Schools Coping With Rapid Online Transition

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St. Mary’s High School students accessing classwork at home. (Photo courtesy of St. Mary’s High School)

When all public and private schools in the Nassau County were ordered to shut their doors until at least April 1 starting on Monday, March 16 to try and limit the spread of coronavirus, educators across Nassau had to figure out how to design and implement a web-based curriculum for thousands of students on the fly.

After the doors closed at Great Neck’s North Shore Hebrew Academy (NSHA) on March 10, teachers and staff members worked day and night to shift their educational programs and get their students back to learning. It took just one day of no classes for the system to go into place on March 12.

“Our teachers have been unbelievable, they learned how to use this technology within a matter of hours,” NSHA Director of Institutional Advancement Abby Weiss said. “And not only did they have to learn the technology, they had to change all their lesson plans and all of their teaching goals to recalibrate to the use of that technology. We had obviously a bit of a learning curve but the teachers have been great.”

NSHA students from toddlers to twelfth graders are receiving live instruction from their teachers via the remote meeting app Zoom, which can be installed on a phone, tablet or computer and allows for up to 100 people at once to engage in a video conference with each other. While it’s not exactly face-to-face instruction, NSHA felt it would be important to maintain as much communication and contact between teachers and students as possible while everybody rides out the advancing pandemic.

“A computer environment cannot replace a classroom environment and that feeling of seeing exactly how a child reacts to something they teach or seeing whether it’s all clicking,” Weiss said. “But connectivity is such an important part of being a good educator, so when we started mapping out what it’s going to look like obviously a big part of it was about keeping the kids connected to the teachers. Emotionally, we thought that would probably be the most important piece for the children if we were going to face a school shutdown.”

While educators have struggled to administer tests in this environment, the state education department on Friday announced all state tests would be canceled for the rest of the year so schools could focus on more local needs.

The nearby St. Mary’s Elementary School in Manhasset first began developing a strategy for this scenario when the first news about COVID-19 in Wuhan, China began to make headlines back in January. Their online-learning platform, utilizing a combination of Google Classroom and Google Meet, was up and running the day after schools were closed.

“Students in grades K through 8 (optional for N and Pre-K students) are using Google Classroom and Google Meet as the main tools for distance learning,” St. Mary’s Elementary School Principal Sarah Griffin said. “Classroom is used as a way to show accountability for participation in daily lessons and completion of daily assignments, and provides resources for students. Meet sessions are scheduled by teachers to have live check-ins and interactive lessons with their students. The sessions are recorded so that students who could not attend the live session may view it later. Each day by 9 a.m., teachers are posting original content to ensure continuity of instruction during this unprecedented period.”

The Great Neck Public Schools are using a variety of web-based resources depending on learning level. Since elementary-level students don’t have 1:1 devices like higher level students, they are working primarily with e-books, computer program and teacher-created lessons while Google Classroom is the main learning hub for students from Grades 4 to 12 since those students all have devices given to them by the district, Great Neck Public Schools Assistant Superintendent for Secondary Education Stephen Lando said. Special education staff are doing their best to provide more individualized help, since not every student can adjust to the online system. Lando stressed that the system is constantly evolving since it’s so new, and that learning plans will be adjusted as more feedback comes in.

“We’re just getting our feet wet and finding out what works best,” Lando said. “We’re only three days into it, so as we’re finding out what works best we’re evaluating it and we’ll make use of the other tools.”

Community members like Hans Chen have been offering informative sessions on how parents and students can use Google Classroom to help bridge the gap in this trying time. Chen said students are largely familiar with the workings of Google Classroom and other online learning services. The real challenge at the moment is acclimating district parents to the new normal.

“The thing is you don’t know what you don’t know,” Chen said. “The parents need to be involved. You need the whole ecosystem to make it work.”

After receiving feedback from students and parents about the high workload they have been subjected to since online learning was introduced, Roslyn Public Schools Superintendent Allison Brown sent a message to district parents, saying that the district will update its strategy based on their recommendations. Brown also included a number of recommendations to help students acclimate, including dressing in regular clothes and keeping a to-do list.

“Be consistent in your routines and schedules,” Brown said. “Build in breaks and meal times, and get yourself moving from time to time. Establish a work environment that is clean, comfortable and private, to the extent possible. Your desk area should keep your mind calm and your thoughts organized.”

While each district is executing its own plan, several said the cooperation they’ve received from parents, communities and other schools has proven invaluable.

“It reminds us of the best of the human spirit and human character,” Lando said. “It shows the depth of caring that our entire community has.”

Additional reporting by Dave Gil de Rubio and Marco Schaden

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