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ACSD educators iron out the kinks in distance learning

MIDDLEBURY UNION HIGH School junior Anna Berg, shown working at home, appreciates the personalized attention that teachers are managing to give during distance learning. But she feels like she has to spend too much time on the computer.

MIDDLEBURY — Salisbury Community School teacher Amy Clapp offered an interesting analogy when speaking of the Addison Central School District’s new distance learning plan, which is seeing K-12 students attend classes remotely from their own homes during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s like we’re building an airplane while we’re flying it,” she said in a recent phone interview.
And by most accounts, the ACSD’s scores of teachers and hundreds of students are earning their wings. The district’s so-called “Continuity of Education Plan” lifted off last week for a lengthy flight that will hopefully culminate in all students making the grade in what has been an otherworldly academic year.
The ACSD, according to Superintendent Peter Burrows, did considerable research before launching its distance learning curriculum. It included study of what other school districts — locally and nationwide — were offering.
 “We recognize that students of different ages have different needs, in terms of amount of time they should be spending per day on learning,” Burrows said. “So we’ve created guidance at each grade level for how much students are engaged per day in learning. Our approach recognizes the need for social connections and for normalcy and continuing to try to replicate the classroom environment remotely.”
Middlebury Union High School junior Anna Berg appreciates the teachers’ efforts but says that moving all the classes online has been “a huge adjustment for everyone.” Since MUHS teachers have begun seeing their entire classes twice a week on the Google Meet platform, they now all have more chances to check in, but the system isn’t without its drawbacks.
“Unfortunately, I think a lot of people, myself included, are spending far too much time on a computer each day,” Berg said. “Having to use a computer for so many hours a day has made me miss school a lot. Also, not seeing friends as often has been hard, especially now that we’ve been isolated for over a month.”
See a nuts-and-bolts outline of how education is being offered in a sidebar to this story.
Teachers are an integral part of the team effort that remote learning entails. The Independent reached out to four ACSD educators for some of their views on how the system is working.
Brandi Corbett, Mary Hogan Elementary
Brandi Corbett acknowledged distance learning “has had its successes and challenges.” She added everyone involved in working hard to make it work.
“We’re dealing with an unprecedented situation, so it’s not as if we had time to plan and prepare for this. That being said, I’m finding ways to support and connect with my students and colleagues and we’re moving in the direction of continued education.”
She was pleased to report that all of her students have been able to connect with her and the class in some form. 
“The vast majority of my students are successfully completing most of the assignments and attending virtual meetings,” she said. “There are many different learning styles, so a transition to a virtually based one can be misaligned with some students’ styles, but I think they’re giving so much effort and focus to their work. They’re improving daily with their comfort in navigating the learning platforms and technology.”
Corbett said parents are doing their best to keep their children focused on school work through what have been trying times.
“Even though our district has taken nearly every possible precaution, moved slowly, put families’ social/emotional welfare as a priority, there is still so much stress on families,” Corbett said.
“Some parents are so stressed and overworked they don’t have the time to help,” she added. “Some parents feel a lack of confidence in helping with current teaching practices and feel stuck as how to help. Some struggle with the emotion and literal bandwidth to meet expectations. Some families and students are crippled by all the different technological systems.”
Building a sense of community online is extremely difficult, she noted.
“The students miss each other tremendously because our system is built on learning and cooperating together,” she said.
While she looks forward to returning to the classroom, distance learning has endowed Corbett and her colleagues with new skills.
“I see lots of potential for the district, such as maybe doing this type of work on a snow day, professional development days, or student absences in order to keep kids learning,” she said. “I’ve learned a lot about new technologies that I can use in the future.
Amy Clapp, Salisbury Community School
Soon after the school closure Amy Clapp began what would become roughly two weeks of phone call checks on her 11 students and their families. That evolved into “virtual” class meetings with assignments posted each day, then the distance learning curriculum that kicked into high gear last week.
She and her children (who attend ACSD schools) were already familiar with Google Classroom, and thus were able to hit the ground running when the district chose that platform as its go-to for distance instruction.
Educators and parents have put in a lot of effort to make sure children know their passwords to access material, and working out other kinks in an online system that everyone has had to learn on the fly, according to Clapp.
There have been computer glitches along the way, such as the loss of audio and visual connections. And while teachers can see their students on the computer screen, it’s not the same as being in the classroom, where educators can better address kids collectively and tend to their occasional distractions.
Clapp lamented school vacation week has come at a bad time for kids, form a learning standpoint.
“We had one week of new learning, and then there was this break,” she said. “I have mixed feelings on it… As a parent of three kids in the district, I felt like we had just gotten into the groove. It’s kind of a bummer to have a break now. It’s going to take them a couple weeks to get them to the same place they were.”
Parents, she said, have been “super-supportive,” as have students. Clapp has asked each of them to keep a COVID-19 journal — a great educational tool and future piece of scholastic memorabilia.
“I have almost 100% attendance at our class meetings in the morning,” she said to demonstrate the students’ desire to see each other. “They yearn for that connection.”
Learning at home through a computer isn’t a top choice for most students and their families. But it’s proven to be particularly effective for some kids who don’t learn as well in the classroom setting, according to Clapp.
“Some of my students have really thrived, and it’s made me start to think about how (online learning opportunities) might change education,” she said. “For some kids, it takes away a lot of the anxiety — if it takes you longer to process, and you have difficulty with your peers.”
Jay Harrington, Middlebury Union High School
Jay Harrington conceded he’s finding distance learning “tough,” with the virtual learning environment “much less satisfying than being together in class.”
As a science teacher he wants to see the students make connections between their life experiences and the concepts they’re studying.
“Making those connections through hands-on experiences is why I enjoy teaching science,” he said. “It is not as easy to do that through remote learning.”
Harrington and his colleagues have asked students complete some tasks that are not computer-based — such as interviewing family members about how issues like recycling and climate change have evolved during their lifetimes. Another such task: Measuring acceleration due to gravity by dropping things around the house.
“Technology may speed some things up, but replacing face to face interaction with the internet does not speed up communication,” Harrington said, noting explanatory conversations that cold be resolved in person can take hours through email.
Students have, for the most part, complied with their assignments.
“Not every student is staying engaged, some might think that summer has already started,” Harrington said. “I plead with those students to please check in with your teachers because, at MUHS, credit for your year-long classes is on the line.”
On the flip side, some students who have had dubious records in turning in work are regularly turning in their online assignments.
“The assignments I get from them now, in some ways, tells me more about them than what I used to get while we were in the school building,” he said.
Eileen Sears, Middlebury Union Middle School
Eileen Sears, a language and literature teacher, said she’s finding the distance learning system “reasonably effective,” so far.
“On the other hand, there are limitations on both the quantity of and the types of learning materials and opportunities I can provide for my students, given the current context,” she said. “Also, as someone who personally finds joy and value in the visceral, physical interaction with hard copies of stories and books and with reading my students’ expressions and body language, I am finding this distance learning system not an ideal one.”
She said many of her students are keeping up with assignments and turning in work regularly.
“However, for some of our other students, not having the face-to-face support, encouragement, and interaction with us has been a tremendous barrier to successful engagement with and completion of the tasks posted each week,” she said.
Sears and her colleagues have been interacting with parents far more frequently during the pandemic.
“I’ve talked to many, many of our students and their families through these mediums, and it’s been incredible how raw and honest some of these exchanges are, as private struggles become public ones when students and their families bring in outside parties into their home situations,” she said.
Many families and students have reached out to Sears and her colleagues for help, and that’s been a good thing. Guidance counselors have personally ferried laptops to MUMS students’ homes, and school officials have had marathon phone call/ Google Chats/ email exchanges with students in order to help them understand assignment expectations. Parents and guardians have alerted teachers to particular family dynamics or challenges.
“The bad news is, not all families are reaching out and communicating, which leaves us in the dark in terms of how we can help, if at all,” Sears added.
Educators are doing far more than take in assignments and pop up on a computer screen, Sears stressed. The behind-the-scenes work includes meeting with colleagues multiple times every day in virtual formats to design materials, discuss and plan units, talk about individual students, serve on hiring committees, interview potential candidates for upcoming job openings and disseminating information. 
Sears is looking forward to being back in a real classroom again.
“I’m not sure about the great potential for online learning,” she said. “Possibly.”
Berg, the MUHS student, appreciated the work teachers were doing.
“I think many students can agree with me that teachers are doing a really good job of making sure personalized attention is still available,” she said.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.
John Flowers spoke to VPR about this story on April 25. Listen to the interview here.

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