While county schools may have closed their doors in response to the threat posed by the novel coronavirus, local teachers, administrators and parents have been working hard to ensure that students can continue their education.
At Albert Michelson Elementary School (AME), staff members began preparing for remote instruction before the schools actually closed.
“A couple of weeks ago we started hearing some larger districts were getting ready for distance learning, and started looking at some websites and some different opportunities,” AME Principal Louise Simson said. “The teachers started getting trained on Google Classroom, and started putting together resources for online learning. So when we got the closure notice Sunday afternoon (March 15), we already had a pretty good base.”
Teachers are providing instruction in a variety of ways, Simson said.
“We have some different methodologies,” she said. “We use Zoom. We’re doing some Barton tutoring, where the kids are getting specialized reading instruction, and that’s either Facetime or Zoom. Our speech services are being done remotely through telecommunication.”
Staff members have even arranged for the broadcast of educational material on public access television.
“We reached out to Sarah Lunsford, and she ran with it,” Simson said. “She’s created this as part of the TV schedule on Channel 7, and we’re just kind of looping videos … Our intention is that as we get more and more teachers going on the video side, we’ll post more content that way, too.”
Once students have viewed educational material remotely, they complete assignments and submit them online.
“We are grading,” Simson said. “This is part of your student record. Our intention is to reopen after spring break, but we are guided by the health department, so Superintendent Frost will be making that decision week by week by week. We are in school and we will be educating kids.”
The district has been working with families to ensure adequate access to educational materials.
“If your student was enrolled, and they didn’t have the technology, we are checking out iPads and computers so the kids can work remotely,” Simson said. “And if they don’t have WiFi access, then hard packet work is available, too, that is complementary to what’s online.”
Simson said that she was impressed with the response of parents and staff.
“I am impressed with the staff at this district. They never say, ‘We can’t’; they say, ‘How can we?,’” she said. “The parents have totally embraced this. They’re not viewing it as vacation. They’re just absolutely saying, ‘I’m going to partner with the teachers to keep my kids educated.’ So that’s been the really beautiful piece.”
In addition to transitioning to distance learning, the district has also been adapting it’s free and reduced lunch program to meet current needs. Vallecito Union School District (VUSD) Superintendent Jim Frost said that he had been volunteering with other staff members earlier in the day to fill bags of food for the program.
“This is a team effort here,” he said. “Everybody’s working to make things go.”
Frost said that the district was currently preparing meals for 80 students, though the numbers are on the rise, with 20 families signing up this week.
“I’m overwhelmed by the response to the free and reduced lunch program – the people that have called that are coming to pick up food weekly for their kids,” he said. “There’ll be parents picking up at both Michelson and Hazel Fischer around noon tomorrow (Wednesday), and they’ll be getting bags of food for the week. And we plan on the following week giving them a couple of bags full for each kid to cover over the vacation week.”
Frost said that almost 50% of students qualify for the program, and families can sign up by contacting Simson, who’s phone number is available on VUSD’s website.
“They can call up and sign up, and we’ll prepare a bag for them,” he said.
After signing up, parents can pick up the food on designated days by going to one of the district’s two elementary school sites, where food service workers will place bags of food directly into their vehicles.
“I’m hoping that people will sign up and take advantage of it,” Frost said.
The district has been busy despite the closure, Frost said.
“We’re still working,” he said. “The district office is still doing payroll, and everybody’s being paid through this time … We’re still in the process of getting things going with our bond-funded construction projects, so those should be starting soon.”
Frost said that the reopening of campuses would depend on the advice of public health officials, though he hopes classes will resume in mid-April.
“That would be great if it was safe to do that,” he said. “We’re just going to depend on officials from the health agencies, like Calaveras County Department of Health, and the state department of health, to give us some guidance on that. I’m not all that optimistic that things are going to change for the better anytime real soon.”
The district’s main goal is to ensure that students continue their education, Frost said.
“Our mission here is an educational mission,” he said. “We really want to keep our eye on that ball during this time, and try to create a situation where kids don’t have a giant gap in their learning because they’re missing half a semester of daily instruction.”
Maintaining services for students with disabilities and meeting the social and emotional needs of students and families are also priorities, Frost said.
“We have students with disabilities, where education is a struggle even in the best of times, and we really want to do everything we can to maintain those services and the instructional program that has been established for them, and find alternative ways to meet that,” he said. “And finally, we’re really concerned during these difficult times about the welfare of our children and families from a social-emotional level, with everybody being kind of hunkered-down. If there’s any counseling needs or things like that that are out there, we want to be available to either provide district resources for those or guide people to the appropriate county resources so that our families thrive during this time.”
Frost said that he felt that district employees were responding well to a difficult situation.
“I’m really proud of all our staff,” he said. “They have come into school when necessary to get the distance learning thing going, to keep the district running as best as possible during this time, and have worked hard from home to make this successful.”