says.

Many public high schools in New Castle County use the Bob Carpenter Center at the University of Delaware as their commencement venue. As of midweek, the university had not made any decisions about use of the facility, a spokesman said.

At William Penn High School, seniors are a top priority, says former principal Jeffrey Menzer, now superintendent of the Colonial School District. “We’re getting our seniors to the finish line. They’ve given us 12 years of their lives. We’re going to make sure they finish well.”

For some students, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams are a big concern since scores on these tests can bring the award of college credits. This year, AP tests will be administered online and will take only 45 minutes, not the usual three hours. The IB program, offered at five Delaware schools, has canceled all its year-end exams, usually held in May. Participating students will be awarded an IB diploma or certificate, depending on their enrollment and classes completed, according to Michael Benner, assistant head of Wilmington Friends, one of the Delaware IB schools.



Larry Nagengast, a contributor to Delaware First Media since 2011, has been writing and editing news stories in Delaware for more than five decades.
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