Delaware Public Media

Teachers, students and administrators begin navigating remote learning

Apr 3, 2020

Last week, contributor Larry Nagengast took an in-depth look at how schools across the First State were preparing to teach students remotely with their buildings closed until at least May 15 under Gov. John Carney’s emergency order.

Many schools began their remote teaching efforts this week – and Larry checked in with teachers and others on the frontlines to get a sense for how it is going.

Confidence and optimism gave way to reality this week as many Delaware teachers began their first extended experience with distance learning.

With public schools likely closed through May 15 under the state of emergency declared by Gov. John Carney and private schools shuttered by state-imposed limitations on the size of gatherings, educators have turned to a variety of distance learning modes to continue delivering instruction to their students.

While last week some school leaders were confident that their teachers and students could carry on without missing a beat, indications from the front lines this week are that there are plenty of beats being skipped.

“I jumped right in,” says Lisa Mims, a fifth-grade teacher at Pleasantville Elementary in the Colonial School District. Mims considers herself tech-savvy and her students, and their parents, are used to getting assignments and messages from her through online platforms. But this week’s experience, using Zoom meeting software, was different.

As Mims, working from home, tried to run a live classroom session, “I had to do things two or three times to get it right. I kept saying to my class, ‘Wait, I’m new to this.’” It didn’t take her long to reach a conclusion: “It takes longer to use the technology. I’m not able to do the lessons in the increments I had hoped for.”

But it’s getting better. After the first day, Mims learned to tell her students to push the mute button on their computers so others wouldn’t get distracted by the background noises created by others in the student’s home. And she got her students to make up some rules for classroom decorum, including procedures for asking questions and not interrupting when others speak.

There are likely many teachers throughout the state who have made similar discoveries this week.

“I expect that we’re going to build as we go through this,” says Matt Burrows, superintendent of the Appoquinimink School District. “It’s like the first week of school.”

Once teachers become comfortable with the new instructional platforms, he hopes it will become much more normal.

Even though school officials had a hunch in early March that closures would be coming, the early preparations weren’t enough. Many districts and charter schools, and private schools as well, were distributing take-home lesson packets to students on March 13, when Carney ordered schools closed for two weeks but they remained in a sort of limbo until Carney extended the closings to May 15 (sooner if coronavirus is under control in the state at an earlier date).

“We changed our entire instructional delivery system in a two- to three-week period,” says Heath Chasanov, superintendent of the Woodbridge School District. “If we were going to do this well, it would have taken a year to plan out.”

“It’s like a modern fire drill. We have to be ready for this all the time now,” says Anthony Pisapia, assistant head of the private Tower Hill School in Wilmington.

“We’re going to start slow and communicate,” says LouAnn Hudson, supervisor of instructional support in the Cape Henlopen School District. “We’ll get better at this as the weeks go on.”

In the meantime, Chasanov says, his message to families in his district is to “be patient with us.”

“Each day I focus on posting an assignment, emphasizing the most important content,” says Tami Lunsford, who teaches Advanced Placement biology and other science classes at Newark Charter School. “The first thing I’m thinking about is what is most important for the kids to learn.”

That’s because, in most cases, the amount of instructional time will be significantly less in a distance learning environment than in a classroom setting. In Appoquinimink, for example, 90-minute high school classes are being cut to 45 minutes of screen time, Burrows says. At Tower Hill, screen time is capped at four hours daily for high school students and scaled down for lower grades, Pisapia says.

In Cape Henlopen, Hudson says, lessons at the elementary level will focus on things that are easy to do at home – reading, writing and math, with paper-and-pencil packets available for families that don’t have online access.

In some cases, lesson plans suitable for instruction during the pandemic are available. Culinary arts students at Delcastle Technical High School, who use a curriculum created by the National Restaurant Association Education Foundation, are going through a unit on safe takeout food preparation and delivery in the coronavirus environment, according to instructional technology coach Tara Saladyga.

The timing of the shutdown, for many schools, coincided with the closing weeks of the third marking period, meaning that students will have to complete pending assignments online so teachers can complete grading for the quarter.

To some educators, the emphasis is less on the volume of new material student can learn and more on keeping their minds active during a stressful period.

“We have children struggling right now with adult issues,” says Aaron Bass, CEO of the EastSide Charter School in Wilmington.

“We have families in crisis, some have lost jobs, and school is not the first thing on their minds,” Hudson says. “We have to be mindful that families can’t take any more right now.”

In addition to the stress the crisis has placed on families, the state of emergency has quickly put the spotlight on the significant differentials among school districts in student use of tech devices and access to the internet.

For example, Colonial is a “one-to-one” district, meaning that it provides a portable computing device to each of its students. Cape Henlopen and Appoquinimink have their middle and high school students equipped with iPads. Since the shutdown, Appoqunimink has let students in third through fifth grade take devices home from school and it has distributed additional devices to younger students. Some  districts have comparable access levels; others have significantly less.

EastSide Charter School last week used the Delaware Gives fundraising platform to solicit donations that it used to buy additional computers so it could provide one to each of its students. Distribution began Wednesday.

Some schools and districts, including Charter School of Wilmington and New Castle County Vo-Tech, have also set up computer swap-out programs. If a device breaks down, a replacement is provided, either via pickup or delivery, with no direct interpersonal contact during the exchange.

An additional complicating factor is access to the internet, which tends to be greater in rural areas.

In Woodbridge, about three-quarters of the students’ households have internet access, but the service is not always reliable for the families that do have it, Chasanov says.

In Milford, English learner teacher Casey Cashdollar says that a large percentage of the Spanish-speaking families in the area do not have internet access.

Even in Cape Henlopen and Appoquinimink, districts have been working on their own, or with vendors, to create new wireless “hot spots” so students who don’t have online access can drive (or be driven) to parking lots where they can use their devices to log on to their lessons.

“We’ve checked the strength, and we know they work,” says Cape Henlopen’s Hudson, but she can’t say with certainty what would happen if a parking lot became jammed with students battling for bandwidth.

Cape Henlopen is one of several districts that are collaborating with the University of Delaware to link up with Eduroam, a global infrastructure for secure WiFi connections used primarily by universities and research institutions. “We’ve started conversations with school districts in Sussex, where we tend to have larger challenges with access to internet services,” says Sharon Pitt, UD’s vice president for information technologies. According to its website, Eduroam provides students and educational professionals with higher levels of password and username protection than public hot spots.

Even when internet access is available, students aren’t always logging on. Mims says several of her students hadn’t participated in her lessons this week, even after she contacted their parents. She fears that they will lag behind their peers and not be ready to enter middle school. “If they’re behind, there’s not much I can do. We’ll have to work on closing those gaps in the fall,” she says.

Some of the major challenges for schools involve serving special needs populations – not only low-income families who are less likely to have internet access, but also the English learners, who have language barriers to overcome, and those with disabilities.

Teachers and administrators say they’re doing their best to reach out to the families of these students, most often by phone.

“From the perspective of an English learner’s teacher, it’s just establishing contact with 230 kids, making sure they’re OK,” says Milford’s Cashdollar. “That’s the priority: keep them active, be supportive, and give them positive interaction with their English.”

Schools and districts continue to grapple with how to best serve students with physical impairments and to continue meeting the standards prescribed in federal law. State and federal education officials have told districts to do the best they can, but the districts aren’t sure how to carry that out. “Students who have more needs, like the visually impaired – that does become more difficult,” Hudson says. “I don’t know how we’re going to meet all the needs yet.”

The conversion to distance learning has placed additional strains on both students and teachers.

For students, it can mean negotiating for computer time with parents and siblings. In addition, the older students might find themselves caring for younger children in the family if the adults in the household are working.

As for teachers, Mike Matthews, president of the Red Clay Education Association, posted to his peers on Facebook on Monday night: “Don’t let anyone tell you this working from home thing is going to be a piece of cake. I started at 7:30 this morning and I’m just now shutting down my computer.”

Gary Henry, dean of UD’s College of Education and Human Resources, can explain why many teachers are struggling with the challenges. Prospective teachers at UD get some instruction in distance learning techniques as part of the undergraduate curriculum but there is no single course devoted to the topic, he says. Those who have become teachers by career-changing switches through the state’s alternate routes to certification program would have even less exposure to distance learning, he adds.

Teachers are adapting on the fly, simultaneously learning technology and creating new workspaces.

Lunsford, of Newark Charter, hung a poster from her classroom in her dining room to give it more of a school-like feel. She also brought home from school a few small white boards and a set of dry erase markers to use during her online lessons. While teaching, “I try to send my children (ages 8 and 11) away, the best I can,” she says, adding that “it’s better than having toddlers.”

Cashdollar, in Milford, is splitting time between her kitchen and dining room. Pisapia, the Tower Hill administrator, took a call in his daughter’s bedroom because his child was using the dining room table to do her schoolwork.

Some administrators are spending their time in district offices – keeping appropriate social distance from their aides – while others are splitting time between work and home.

Burrows, the Appoquinimink superintendent, has headed to school sites to help with some food distribution efforts but spends most of his time at home. “I’m learning to work in a different way,” he says.

Over the past few days, educators have seen any number of examples of dedication and out-of-the box thinking.

One Appoquinimink music teacher, Burrows said, loaded a car with 67 instruments and delivered them to his students’ homes so they could continue to practice while schools are closed.

At Delcastle, where teaching vocational subjects can be a challenge when hands-on work isn’t possible, Saladyga saw the electrical trades teacher asking his students to use Google Draw software to draw diagrams of wiring concepts and the plumbing teacher using YouTube to make instructional videos of repair work he was doing.

How well this unexpected and quickly planned experiment in distance learning works out won’t be known for another two months, perhaps longer.

“We’ve got to move forward. We’ve got to continue to reinforce,” Woodbridge’s Chasanov says. “It all depends on how successful we are in getting hold of our kids.”