Last week, after the schools were shut down, teachers and leaders in the Harwood Union school district labored tirelessly to set up an online system to continue educating children.

Now, students are receiving a different but substantial education from their homes — even as teachers worry about whether children’s educational and social needs can be met from behind a screen.

Gov. Phil Scott declared a state of emergency March 13, canceling all large gatherings, banning dine-in restaurant operations, and requiring all schools to close.

Harwood closed schools immediately, but teachers came to school Monday and Tuesday of last week to formulate a strategy for educating kids at home. That Wednesday, March 18, school was back in session, remotely, with teachers and students staying at home.

Schools are still serving breakfast and lunch — with free meals available for pickup Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays — and teachers are connecting with students through Google Classroom, posting assignments and resources on an online forum, and answering questions and providing instruction with students and parents through email, phone calls and online video conferencing.

“I call it the new abnormal,” said MK Monley, art teacher at Thatcher Brook Primary School in Waterbury. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried, because I am. But we’ll get through this.”

Teachers laid out a plan to continue online teaching at least until April 6, the earliest date schools could be reopened.

“We worked our butts off to get remote learning in place,” Monley said. The result is an open-ended work plan. Students have loose deadlines for completing work because, now that everything’s online, school is always in session.

“In my head as an educator, you spend a school day doing schoolwork. That's just my paradigm for 30 years,” Monley said.

Adjusting to that change was a creative process. Monley put together a bingo sheet of activities for her students to complete over these two weeks, but it’s more guidance than required work.

“A parent sent me an email that said, ‘If it’s not on the sheet, is it still OK?’” Monley said. She remembered that the student likes making paper airplanes and told the parent to go ahead. “Do what you love; that’s what’s important right now,” she said.

Chromebooks are key

Greg Shepler, a history teacher and head of the Harwood teachers union leader, noted that, in 2014, Harwood started issuing students iPad tablet computers and Chromebooks — browser-based laptops.

“I can’t imagine how this (remote learning) would go without those Chromebooks,” Shepler said. And, because a large portion of students’ work was already housed on Google Classroom, he didn’t have to rebuild his curriculums from the ground up.

“It’s working a lot better than I thought it was going to work,” Shepler said.

But it’s one thing to get assignments to students, and another to determine how well they’re learning the subject.

“That’s the difficulty right there,” Shepler said. It can be difficult to ensure children aren’t being left behind as the lesson plans continue forward. “You might decrease the difficulty in order to balance that with clarity.”

With proficiency-based learning — the new system the district adopted this year — there are two types of assignments, formative and summative — essentially non-graded and graded. Shepler said he’s pivoting toward more of those practice assignments to gauge how students are learning outside the classroom before assessing their proficiency on a subject.

The system’s been in place for only a week, but, so far, Shepler is impressed with how it’s working.

“Our administrators set up the system and our students are doing the work,” Shepler said. “The staff were just the bridge between those two. I think it says a lot about our students that they’re willing to do the work.”

Challenges in isolation

“A lot of teachers have concerns about how this will be met by students with learning challenges,” Shepler said. “One of the things that we’ve agreed to ... was to have open-ended deadlines.”

That helps students get the help they need. While there are designated hours for students to join a video conference with their teachers, most are choosing to ask questions individually via email or a comment system in Google Classroom.

There’s a lot of one-on-one interaction. Students are asking questions and getting individual responses. Combine that with more lenient deadlines, and that amounts to a lot of work for the teachers.

“Every time I open my computer, there’s a whole page of unanswered emails. … It’s more than we’re accustomed to,” Shepler said.

And that’s if students have good internet access.

In a survey last fall, about 5 percent of Harwood Union students said they didn’t have regular access to the internet, Shepler said.

If parents have access to services but can’t afford them, Xfinity and Consolidated Communications will provide households with 60 days of free internet service, Philip Hayes, Harwood district systems administrator said. He contacted the service providers directly to ensure families wouldn’t get stuck with unexpected charges, but said there are still some cases where services are physically unavailable.

For those students, teachers are providing printed assignments, leaving them in the main office for pickup or, in extreme cases, having them delivered to households. It’s too early to tell whether those students will be able to keep up.

“We’re just sending the first assignments out and the first assignments are coming in. I would guess that that is going to be an issue,” he said, though the loose deadline should help.

A larger concern is how the kids are doing, isolated from their classmates and with the rest of the school year in limbo.

Shepler said he’s worried about students who thrive in social settings. “You take that away from someone who lives for that, and it makes it difficult under the circumstances,” he said.

The mental well-being of her students is at the forefront of Monley’s mind as well.

“We’re living in a pandemic and we need to cut ourselves some slack and we need to not be so worried about total amount of time and work in. We need to be more concerned about people’s mental health and being connected,” Monley said. “I think art and music and physical activities are going to have big roles to play in how people survive.

“We need to have our priorities in order. We love our kids. We want them to thrive and we want them to survive. We’ve got to figure this out together, separately.”

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