ANWSD learns from first effort at virtual education

ANWSD Superintendent Sheila Soule

“As you can imagine, it was difficult to stay equally connected with every student and every family. So we need to determine how to reach all families and improve engagement.”
— Superintendent Sheila Soule

VERGENNES — On March 13 Vermont school districts leaned they had just a few days to organize an orderly transition to remote learning that would last until April 6.
Thirteen days later it was official: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, plans to offer “maintenance of learning” for a couple of weeks became distance learning for the rest of the school year.
As was the case around Vermont, Addison Northwest School District administrators and teachers then scrambled to come up with approaches that would meet the needs of all students throughout all grade levels.
Despite some inconsistencies shown in a late-April internal survey of 450 students and parents, they believe that challenge was met.
ANWSD Superintendent Sheila Soule summed up.
“The feedback was mainly positive, as everyone recognized that we were all in a situation not of our choosing with almost no time to plan or prepare,” Soule said. “I was extremely impressed with our teachers’ initial response, and as the event unfolded in real time with the news that we would remain closed, teachers sustained their efforts doing amazing work on behalf of students and their families.”
Vergennes Union Elementary School Principal Matt DeBlois, who gained extra insight from a virtual June 4 parental forum on the district’s remote learning performance, acknowledged those inconsistencies.
But DeBlois said ANWSD improved as it went along, often by using the feedback from the survey sent out during at the start of the April break.
“The social and emotional supports we have built, we’re pretty good at them in the building. We’re not particularly good at them outside of the building,” he said. “We started to build those at the end.”
DeBlois said schools kept logs of communications with students and used that information to identify those who were struggling. Administrators then found educators “who they had a good connection with,” and they reached out to those students, and most of the time were able to help them out. 
“We made specific plans with specific adults to contact either them or their parents, depending on the age of the kid, and to support them either socially, emotionally or academically depending on the needs,” DeBlois said.
The experience ANWSD — and other districts — gained this spring could be critical.
Vermont is hoping to open schools in the fall with a long list of safety measures — temperature checks, masks, cleaning and disinfecting, physical distancing, hand sanitizing stations, meals in classrooms, and more.
But it also remains possible, some experts say even likely, that distance learning will be part of the coming school year, and districts must be prepared.
Does DeBlois think ANWSD can apply what it learned this past spring moving forward?
“I definitely do,” he said. “We’ve already made some decisions and agreements on things like more consistency across the buildings at the elementary level.” 

Consistency emerged regularly as one area in which almost all students and parents alike said the district lagged at times this past semester.
Soule said families were “supportive under very difficult circumstances,” but “as we expect we may need to rely on remote learning again we are committed to improving the student experience.”
She offered a list of what could be done better, including making all students and families feel that they are being fully served:
“We must vary instructional modalities (too much screen time was a common complaint), access to more and varied materials (we did not send many classroom materials home), and improved communication and feedback loops with students about their learning. As you can imagine, it was difficult to stay equally connected with every student and every family. So we need to determine how to reach all families and improve engagement.”
DeBlois pointed out one inconsistency. Grade-level teams within schools might be internally consistent, but did not always coordinate well with each other. That meant families with more than one student in a school could find it tough to track communications and schedules.
“I think it was most difficult for parents of multiple children,” he said. “Fifth grade sent their things out on Sunday night, and second grade might have sent their things out on a different night. And just trying to navigate as parents it seemed challenging.”  
A chart Soule provided about survey feedback for grades 7-12 listed positives and negatives and highlighted another inconsistency — different teachers offered different levels of work.
Students listed “Too much variation between teachers/expectations,” while parents noted “Variations on the amount of work assigned/quality.”
Overall, students bemoaned “Lack of social opportunities,” while parents cited “Social/Emotional Stress.
Other negatives on that chart included concerns from both parents and students on students falling behind, and parents worrying about screen time.
Some items showed up as both pluses and minuses: “Zoom” for students, and “Communication” for parents.
Students appreciated “Flexibility” and “Ability to have self-direction.” Parents and students appreciated “Structure/Schedule.” Parents gave props to the lunches the district delivered, “Access to staff,” and “Online learning in general.”
Soule said the survey was specific down to individual teachers, and the intent was to use it to improve the district’s distance learning, something both she and DeBlois believe occurred.
“Each principal took their individual results and went through it with their faculty,” she said.

DeBlois noted positives. He said although non-cooperative students were difficult to track down in some cases, compliance and attendance overall was strong.
“Our attendance rate, and I’ve read a lot of things around the state about this, our attendance rate during quarantine was higher than it was during the school year,” he said.
DeBlois said students enjoyed and used the flexibility they had, both in choosing projects and the best time to work on projects on them.
“We did a good job of articulation of what our expectations were, and giving the kids some kind of ownership of their learning,” he said.
As time went along, he said, ANWSD also learned to be flexible about scheduling classes, both to preserve internet bandwidth in homes and to allow students to retain flexibility, and in many cases to help younger siblings with their work. DeBlois said the district tried to get away as much as feasible from insisting “you have to be online every day at one.”
“We knew that a lot of kids couldn’t do that,” he said. “We tried to go to a model where there wasn’t a lot of mandatory online stuff.”
The district got positive feedback from its special education families.
“I think the special ed delivery model was pretty well liked,” DeBlois said. 
For the fall, DeBlois said, ANWSD is working on several things if remote learning is necessary:
•  Making sure families know when and how they can expect communications.
•  Making sure those communications aren’t too laden with “edu-speak.”
•  Being clearer that students should work on their own as much as possible on home assignments.
•  Refining the list of students who might need support and establishing a relationship with them early in the fall.
•  Working toward, in DeBlois’s words, “how we might support teachers who we think need more help.” For example, he said, teaching reading at the elementary level through Zoom “proved challenging.”
For sure, DeBlois said, he hopes all students and staff are back in his and other ANWSD school buildings. But he and other ANWSD administrators also believe the district should and will be ready for other scenarios. 
“We might just need to be flexible on how we support each other based on what we’ve traditionally done. Because I don’t think there’s a new normal. I think all this is different every day,” he said. “We’re not all of a sudden going back to the way we did it on March 13.”

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