Schools navigate uncharted waters of distance learning

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Ryan Coville, a Masuk High School sophomore, does classwork at the kitchen table of his family's Monroe home Wednesday.

MONROE, Conn. – Laurie Coville, a Masuk High School English teacher, wakes up for school in the morning, gets dressed and brews a cup of coffee, before settling down in front of her computer in the kitchen of her Monroe home, where she virtually meets her classes on a typical day of distance learning.

Monroe public schools rolled out its plan this week in the era of social distancing, brought on by schools closing due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s actually been really kind of fun learning all of these apps and websites and different ways of connecting us,” Coville said Wednesday. “I think that our number one goal is to make our kids feel connected and feel they are not alone through this process.”

On March 17, Acting Superintendent of Schools Joseph Kobza told the Board of Education that Connecticut’s education commissioner directed school districts to start putting together and implementing distance learning plans, though Monroe educators had been planning for a prolonged closure since February.

On Tuesday, he expressed optimism over the first two days of seeing the school district’s plan in action.

“We had a few little hiccups with technology issues, minor access issues,” Kobza said, “but the feedback overall was very positive. Everybody was happy to get the kids on some type of structured schedule. It was really important.”

“The most important piece of feedback I’ve gotten so far was the sense of relief to connect kids with kids and students with teachers,” he added. “Even my older daughter, I think there’s a bit of relief to have structure and that connection.”

Getting into a rhythm

Kobza said teachers use time from 7:30 to 9 a.m. to make any final preparations for the day’s lessons. Starting at 9, half hour classes run in eight periods, ending at 1 p.m. Then from 1 to 2 p.m. teachers hold office hours, grade papers and prepare for the next day.

He said teachers are most available to their students in the time blocks for their class, adding they can communicate via Google Voice.

“At the elementary school level it’s a little different,” Kobza said. “They give the kids activities and are available for the kids. There is a period of time when children should be working on different subjects.”

Most students in grades 3 to 12 are familiar with using Google Classroom, according to Kobza.

Coville said she always makes an effort to get her students to interact with each other. For example, she poses a question on the attendance log at the start of each day, so everyone can comment and read each others’ responses.

On Tuesday she asked, “what’s your favorite song and why?”

“I am old school … I like so many that you probably don’t know 🙂  ” one student responded. “Right this second, I am feeling a song called ‘Landslide’ by Fleetwood Mac. Tomorrow it could be something different 🙂 I also like 90’s alternative: ‘Wonderwall’ by Oasis is my fave.”

“‘500 Days of Summer’ by Grady because it reminds me of summer and I’m always in a good mood after I listen to it,” another student wrote.

Coville said they used all of the responses to make a classroom playlist.

Teachers adapt

Coville, who has been teaching for 15 years, said the school closings forced by the pandemic is a first for all of Monroe’s educators.

“I feel like we have a great support system,” she said, “at least in our department. And I think that’s happening across the district. I am so proud to be a Monroe teacher and to live in this community. It really is a special place to both work and live. It’s a small town with a really big heart.”

“I’m so proud of the teachers for the way they stepped up to this challenge,” Kobza said. “It’s been a huge lift in a really short amount of time. They stepped up in a big way.”

Among the challenges for teachers is not seeing a facial expression that let’s them know when a student doesn’t understand something.

Coville said teachers make an extra effort to email and private message students who tend to have questions most often, and if enough students ask the same thing, teachers will address the entire class about it.

There have also been times when students who are good with technology have helped teachers resolve problems, she said.

Coville said making videos is an important way to enliven classes for students working from home. “If it goes on a long time, I think we will do more live streaming,” she said.

“It’s in the infancy right now,” Kobza said of distance learning. “I do think there’s gonna be some really positive byproducts, changing the way we do business in school in the future.”

Before the schools closed, one of Coville’s classes was working on an assignment, in which students would create a visual representation of the book they were reading.

“I didn’t want to just scrap it,” she said. “They’d been reading this book a couple weeks, knowing it was one of their end assignments. We used Flipgrid, so they could record themselves doing their presentations. This website let them make comments back and forth to each other too.”

“I definitely can see us picking some of the technology that we’ve learned and applying it into our regular routine,” Coville said.

Lost memories

Aside from taking students away from their friends, the COVID-19 pandemic has already led to the cancellation or postponing of once in a lifetime events for Masuk’s senior class this year — and threatens to take away more.

“I feel like it’s definitely a lot of frustration,” said Madison Kobza, a senior and Kobza’s daughter. “I know I feel it and all my friends feel it. It’s hard being home all the time. We miss seeing each other every day. We’re all frustrated and disappointed by the fact we might not get prom, the senior banquet and maybe even graduation.”

Other events that could be impacted are the prom fashion show, which was already postponed, and the senior trip.

“We don’t blame anyone, but it’s frustrating,” Madison said.

Of distance learning, she said, “I feel our teachers aren’t overwhelming us with the work, so it’s manageable. It’s easier to get work done than when I went to school. Teachers are still getting used to the technology. Sometimes it takes a while for them to upload things. Then you get it all at once.”

“I would definitely say I’d rather be in school,” Madison said. “Learning by myself, it’s kind of lonely. In school, I could tell my teachers what I’m thinking right off the bat, but now I have think about it, then write them and wait for the response.”

On Wednesday morning, Coville worked next to her son, Ryan, a Masuk sophomore.

“I have more work in online learning than I do in a normal class,” Ryan said, “but other than that, I like working independently, so I’m not distracted as much. It’s more work than the time that we have.”

He said time goes by fast in the 30 minute online courses, compared being in a physical classroom for 45 minutes.

“Our teachers are doing a good job of moving things forward,” Ryan said.

Only going to get better

Laurie Coville, a Masuk High School English teacher, sends surveys to her students for feedback on distance learning. Contributed

One criticism Ryan had was the amount of work some teachers assign. Coville said she communicates with her students to determine if anything needs to be tweaked.

“I’m sending a Google form survey to my students with five questions that will help me with my planning,” she said.

Among the questions, Coville asks, “is the amount of work my English teacher is assigning too much, too little or just right.”

Kobza said administrators continue to work together with teachers, who are surveying parents for feedback on what is working well and what’s not working.

“For something we pulled off in a little over a couple weeks, I’m really happy with how it rolled out so far,” he said, “and it’s only going to get better.”

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