As virus forces distance learning, some schools more prepared than others

As virus forces distance learning, some schools more prepared than others

As word came down to schools this week that the restrictions in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 would likely continue for the near future, districts scrambled to create distance learning plans that would allow students to continue to learn from home.

The situation has highlighted the different levels of preparedness in districts across Rhode Island and Massachusetts as well as some of the demographic challenges that make it more difficult for some schools to connect than others. For students, the realities of distance learning can look very different depending on their zip code.

In North Smithfield, where administrators have had a distance learning plan ready to go for almost two years, it’s a chance to test what’s already been developed.

In 2017, the General Assembly passed a bill allowing school districts to develop plans for virtual snow days. North Smithfield was the first district in the state to take advantage of the option, submitting a plan to the Rhode Island Department of Education in 2018 for how they plan to continue learning online when schools are closed. Though RIDE did not formally approve the application (or any virtual snow day applications) at the time, that plan has now become the basis of the district’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.

“On Thursday, the Commissioner of Education sent an email to superintendents to submit virtual and distant learning plans by the following Friday,” Supt. Michael St. Jean wrote in an update to parents over the weekend.

“We did not wait a week. An hour later, North Smithfield submitted a comprehensive, 30-page plan.”

The plan, said St. Jean, sets hours for teachers but is also flexible enough to support the nontraditional learning environments many students will face. Some older students, he said, may be expected to help care for younger siblings in the days ahead, while others will be dropped off with grandparents during the day.

“We have to support instructional standards and rigor, but most of all we have to be supportive, flexible and innovative,” he said.

In Woonsocket, where more than two-thirds of the student body is eligible to receive free or reduced lunch, administrators are facing very different challenges. On Monday, Supt. Patrick McGee said school officials were surveying families and working to ensure students had access to home internet in the weeks ahead. Last week, Cox Communications announced it would provide one month of free internet to qualifying low-income families as part of its response to the crisis, a program school staff were working to inform families about.

“That will be huge,” said McGee.

Beginning last Friday, school staff, he said, have been working around the clock to create distance learning plans for all students. For middle and high school students, those plans will be largely computer-based, while for elementary schools, those plans will involve packets of work with optional online activities.

Despite the measures in place, McGee said he has concerns about the long-term impact for students. The plans, he said, cannot replace direct instruction, and with two-and-a-half months still left in the school year, students still have a lot of learning left to encounter.

“My concern is we’re going to have, potentially, however long this goes, we could see some real regression in skills in our students,” he said. “And being a district that has a lot of students with needs, with academic needs, it’s going to be challenging to try to mitigate that loss.”

At Mount Saint Charles Academy, administrators attempted to mirror the regular school day as much as possible to minimize disruption to their students. While other Rhode Island schools were on early April vacation this week following a directive from Gov. Gina Raimondo, Mount students were still expected to show up to class from the safety of their homes. For teachers, that meant taking attendance every period as students sat through a full virtual school day.

“We’re pulling it off because we started preparing about two weeks ago,” said Vice President Jessie Butash. “Really, we’ve been doing little bits and pieces along the way of incorporating technology in our classrooms. Never did we ever dream it would have to go to this extreme.”

The school, she acknowledged, has not had to deal with many of the challenges area public schools faced in setting up lunch programs and working on internet connections for their students. With the exception of about 15 families that visited the school to pick up computers this week, students are working with their own devices from home.

Blackstone-Millville Regional Schools have also continued with online learning this week after Gov. Charlie Baker announced Sunday that Massachusetts schools would be closed for the next three weeks. In addition to making sure students have access to school-owned devices, Supt. Jason DeFalco said the district has provided about a dozen Verizon hotspots to families who did not have internet access.

“We didn’t want to get into a situation where the families had to call the cable company,” he said.

Though the district has not adopted strict virtual schooling hours, Blackstone students are receiving virtual assignments from their teachers and phone calls from guidance staff checking in on them. So far, said DeFalco, the district has focused on striking a balance between structure and flexibility and communication with families.

“We’re all in kind of these uncharted waters together,” he said. “The more collaborative and strong communication we have as we move through this, the better off the kids are going to be.”

Unlike in Rhode Island, where schools were required to submit their plans for distance learning to the state this week, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has left it largely to districts to implement them on their own.