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As Fall Approaches, Schools Work to Improve Remote Learning

Schools made a dramatic shift to remote learning when school closed in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic with varying degrees of success, and now as fall nears, districts hope to be better prepared than last time.

by Barbara O'Brien, The Buffalo News / July 22, 2020
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(TNS) — Schools quickly made the dramatic shift to remote teaching when school closed in March because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Crisis learning took over, with varying degrees of success.

Districts hope to be better prepared than the last time.

But will they?

It may come down to teacher training. And with less than two months to go before the school year is slated to begin, what districts are doing varies widely.

For example, Erie 1 BOCES, which partners with 21 area school districts, is holding a number of training sessions this summer, with a focus on using remote technology and implementing best practices.

Other districts will use professional development days in September to continue training.

Buffalo has four teacher-only days scheduled for early September, before classes begin. Three of them will be used to train staff to use Schoology, an online platform, and other tools for remote instruction.

And in West Seneca, N.Y., a distance learning plan was included as part of the teachers contract.

“We negotiated there has to be a digital learning plan in place and we’re working now with the district to have that so we can make sure there is the proper training that is in the best interests of the students, the parents and is consistent and clear,” said Joe Cantafio, president of the West Seneca Teachers Association.

Districts are anticipating Covid-19 may force them to rely on remote learning either partially or fully at some point during the year, and they’re under pressure from parents and the state Education Department to provide better than what was offered in the spring.

Instruction, according to state guidance released last week, must include “regular and substantive interaction” with a certified teacher – regardless of how it’s being delivered.

“I feel like the community was very patient and kind with us the first time,” Niagara Falls Superintendent Mark Laurrie said. “We’ve got to do a much better job the second time.”

Preparing for fall

In the spring, some schools had success with conducting classes over Zoom, while others sent packets of work home. Some teachers checked in with students frequently, others less often.

Learning fatigue set in, as some students turned in assignments in the middle of the night, while others just stopped logging on.

The lack of access to technology and the internet for some students was an eye-opener.

“With the emergency remote instruction, obviously, it was a crisis situation, that instruction had to be turned around very quickly," said Steve Graser, director of professional development and instructional technology resources for Erie 1 BOCES.

"Now that there is time for planning, we can be very thoughtful about delivery of instruction, whether it be face to face, hybrid or remote," he said.

From April to June, Erie 2 Chautauqua-Cattaraugus BOCES trained more than 500 teachers across 27 districts from southern Erie County to the Pennsylvania border, said Erica Case, director of staff and curriculum development. Another round of professional development will start again next week, she said.

"It’s not that all teachers get Google 101, it’s the teachers that need introductory training, receive the introductory training, and those that are more advanced, we differentiate the training for them just like we would do for students," Graser said.

Kenmore East special education teacher Jessica Kelly used a number of tools this spring to teach remotely, including Zoom, Google Classroom and the Remind app. She also set up a Facebook group to offer homework help to students.

But, like many teachers, she found that some students weren’t doing their work, no matter what she tried.

“After we first closed, even though we called and actually talked to parents, they did not participate. I would think, I’ll Zoom with them on this day, but then they didn’t pick up,” she said. “I think in the fall I would try to put things in place that would maybe improve participation for some kids.”

She thinks it’s likely that, even if schools open up either fully or partially online in September, some students will be learning remotely, either for long-term health issues or because they have to quarantine. So she’s starting to think about how to account for that.

“Maybe we set up a camera in the classroom and then post a video of the lesson online every day,” Kelly said.

Contingency plans

In Buffalo, some parents and students complained about a lack of live instruction when schools closed in March. That will change this fall.

“It will be different in the sense that it will be more structured,” said Darren Brown-Hall, the district’s chief of staff. “That’s what parents asked for and I think that’s what students need, so that real online learning and instruction is taking place.”

The district also plans to provide training sessions this summer for parents.

Some districts may be planning to hold classes in person for elementary grades, and remotely or a hybrid mix for secondary students, Robert N. Lowry Jr., deputy director the New York State Council of School Superintendents. But the council has no data on how many might do that.

“I also think that districts will need to have contingency plans for reverting to remote instruction in the event of renewed infections,” Lowry said. “Hopefully it doesn’t come to that, but I think it’s something districts have to prepare for.”

©2020 The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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