Education has taken on a new look and feel since mandatory closure of schools took place three weeks ago. Teachers, school administrators, parents and students have stepped up to the challenges (technical and otherwise) of online classes. Teachers and administrators spent their one-week spring break learning how to use the software and preparing lessons for their classes.
Gina Michalicka, Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning for Hernando County public schools, established a committee of school-based administrators, district administrators, staff and coaches to develop the Virtual Continuity Plan for Hernando County Schools. This committee met multiple days for multiple hours to develop a plan and create resources for teachers, staff, students, families and administrators.
The goal of the committee was to develop a plan where instruction could happen in a virtual setting, students and families would be able to communicate with their teachers and administrators and these administrators could continue to run their buildings virtually.
“I cannot stress enough the hard work that this committee did in developing this plan and all of the resources that have been shared. It was a huge undertaking that occurred in a very short period of time. We have a great team in Hernando County!” Ms. Michalicka stated.
The biggest challenge was making sure that the platform the schools were considering was going to be easy for everyone to learn and navigate in a short time period.
“We had a very tight window in rolling this out and our number one priority was flexibility for our students and staff,” Ms. Michalicka continued.
The school system is using Canvas as its platform and the committee created professional development modules for the teachers and administrators. They are able to refer back to these modules and use them accordingly.
The biggest challenge the first week the system was in place was making sure students had access to the internet and had a device to use at home. If students did not have a device, administrators reached out to provide them with a laptop from the school. More than 3,000 devices have been distributed to students.
“Teachers and staff have done an excellent job reaching out to students to assist and support them in registering for their Canvas classes.
There has been some challenge ensuring that students are able to access their Canvas accounts. School staff contacted students and parents if the students had not logged into their classes. Schools tracked how many students had set up their Canvas accounts and administrators set up teams at their schools to reach out to families and support them. There was monitoring of this data to ensure that every student had been reached.
Brad Merschbach, who teaches American History to tenth, eleventh and twelfth graders at Central High School, commented, “Being a teacher, itself, prepared me for online education. Teachers have to adapt and be flexible every day. Our administration at Central has been very helpful at providing tutorials, online faculty meetings and one-to-one help when necessary.”
The biggest challenge for Merschbach and other teachers has been the transition to the way they interact with their students.
“As a teacher, my favorite part of teaching is seeing my students each day. Online teaching has definitely created a challenge in that, but everyone is adapting and changing as the situation changes. It is important to make yourself available to the students and parents and provide them with ways to interact with you.”
In every subject, there are always students who have more difficulty than others in grasping the material. The teachers are handling this challenge, as well.
“You need to be available, flexible and understanding. Being available is important – whether that is for students or the parents because both can be struggling to adjust. Being flexible with how and when students work is very important. You have to be understanding that every student’s home life is different, some more difficult than others. I check and respond to emails or messages from students with questions three specific times a day at 11am, 1pm, and 2:45pm. They can email me questions or schedule a one-on-one call for assistance,” Merschbach continued.
He has had a couple of parents sign up as “observers” in his classes so they can track what is going on and he communicates with them by email.
In addition to his teaching duties, Merschbach has two daughters – one in Kindergarten and one in third grade at J.D. Floyd Elementary, so the situation is doubly challenging as he juggles the roles of parent and teacher.
“They have had no problems with the program and getting assignments. Their teachers have been fantastic interacting with the students. As a parent, the challenge has been developing a routine. My kids are used to the structure and routine that school provides. My wife, Jen, has done a fantastic job of setting up screen time, assignment completion, and explaining lessons. She is the assessment teacher at Central High School and has played an integral role in helping keep my kids organized while also being on the technical support team for teachers and students in running Canvas.”
Merschbach takes attendance daily utilizing a log-in and log-out time stamp, so he can check nightly to verify students logged in during that day to check and complete assignments and tasks. At the end of each week, he submits a form to administration with his attendance records and they are logged into the system. Attendance is very important and needs to be accurately kept.
At-home schooling can be more of a challenge to some students than for others. Some of these students might be running the house; they might essentially be the parent and taking care of younger siblings. They might not have access to the internet or any number of unique difficulties.
“It is important, as an educator, to be understanding of circumstances that might be out of the student’s control and understand that eLearning might not be the easiest for them. We are trying to be patient and accommodating to help all of our students succeed in these trying times,” Merschbach concludes.