Students, teacher use technology to achieve distance learning

Contributed PhotoStudents from Germantown Elementary School connect with their teacher via Zoom as part of the district’s new distance learning model.

New York schools started closing early last week in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19, but that did not stop teachers from reaching students.

While districts initially planned to reopen later this month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo extended the closure through at least April 1. Now, school districts in Columbia and Greene counties are making plans in case the closures are extended.

Germantown Central School District has 518 students, 260 of those in elementary school, and like many districts, has implemented distance learning measures. Elementary school principal Beverly Meagher said transitioning the older students to learning at home came naturally because they already use a lot of the technology in the classroom.

“They’re using things like Nearpod, where kids can all join together as a class and even read together, do experiments together and come together every day for short snippets in our fifth and sixth grade,” Meagher said.

Meagher said the younger grades struggled at first, but teachers, students and parents have been learning fast. The elementary school teachers have been meeting via Zoom, a cloud platform for video and audio conferencing, chat and webinars. The platform, which has been widely utilized across employees working from home in other industries, is now being used by teachers to hold classes and connecting with students.

“They’re reading stories to their kids online, or just even checking in online, on Zoom, with them so they can see each other and talk with each other,” Meagher said.

Another resource, Edmodo, allows students to participate together as a class. Meagher said it’s amazing what has been “born out of necessity” in just a few days.

But the district, like others in Columbia and Greene counties, has many families without internet connection, and while companies like Spectrum are offering free services, they might not be available in remote areas.

“We’re struggling with not only how to get instruction to them, but how do we reach out to them?” Meagher said. “How do we put our face in front of their face and make that connection?”

Germantown is a one-to-one technology district and was able to send an iPad or laptop home with students third grade and up, and is working to provide them to younger students as the potential for schools staying closed through the end of the academic year looms.

“There’s so many natural ways to learn that aren’t paper and pencil,” Meagher said, suggesting anything from making a bird feeder to talking about the stars. “We’re trying to get our minds around that, what activities can a family do together. This is tough on parents.”

Meagher said parents should be kind to themselves and remove the pressure of prescribed learning. She spoke to one student last week who had learned canning with her mom.

“I think our first thing is to make sure that connections are there, that our kids feel safe,” Meagher said. “They’re going through a lot of anxiety, some of their parents have lost jobs, some of them have a stress for food, some of them are isolated, and our biggest concern right now is: how do we make children feel safe and connected and comfortable at home?”

Meagher always reads stories on Tuesday nights to students on Facebook Live, and she said she will continue to do so. In addition, the district is starting weekly challenges so students can help the community from home. The first is to support residents of Palatine Manor, an assisted living community in Germantown, by sending a card or hand-drawn picture, as well as “adopting” elderly community members.

Coxsackie-Athens Central School District Superintendent Randall Squier said teachers and counselors at the high school are doing what they can to alleviate student worries about everything from missing end of the year experiences, like prom, to being prepared for college. Squier said he hopes colleges work with students on things like getting transcripts.

Students are keeping up on school work, using Google Meet and Google Classroom to ask questions, attend classes and turn in assignments. Students were surveyed on internet access, and they are being set up over the next few days.

“Any kid who needed it will have some type of internet access probably by tomorrow, Thursday at the latest,” Squier said.

Computer science teacher Rocco Pietrofesa recorded YouTube videos to help students prepare for advanced placement tests and final exams. Special education teachers in the district have been reaching out to students for one-on-one video communication.

“Our counselors have been doing the same thing, video chat, to check in on kids who might need a little support in that regard,” Squier said. Counselors are working to nurture existing connections, as well as reaching out to students who teachers have not heard from.

Tim Farley, co-principal of Ichabod Crane Middle School, said the Ichabod Crane Central School District is purchasing MiFi devices, which can be connected to a cellular network to provide internet access, for students who do not have internet at home.

Farley said the devices allow students in grades four through eight the ability to connect, whether they are financially disadvantaged or live in an area where regular internet access is impossible.

“No one knows for sure, but at Ichabod we like to be prepared,” Farley said of planning for a potential extended closure. “We’re actually preparing ahead... The digital learning seems to be working fairly well.”

Each grade level is approached in a different way. While high school teachers have been preparing to make sure classes could be taught at home, especially credit-bearing classes, kindergarten through third grade students received packets with enough materials to help them review what they learned.

“We’re very concerned about a learning gap being created, so we didn’t want to see any academic regression,” Farley said. “By giving them this work they can keep up on their math facts and reading comprehension skills.”

Middle school teachers have been using Google Classrooms for the past few years, which Farley said is better than work packets alone, but it’s not the same as an in-person class.

“The biggest challenge [for students] is waiting too long and having too much to do at one time,” Farley said. “We’re really trying to stagger it. Just do two to three hours a day with your child and not to stress about it either. We don’t want kids stressed out.”

Farley said one bright light in this situation has been students and their families participating in virtual physical education, going for a hike or working out while social distancing.

An Ichabod Crane parent started a Facebook group where children can listen to books read aloud. Columbia County Sheriff David Bartlett was among the teachers, students and parents who have read stories in the group, providing a sense of normalcy to younger students, Farley said.

“It’s trying times and you look for rays of hope, and something like that where you just go, ‘That’s really cool, that’s so good for kids,’ especially young kids, to have some sort of normalcy,” Farley said. “It’s a challenge, but people are taking up that challenge, thinking creatively and thinking outside the box.”

Hudson City School District Assistant Superintendent for School Improvement April Prestipino said kindergartners through seniors are using technology for learning at home in her district.

The district provides Chromebooks to all of its high schoolers, and younger students were give the option to take one home if they did not have devices to use.

Hudson teachers are also using Google Classroom and Google Chat to connect with students, Prestipino said.

“Teachers connect with students as often as they would like,” Prestipino said. “Everyone is trying to be as responsive to students as possible to maintain that social-emotional connection that is so important for students and staff.”

Lack of internet is also a problem for Hudson, and the school is purchasing hot spots to distribute, but it takes time. Another hurdle is not having updated contact information for parents.

“All of these situations are things we are working through to be as responsive as possible to our students and families but this also gives us the opportunity to re-examine our procedures for receiving updated contact information from families regularly,” Prestipino said.

Hudson Superintendent Maria Lagana Suttmeier and Gladys Cruz, district superintendent of Questar III BOCES, communicate daily on updates from the state Education Department.

“This has certainly been an unprecedented event and has caused all of us to completely shift how we work and interact with our students and families,” Prestipino said. “Without question it has taken every employee of the district working together to figure out this new environment. The support of the community has been wonderfully overwhelming.”

Abby Hoover is a reporter for Columbia-Greene Media. Contact her at ahoover@registerstar.com.

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