My district started preparing for the possibility of school closure due to COVID-19 several weeks before the Governor shut down all Virginia schools. A full week before schools were closed, teachers had prepared two weeks’ worth of spiral review activities for their classes. For our secondary teachers, the task was more manageable; we have a 1:1 program in grades 6-12 and teachers use Blackboard to share, at a minimum, homework assignments, lessons, and a course syllabus. Our secondary teachers and students were able to move to a virtual classroom with fewer complications.
The task was far more complex for our elementary teachers. Teachers reached out to parents to determine which families had internet access and a device that their child could use. Our local cable provider offered free internet to any family that needed it, for the time period that our schools were closed. Paper packets were printed for families without a device.
When the Governor closed schools, effective March 16, 2020, we felt like we were as prepared as we could be for something none of us had ever experienced. In reality, our preparations simply bought us a little time as we transitioned into the new normal.
It didn’t take long for our teachers to realize that, without a visual connection with their students, lessons and activities lacked impact. The need for video conference rose quickly and ITRTs were faced with creating PD and best practices for tools that most teachers had no experience with. Teachers now were learning to use tools like WebEx, FlipGrid, and Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, while in those virtual environments. It was challenging, but our ITRTs and teachers stepped up. We experienced the benefits and pitfalls of online learning, first hand.
Since our K-5 students are not part of our 1:1 initiative and a student’s home device may or may not manage synchronous video conferencing, many elementary teachers set up FlipGrids. FlipGrids can handle lower bandwidth, are password protected, foster communication, and responses can be monitored. It is free, and easy to use for both students and teachers.
Teaching in this new normal is a challenge. We can deliver instructional videos from our YouTube channels and follow up with well-designed activities. The materials we present are as solid as they were when we taught in our classrooms, but the richness of the lesson is harder to share virtually. Conversations, the part of a lesson where the learning is enhanced, are missing. The use of video communication has soothed a rough spot that has been hard to overcome in this new way of teaching, by bringing conversations back.
Written by Meg Swecker. Meg is the Coordinator of Technology Integration for Roanoke County Public Schools and a member of the VSTE Board of Directors, serving as the Board Secretary. She is also chair of the Awards and Recognition Committee.