Teachers grapple with remote teaching

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With remote education now in place until the end of the school year, the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union has entered a whole new world of teaching and learning.

For over five weeks now, teachers have been educating students in accordance with an SVSU-wide Continuity of Learning Plan, which the state required school districts and independent schools to submit to the Agency of Education for approval.

The change comes as COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, continues its hold in the United States.

"I think the reality is that we'd rather be in our classrooms with our students, having rich conversations and hands-on activities, but I think that's out of our control, and I think our district has worked hard to put a plan in place that's reasonable and supports our students," said Amanda Mattison, a first-grade teacher at Shaftsbury Elementary School.

The Continuity in Learning team that created the 42-page plan included: Frank Barnes, director of educational technology; Melissa Senecal, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment; Meghan Meszkat, associate director of early education; Kate Abbott, director of early education; Wendy Foran, director of special education services and Laura Boudreau, assistant superintendent.

The Continuity in Learning team also meets weekly with building administrators and directors to "review questions, celebrate successes and address challenges," the team said in an emailed response to questions.

Leigh Jelley, a first-grade teacher at Bennington Elementary School, said not seeing her students has been the biggest challenge with remote learning.

"So much is about the personal connection and the interaction, and being able to read small cues in their body language or greet them at the door and know how they're coming in for the day," she said. "We can convey so much great information and resources, but we're not there to do the actual guiding, checking in, and just being by their side when things are difficult."

When Vermont schools closed for what was initially to be about a few weeks, the expectation was that districts would maintain basic programming — not teach new information, education secretary Dan French has said.

After Gov. Phil Scott announced that schools would close for in-person instruction for the rest of the academic year, the focus shifted to new learning.

Schools made this shift on April 13.

The required Continuity of Learning plans had to address four areas: communication — how schools will communicate with families, structures for student success — instructional supports and how they can be accessed, how instruction will actually be delivered and student work evaluated, and accessibility to ensure all students have access to resources and supports, French has said.

Technology in remote learning

The SVSU's Continuity of Learning Plan requires daily or weekly circle time for pre-kindergarten students, a daily morning meeting through Zoom or Google Meet for elementary students and daily advisory meetings by advisory teachers at the middle school level.

At the high school level, all seminar teachers will hold a daily seminar meet through Zoom, Google Meet or Google Classroom. Phone calls or emails should be used if the digital platform isn't available for a particular student, according to the plan.

Kathy Thompson, a pre-K teacher at Molly Stark Elementary School, does live circle time for her students for half an hour a day, every day.

There's a lot of things to teach the kids, but the most important thing for this age group is social-emotional learning — the most difficult to do remotely.

Still, Thompson works on it.

"I unmute them one at a time to say hello," said Thompson, who's been teaching at Molly Stark for 20 years. She's also asked them to build something and talk about it, creating opportunities for conversation.

"There's been drawings and paintings and even a fort in a bedroom," she said. "It gives us something to talk about, and the other kids hear the ideas."

The SVSU has worked to provide technology for remote learning to students who did not have it, including providing over 1,500 Chromebooks to students and some staff members, the team said in their response.

Two technology helplines have also been instituted, one for students and one for staff.

In their response, the team said lack of internet access has not been a reported problem for the vast majority of SVSU students.

"Only about 1 percent of families have reported issues getting internet access," the team said. "We have been able to help many of those families and are working on addressing more to get as close to 100 percent access as possible."

Still, the plan also directs those at all levels of instruction — pre-K-12 — to keep in mind that not all students have access to online learning platforms.

Mattison has one family who relies on public hotspots for internet access.

"I myself live in a location in Shaftsbury that only allows for satellite internet, so we've had to really get creative in my home," she said. "We're running off our phone plans and our hotspots."

The biggest challenge in terms of the primary grades, Mattison said, has been the learning curve for technology students are using.

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"And how to unroll that to families and kids [in a way] that doesn't feel overwhelming," she said.

Her favorite part of the day is the 9:30 a.m. daily Zoom meeting.

"We're able to connect and see each other, and three different kids get to share every morning," she said.

Families have also "really stepped up," she said.

And students have learned how to use the new technology, enabling teachers to "push the content a little deeper," she said.

"So it's been progress, but certainly not as much as if we were in the classroom," she said.

Mattison also has a fourth-grader at Shaftsbury Elementary School and a seventh-grader at Mount Anthony Union Middle School. "And it's really clear how much time their educators are putting in," she said.

Molly Dobias, a special education teacher for grades K-2 at Molly Stark, just joined the school last year.

"I'm not a huge advocate of technology in the classroom, and I don't love the idea of replacing face-to-face instruction with a screen," she said. "But I'm also now really grateful that the SVSU had already invested and set up software that allows teachers to keep teaching. It's incredible that it's been pretty seamless."

Special education

Dobias said that, if they weren't careful, special education students could technically wind up with the largest workload — they work with service providers like speech and occupational therapists in addition to teachers, she said.

"It's been really important to make sure that they're aren't getting bombarded with a massive amount of work," she said. "But I think everyone's been doing a great job making sure that doesn't happen."

Dobias has been designing Distance Learning Plans for special education students.

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"It's like a puzzle for me to try to figure out what's the most important, and how do you teach rhyming when you can't talk to them in real time," she said.

The Continuity of Learning Plan requires these individualized Distance Learning Plans, which will remain in effect through the end of the 2019-20 school year.

The Continuity of Learning Plan directs IEP teams to "be creative" and consider alternative supports and services that will allow students to make progress.

"We will not be able to deliver exactly the same services that are on the IEP, but we must do our best to meet these needs to the greatest extent possible," the plan states.

In their response email, the Continuity in Learning team said Distance Learning Plans are being evaluated and adjusted based on how children and families have been accessing tele-therapies and distance learning supports.

Dobias said she has found apps like Seesaw and Google Classroom particularly helpful. With Seesaw, students can read to her.

"Which has been fabulous," she said. "I love it so much. I think they're still making a surprising amount of progress in the curriculum."

She's started to move on with instruction — new spelling patterns that she didn't teach students in in-person learning.

"And just hearing them recording themselves reading this new instruction stuff — it's like a miracle," she said. "I just can't believe it's working."

But online, Dobias can only get through a fifth of what she would normally in an in-person class.

"So it's slow, but they're exceeding my expectations every day," she said. "It's a huge relief each time they submit an assignment and I see that they got it."

Student engagement, assessment

Getting the technology to work seamlessly has been challenging, Thompson said.

"You want it to be like Mr. Rogers," she said. "You want it to just all kind of happen."

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But they use humor — and they figure it out.

And, she said, some students are actually more engaged online than they were in-person.

"I think that for some kids, you see that in the classroom, they're kind of distracted, but when you see them on screen, they are right there with you," she said.

Michael Casalinova, a second-grade teacher at Bennington Elementary School, has seen different levels of student engagement in online learning.

"When they're in the classroom, it's my job to make sure that they're being attentive and they're taking part in the class," he said of his students. "But at home, they have a whole different set of distractions and really no way for me to kind of go into their world and try to convince them that hey, this is important. It's frustrating as a teacher, because I see kids I want to reach."

That's the biggest challenge for him.

To get around obstacles, he said, they're trying to get parents on board.

"Teachers really do recognize, we talk about it every single day ... the stress that the parents are under, and the kids are under," Casalinova said. "We know that the parents are frustrated."

Casalinova said he thinks the Continuity of Learning Plan is a good plan, as far as the direction he's received on what's important to focus on.

At the grade level he teaches, they are focusing on things like silent Es, adding and subtracting with regrouping, understanding number sense with place value and number lines.

The plan also asks teachers not to make plans that require more than 1-2 hours of synchronous time per day for each student — 30 minutes for pre-kindergarten.

At the elementary, middle and high school level, assessments can include a written response, a verbal response, an exit ticket, a digital picture and observation during a class meeting.

But the primary focus now, the plan states, should be on the social/emotional health of students and families, as families are dealing with many stressors like loss of jobs, food, isolation and illness.

The plan directs those involved to "pare down expectations to the most critical prioritized standards — Consider what matters most."

Proficiency levels/grades should also be temporary — markers rather than a permanent label, the plan states.

Casalinova said it's "really tough" to document proficiency, because given the new environment, teachers can't guarantee that students are doing the work on their own, or if they even understand the directions for an assessment.

They do try to document kids' activities, "but right now, it's a struggle trying to figure out how we're going to demonstrate proficiency or not," he said.

"We are going very, very slow," he said. "What we normally get accomplished in a normal school year is not going to be the case. We're coming to grips with that as teachers and trying to say, `let's slow this down, baby steps here.'"

Adam Tronsen, a grades 6-8 special education teacher at MAUMS, said only about 25 percent of students he works with are keeping up good routines and submitting some work.

"Right now, we're not expecting that everybody finishes everything," he said. "We just want to see the connection, maintaining that connection with families and students."

He and Casalinova both said they've seen some students who, despite the challenging times, are keeping up connection with school.

The Continuity of Learning Plan for the SVSU requires all teachers to be available to students Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-1 p.m.

Attendance is also collected daily in pre-K-12, and documented. Each building has staff to support a call-back system to check on students marked absent, according to the plan.

Between 90 and 100 percent of the students Tronsen works with are showing up for attendance — but for many, that's all they're showing up for, he said.

Tronsen said he wishes more students were taking advantage of office hours and video classes.

"For me, I've just had to be relentless with phone calls and trying to contact students," he said. "I guess I still have four weeks to be calling them, until the end of the year, and I'm not going to give up."

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


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