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Frustration, hope, confidence as SVSU plans for long-term remote learning

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BENNINGTON — "The best way to open this is to say that we're all doing something that we've never experienced before. And I think very little prepares you for this."

That's how Jim Culkeen, superintendent of the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union, described the SU's ongoing work to educate students remotely because of the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Even before the state ordered schools to cease in-person instruction for the rest of the academic year, officials in the supervisory union have been working on a continuity of learning plan for remote learning, which must be in place by April 13,

Officials knew they might have to transition to remote learning following Gov. Phil Scott's previous directive, issued earlier in March, for schools to close until April 6.

"[The Agency of Education] always gave us guidance that — you should be thinking ahead in case we weren't coming back," Culkeen said. "It was always in the back of our minds that this could go on longer than we thought."

Dan French, secretary of the Agency of Education, holds regular weekly conference calls with Vermont school superintendents, Culkeen said, and the SVSU receives frequent updates from the agency.

"I think communication has been pretty good, given that, as I said, everyone is learning as we go," he said.

But it can be frustrating, with how fast guidance changes, he said.

"There's a lot of uncertainty with what's going on, and we have to be adaptable, and be committed to doing the best we can," he said.

Laura Boudreau, assistant superintendent, is heading a team tasked with creating the Continuity of Learning plan, which each district in the supervisory union will implement.

"It's a very innovative group that is continuing to stay incredibly positive, and really thinking about all of [our] learners," Boudreau said. "That's a big piece of this, considering equity as we develop plans. We look forward to sharing how we're going to respond to that."

The team, which meets daily, consists of Boudreau, Director of Curriculum Instruction and Assessment Melissa Senecal, Director of Technology Frank Barnes, Director of Early Education Kate Abbott, Director of Special Education Wendy Foran and Associate Director of Early Education Meghan Meszkat.

The team is in regular contact with building administrators, Boudreau said.

The plan itself is in a Google Document, as the team is working as remotely as possible, Culkeen said.

His hope, he said, is that the SU is "engaged daily with as many students as possible, and learning, though different than any type of learning we may have seen in the SU before — it continues for the rest of the school year."

Officials also hope to eliminate the passing of paper materials back and forth as much as possible, due to concerns about spreading COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, Culkeen said.

But in some circumstances, that will have to happen, he said.

"A positive that may come out of this is how much we have stepped up the use of technology by our students and by our staff, because of necessity," he said.

The supervisory union had asked parents, in a March 30 update on its website, to contact their child's school by Thursday, April 2 if their child doesn't have access to a tablet, laptop or a device with a manual keyboard.

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The SU plans to schedule pickups for such devices for those families once officials know how many people need them.

Culkeen said he anticipates they will have enough devices to meet the need, given past initiatives to have more of this technology available.

A technology helpline at 802-753-5828 is also available for families. It is staffed Monday-Friday from 8-10 a.m. and 11 a.m.-1 p.m.

Schools are also in the process of connecting with families to determine the best way to contact them, and they plan to take into account access to the internet in implementing remote learning, Boudreau said.

The state is also providing guidance on a daily basis on how to serve students with disabilities in remote learning, she said.

When asked if she's confident the SU can do that, Boudreau said, "our goal is to find a way to reach all of our students."

While he has "every confidence" that the SVSU's Continuity of Learning plan will be in place by the time students — virtually — return from their week-long April vacation on the 20th, Culkeen said he anticipates a challenge in making sure students are engaging in schooling.

It's one thing to take attendance in a building — it's another to do so online, he said.

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"That certainly is a challenge that I worry about," he said. "What if we get reports that there's only 40 percent of students logging in on a daily basis?"

He said he's also concerned about the fatigue of his staff, given that the anxiety and uncertainty of the COVID-19 situation adds to their stress.

Culkeen said he can't thank the hard work and patience of teachers, administrators, support staff and parents enough in this time.

"Amazing work being done by people in short order," he said, specifically describing work by the finance and human resources department, and the team providing meals to students — over 2,700 meals on April 1, and rising steadily.

"I'm honored to be leading the people I get to work with," Culkeen said. "They're doing great work."

He said he's also grateful that schools didn't have to stop in-person schooling earlier in the year.

"An eight-week session is not a bad trial run," he said.

For right now, he said, his understanding is that the SU will have the same last day of school as it normally would.

The SU is awaiting further guidance on that, he said.

Recent efforts

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Thus far, schools had been providing maintenance instruction to their students, in a combination of paper packets and "possibly some online activities," in supporting learning that's already happened, Boudreau said.

"We're shifting to the [new] learning phase," she said.

In the meantime, one parent talked about how the existing school packets work and gave them high marks.

Jennifer D'Onofrio, president of Shaftsbury Elementary School's Parent Teacher Organization, lauded the efforts of her daughter's school during the closure that was implemented March 18.

"We got a whole packet," she said in a conversation with the Banner on March 20. "It outlines everything, day by day, what they need to do. They've sent home books, and worksheets."

The school staggered drive-through times by grade for families to pick up the packets at the school; D'Onofrio picked up her third-grade daughter's packet on March 17.

Even the specials teachers — like art, gym and music — provided work, she said.

The work being done on paper, with instructions on what to do each day.

There's also a lot of free virtual learning opportunities, she said.

Her daughter has done some of them, including online reading.

"We've also done an online virtual tour at the San Diego Zoo," she said.

She said she'd estimate the work takes her daughter several hours in total, per day, with breaks for lunch and recess.

"They've done a fabulous job putting these packets together," she said. "I know it's not easy."

D'Onofrio is a preschool teacher at Head Start.

If the school hadn't provided educational work to do, D'Onofrio said, she'd have had her daughter do academic work independently.

"I definitely know lots of resources," she said. "She wouldn't just be sitting around playing every day."

The packets also listed teacher contact information, in case families had questions or difficulty with the work, she said.

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at pleboeuf@benningtonbanner.com, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.


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