CHARLES TOWN – It was a high-tech COVID emergency drill, but without sirens and strobe lights.
Jefferson County students spent Columbus Day connecting into their classrooms from home to practice their virtual-learning systems and procedures — just in case a surge of coronavirus infections closes school buildings for instruction again.
“It is a good opportunity for our staff, as well as students and caregivers, to see what it might look like if we had to make that quick pivot in response to a crisis,” Deputy Superintendent for Instruction Shawn Dilly explained in a statement before the event.
After conducting the technology drill for a half-day, teachers broke into workgroups to evaluate what went well and what could be improved, school officials reported.
During a school board meeting on Monday evening, Superintendent Bondy Shay Gibson said the exercise for teachers, students and families went well for the most part.
That 1,700 of the 4,169 laptop computers on order since April still haven’t arrived stands out as an ongoing disappointment, Gibson said. “Knowing what we can’t control, we felt that it was important to practice what we could control,” she said.
The parents or guardians of about 3,500 of the school system’s 8,900 students have chosen to keep their children home permanently during this semester.
Gibson said it’s uncertain how many students will be able to return to in-person classroom learning during the second half of the school year. What coronavirus physical distancing safety requirements the school system must follow will determine how many remote students can return.
“The reason that we’re doing well [with reopening schools this fall during the coronavirus contagion] is that we’ve been maintaining some pretty strict protocols,” she said.
To prepare for more remote learning in the second semester, the school system plans to send targeted questionnaires this week to those students’ parents.
“We will come back with recommendations on who and how we can accommodate under what circumstances,” she said about the possibility of bringing more full-time remote-learning students back to their classrooms after the holidays.
Students who can transition from remote learning may have to switch schools, teachers or schedules, Gibson cautioned.
During a school board presentation of the school system’s virtual instruction program that was interrupted by two prominent technical delays, Gibson said administrators are gathering insights and feedback from teachers and parents on how to prepare for the possibility of another school building shutdown.
Then during an open public comment period, two parents spoke about the technology drill and the school system’s virtual learning rollout.
Both parents shared criticisms and suggestions about the school system’s virtual learning performance.
Jennifer Vigil, a substitute teacher and a Charles Town-area parent of three children, including a son with special needs who currently learns full time at home, said her son’s teacher “is amazing and she’s still trying to figure out what works best and what doesn’t.”
“However, I truly question the quality of education he is receiving,” Vigil added.
Her son’s instruction has “no hands-on tasks,” experiments or one-on-one guidance, she said. Students also have to learn to navigate a lot of frustratingly different software systems to complete various lessons and assignments online, she said.
Vigil also acknowledged that students and parents will have different experiences during said Monday’s virtual learning drill. But from her perspective, the drill was not productive for many students.
Her two children who now attend classes in person spent only 45 minutes learning but were given credit for a half-day of instruction, Vigil said. “There was no routine or continued learning,” she said.
Her son who uses online instruction full time, she said, was able to complete a half-day of instruction.
Online instruction currently presents a barrier for teachers to know when students may be struggling or insufficiently challenged academically, Vigil said. “My thought on virtual is that it doesn’t work for everyone,” she commented. “Virtual is not giving children the proper education. The foundations of education are so important.”
Meanwhile, another parent, Joe Thompson, who works a computer technology job, offered other criticisms and recommendations. The first thing he mentioned was that parents received “rudimentary information” about the school system’s online learning program.
“So we’ve had a lot of parents who have self-organized and formed their own groups online to share info, share technical tips—because they’re not getting it from the school system,” he said. “What they are getting is partial and contradictory, and sometimes the things they’re told just don’t work.”
Pointing out that the school system is deploying a wide range of technologies to deliver its virtual instruction, Thompson said he’s seen little consistency in how the technology is used by teachers from class to class.
Students also keep track of multiple login passwords for different online systems, Thompson said. To avoid confusion and frustration, students should be able to sign onto their virtual instruction platform only once, he suggested.
Also, a lot of students are doing good academic work online but are receiving failing grades because they don’t know how to deliver their work to teachers over the online system, Thompson said. “Whether that’s an issue with the platform or whether it’s an issue with the schools or parents’ knowledge, to me that doesn’t matter,” he said. “Because if you have problems that widespread, it indicates an issue that needs to be addressed from the top.”
Thompson said he’s hearing of many families who have to drive to Wi-Fi internet connection sites to have their children obtain the lessons and instructions they need to learn from home.
“That’s just not tenable,” he said. “That’s not something that can be allowed to continue for any length of time.”
Overall, Thompson recommended that a comprehensive plan for virtual learning be developed “from the top down—not bottom up where parents come and bring their problems piecemeal.”