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Region's educators move more than 25,000 students to online learning

Teachers and administrators rose to what they’ve described as a gargantuan challenge, prepping and executing a regionwide initiative to get most of southeastern Connecticut’s more than 25,000 students online and learning amid the COVID-19 outbreak that has shuttered schools across the nation.

From North Stonington to Old Lyme, that’s meant entire school districts, aiming to prevent learning gaps from forming during the hiatus, have pulled together rapidly to make online learning a possibility for all students — including many without portable learning devices, such as iPads and Chromebooks, and many whose lives have been turned upside down by the ongoing spread of COVID-19 around the world.  

As teachers, many of whom worked 12-hour days, learned on the fly this past week how to put together and post lessons from their living rooms after the state Department of Education advised districts to shift to distance learning last month, so, too, have students and their parents had to navigate what’s now becoming the new learning norm.

In most cases, that’s meant learning through Google Classroom, where teaches post assignments and links, as well as self-recorded video lessons, for students to watch and complete, but it’s also meant students and parents must stay self-motivated to do the schoolwork two to three hours each day.

“It has been a huge challenge for parents, teachers and students,” Groton Public Schools Superintendent Michael Graner said. “Everyone is scrambling to learn all this stuff. The teachers are overwhelmed because this is a way of learning that none of us are familiar with.”

As was the case with most of the region’s districts, the Groton district, in an effort to fill technology gaps among its 4,500 students, handed out more than 2,400 portable devices to those who needed them “over a couple day period,” Graner said, quickly orchestrating efforts between teachers and IT staff to do so.

Groton, as well as other districts, also rapidly organized a makeshift drive-thru at schools to hand out devices, while other schools created schedules and structured pickup times — all while running food programs for students and their families. Principals even went door to door to make sure students had the materials they needed to learn from home.

Getting devices into the hands of students has been easier in some districts, such as Region 18, which serves Lyme and Old Lyme and already had enough devices for all its students. Old lyme started its distance learning earlier than most districts, on March 23.

However, the initiative has presented larger challenges in other districts, such as East Lyme, which does not have portable devices for each of its 2,700 students and which sent out surveys to parents to gauge who needed a school-owned device and who had their own.

New London — a “high-needs district,” Superintendent Cynthia Ritchie said — with a higher percentage of students whose families speak languages other than English and do not have an internet connection, also has been dealt what Ritchie said felt like intense “problem-solving” challenges involving many “variables.” As of Friday, the district had supplied more than 3,000 electronic learning devices to about 84% of its student population and still was working to have remaining devices handed out.

But even with such efforts, many students across the region Friday still had not yet connected to their online classrooms, many districts reported to The Day. Attendance figures this first week have been unclear, as schools still are collecting data from self-reporting.

“Our students live across eight towns and there is incredible diversity in our numbers, making connecting to everyone challenging,” said Norwich Free Academy spokesperson Mike O’Farrell, who said he did not have exact numbers as to how many of the school’s 2,500 students had connected to the online learning platforms. “The primary focus now has been how do we get up and running and how do we make this all better?”

O’Farrell said the school has asked teachers to monitor their students’ activity over online platforms: they can see who has logged in and who hasn’t. “If a teacher identifies a kid who has not been participating, we have steps in place to work to find out why,” O’Farrell said. “Is it a technology issue? What is the scenario behind it? And what can we do to fix that?”

As Norwich Public Schools faces those same challenges among its thousands of students, Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow said there has been the added layer of providing more than 670 students who are learning English, including 231 considered at the beginning stages of learning the language, with lessons they can comprehend.

The district’s 17 teachers who specialize in teaching English learners are modeling their virtual lessons the same way they do instruction face to face, Stringfellow said — not translating lessons but providing other visual tools, graphics and videos to accompany the lessons.

“The biggest concern these past weeks has been getting access for kids,” North Stonington’s Wheeler High School/Middle School Principal Kristen St. Germain said. “I can’t guarantee that all kids are getting in to their (virtual) classrooms and I can’t guarantee kids have bigger things to worry about.”

“I’ve talked with staff about being patient and lenient,” she said. “Yes, school is very important but we also have to balance this new world we are living in. My job as principal is to remind everyone to be patient, these are not typical circumstances we are finding ourselves in right now. You have to be willing to be flexible.”

Improvising while providing normalcy

Many teachers across the region are trying to make the best of a difficult situation, providing as much normalcy as possible while being innovative with lessons to keep students engaged.

Katrina Kilpatrick, a fourth grade teacher at Preston Elementary School, said while she for the most part is starting right where her class had left off three weeks ago, because her students’ textbooks and resources used in the classroom are also online, she has improvised with a plethora of newly available resources.

On Friday, Kilpatrick sent her students on a virtual field trip to an aquarium in Seattle as part of a social studies and science lesson. “Fourth grade is when we learn about the United States, so I thought it would be fun for them to virtually travel to new places as part of a lesson.”

While Fitch High School earth sciences teacher Terance Henkle lamented he won’t be able to organize in-school science labs with his students, he has been trying to promote a bit of mindfulness, reminding them that the new changes are “a marathon and not a race.”

Tessa Jackson, who teaches at the Friendship School in Waterford — a LEARN magnet school that serves kindergarten and preschool students mostly from New London and Waterford — explained that to keep a sense of normalcy among her 20 kindergarteners, she set up a classroom in her Old Saybrook home from which she records lessons and posts online for her students to follow.

Jackson made sure to grab posters, books and marker boards from her classroom last week, as well as other familiar learning tools, such as an owl puppet named Echo that she and other kindergarten teachers regularly use during literacy lessons.

"Direct instruction in the classroom can be repetitive and we use the same familiar tools every day," she said. "So I made sure to grab things that they would recognize, but also things that would connect with them."

Jackson has since hung up the posters in a corner of her living room, where she joked she shuts herself into while recording videos so her fiancé can’t hear her from his nearby work-from-home office.

Improvising has played a key part in her lesson planning this past week: instead of moving forward with previously scheduled social studies lessons about “how the world works,” teachers decided to focus on reading stories to students about emotions, worry and change to provide them and their parents an avenue to help process new emotions they may be having while at home.

All kindergarten teachers read “Wemberly Worried” by Kevin Henkes to their students, while Jackson said she’s also mixed in “I Am Peace: A Book of Mindfulness” by Susan Verde and “Peter’s Chair” by Ezra Jack Keats, a book about going through changes, to supplement lessons about emotions.

“We are trying to address those anxieties and concerns kids might be having and creating a venue for parents to talk about those with children,” school Principal Andrea Simmons said. “We aren’t saying the word coronavirus in our lessons, but we can’t pretend that these changes aren’t happening. Some children are home and they are worried and can’t understand why they can’t see their teachers and play with their friends anymore. It’s scary, so we are trying to provide a way to explore the feeling.”

As Jackson has been posting learning lessons sticking to the Common Core curriculum, she also has tried adding a slice of fun to her videos to help keep her students engaged. On Friday, she dressed up for a “silly day” that she had scheduled to celebrate in school — “I wore a ridiculous outfit: a bow tie, crown, and I mixed and matched things I could find in my house” — and on Wednesday she posted an impromptu science lesson showing students their class pet praying mantis eggs had hatched.

“I’m hoping these little ways of connecting are meaningful and helpful for the kids and families right now,” she said.

Still, even with all the efforts to provide a sense of normalcy, Jackson said she has been worrying about the lack of socializing kids are having while at home, among other changes. “In school, they are interacting with each other, they are challenging each other and negotiating in small groups and at work centers, and that has been huge for them.”

Fitch High School English teacher Amy McKenna said besides having to navigate her school’s online learning platform, Schoology, as it has frozen and crashed several times this week, she had similar socializing worries for her 80 students, many of whom are seniors and likely will miss out on their proms, senior field trips and, possibly, graduation.

“It’s not the learning I’m worried about. We will still learn,” McKenna said. “But there are certain elements of high school life we can’t duplicate right now. It’s this time of year students are choosing which college they will attend, and we want to be there to celebrate those successes with them. ... We miss them. I can tell you right now we really miss these students.”

Day Staff Writer Claire Bessette contributed to this report.

m.biekert@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version reflects that school districts around the region are running food programs for all students and their families.

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