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Schools pivot: Educators try to provide ‘normalcy in this abnormal time’ amid closures

  • Leeds School Principal Christine Wenz, center, and kindergarten teacher Jennifer Busone wave to Kelcie Cooke and her two first graders after they picked up their homework packet outside the Northampton elementary on Tuesday, March 17, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 3/20/2020 1:27:52 PM

NORTHAMPTON — With Massachusetts schools closed through at least April 7 as part of a state effort to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus, school districts are adjusting to a remote learning experience.

School officials interviewed by the Gazette say that while virtual education has its limits, learning over the next few weeks will ideally keep students engaged and provide a sense of normalcy during turbulent times. 

Northampton Public Schools

“There’s no way that we can replicate the full experience of the school day online,” said Northampton Superintendent John Provost. But, he added, “we’re doing the best we can to provide students with the best learning opportunities we can provide, even without having the availability of students and teachers in the same classroom.”

Means of learning have varied by school, according to the district’s Digital Literacy and Computer Science Coordinator Molly McLoughlin. The elementary schools primarily are using physical packets of prepared materials, though digital options are also available. Meanwhile, students in grades six and up each have a Chromebook to assist with digital learning. The district also has a stock of Wi-Fi hotspot devices and is working to acquire more of these devices for students who do not have internet access at home.

Dinah Mack, a seventh-grade social studies teacher at John F. Kennedy Middle School, said that she has been working with colleagues on the school’s Green Revolution learning team  to provide “enriching activities” and “create a sense of normalcy in this abnormal time.” The Green Revolution team also has created two sample schedules giving suggestions on how parents can structure their children’s learning at home, which is viewable on the team’s website, greenrevolutionteam.wordpress.com.

One sample schedule suggests half-hour blocks dedicated to different school subjects, with snack and movement breaks ranging from 30 minutes to an hour and a half in between studies. The other schedule suggests families can alternate days by subject, such as dedicating Mondays to social studies and English language arts and Tuesdays to science and math.

While teachers hope that the remote lessons will keep students academically engaged, Mack said that students who cannot complete the work will not be penalized.

“Students might have access to their computers and Wi-Fi hotspots, but not all do,” Mack said, “and not everyone has a supportive home to create schedules and maintain that sense of normalcy, so we’re keeping that at the forefront of our minds.”

“We have a very strong sense of community in the district,” Mack said, “and it’s very hard to be separated from the students and each other.”

For students with special education needs, educators will check in with families “to support keeping our students engaged during this closure,” Provost wrote in a message to parents and guardians on Wednesday. Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) teams will meet with families once schools resume to determine if students need additional services to make up for lost time in school. 

IEP team meetings will not be required, Provost said, but video chat or phone meetings are possible. Provost said that the district is also working to ensure that students in special-education programs and their families have access to Chromebooks.

Amherst-Pelham Regional Public Schools

Amherst-Pelham Regional Public Schools Superintendent Michael Morris said that, like Northampton, “our goal is to give students and families the same resources when schools are closed,” noting that the district is not trying to emulate colleges and universities in creating digital course equivalencies. Education goals focus on enrichment work and are not mandatory.

Instructors are using resources such as Google Classroom, Morris said, adding that many of the learning resources will be digital. To help students retain access to their schoolwork, the district is expanding its Chromebook availability.

The district provides students in grades seven-12 with Chromebooks they can take home, but in light of the school closures, it has reached out to families of younger students to see if they need a Chromebook, which Morris said has garnered “a huge response rate,” with about 90 requests as of Friday.

Providing these devices can be important even for families that do have a computer at home, Morris noted, as they may have more than one child who needs computer access to complete schoolwork.

Counselors, special education teachers, English Language Learner teachers and other staff members who serve students with specialized education needs “are heavily involved in both the planning of enrichment materials and being in contact with students and families to ensure that they have the supports needed,” Morris told the Gazette via email. 

“Our staff is collaborating on projects to be inclusive of both general education teachers, specialists and other staff who offer guidance and feedback on instructional materials and student strengths and needs,” Morris added.

Gateway Regional School District

Teachers in the Gateway Regional School District, which is based in Huntington, mostly are relying on digital learning, said Superintendent David Hopson, with hard copies of schoolwork provided as “a last resort” for students who would otherwise not be able to access the materials.

“We understand we can’t, given the short notice, replicate what’s happening in the classroom and truly go to an online environment like the colleges have,” Hopson said, echoing Morris, “so what we’re going to do is provide an environment where students can get some work done.”

The schoolwork provides “educational enrichment activities,” Hopson said in an announcement.

Every student in grades three-12 was sent home with a Chromebook, Hopson said. Prior to the outbreak, only students grades five and up with an insurance policy from the district could take home Chromebooks. School Wi-Fi is accessible in parking lots, Hopson said, and the district has asked town libraries to keep Wi-Fi on 24/7.

Special education staff members are reaching out to help families of students with specialized education needs to form learning plans, Hopson wrote in the message. 

“This may include specific days of the week when the district may transport those students to school to work directly with specialized staff,” he said.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Gateway Regional School District will be providing “educational enrichment activities” during its closure.Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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