With schools closed, districts set up ‘remote learning’
Thousands of students and teachers in the Highlands this week began adjusting to the “virtual learning” platform, which will serve as a substitute classroom until at least March 31, according to an order to close public and private schools throughout the state.
The Beacon school district has more than 2,800 students who are now spending their weekdays at home, while Haldane has more than 800 and Garrison about 220.
As instructors adapt to full-time virtual learning, the biggest challenge “will be to help [students] learn without being in the same room with them,” said Monica Paredes, the math coordinator at Rombout Middle School in Beacon. “It’s going to absolutely be a different experience for everyone involved.”
Paredes said her students already have some experience with a “flipped classroom” model through her video homework assignments. “Two or three times a week, they go home and watch a 10-minute video and take notes and answer a couple of questions online and hit ‘submit,’” she said. After the assignment, she’s able to group students according to their results and “help them directly where they’re struggling, as opposed to standing up and lecturing.”
With the fourth quarter of the academic year set to begin in early April, some teachers may opt to skip non-essential curriculum while reviewing important concepts taught earlier in the year as preparation for Regents and final exams, Paredes said.
Bill Castaldi, the social studies coordinator at Rombout, said that teachers used a March 13 professional day to prepare two to three weeks of material in anticipation of closing. If it appears school will be shuttered past April 1, “that would give us time to fully change over, if need be, to a distance-learning model,” he said.
In his classes, Castaldi said, every lesson covered so far this year has been posted on Google Classroom, so students can review older material.
Teachers also began working with new software this week to engage virtually with students as much as possible. How well that works will likely vary from one instructor to the next, Castaldi said.
“We’re in uncharted waters here,” he said. “It’s going to be a challenge for each individual learning community, and we have to allow those communities to figure out what works best for them.”
At Haldane High School, Principal Julia Sniffen said teachers haven’t been structuring the virtual school day to match the typical 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. schedule. She noted that with many classes already using online interfaces, some students have already been learning “on demand.”
There was more emphasis this week, Sniffen said, on addressing the issue of households without reliable internet access. Haldane has been working with local cable providers on providing free Wi-Fi and, in cases where that’s not an option, providing mobile “jetpacks” for students to connect.
She hopes those measures will be temporary.
“My hope is that we have students back on campus, because the thing we do well is the relationship — understanding the whole child,” Sniffen said. “That’s the piece I’m most concerned about.”
Haldane Superintendent Philip Benante added in an email that one challenge, and concern, for the district “is how we can best support those students with learning needs and supports” who must study from home.
As for students’ impressions of the virtual platform this week, Paredes said she received nine emails (out of the roughly 60 students she teaches) on Monday alone.
“Some are feeling overwhelmed,” she said, while others sought clarification on assignments. “And then I had one who told me she was already bored.”