The phrase “back to school” took on new meaning this week in South Kingstown and Narragansett, as students logged on to computers for distance learning while their classrooms are closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
School officials in both towns have emphasized support and patience as students, their parents and faculty adjust to week one of a completely new way of learning.
“We know that the transition to a virtual environment will be uncomfortable,” South Kingstown Superintendent of Schools Linda Savastano said. “We will have large learning curves. We are working to make sure that real-time face to face conversations are a significant piece of our virtual learning. We are also making sure that our virtual learning will take place in front of a computer AND away from the computer.”
Savastano praised the leadership and technology teams that quickly worked to get a distance learning plan up and running.
“This team has worked tirelessly in preparation for virtual learning. We want our plan to be the best it can be for our children. We do not want a mitigation plan but instead a plan that reflects the amazing learning community that we are, even in the most challenging of times.”
The district said that the state Department of Education has identified South Kingstown’s virtual learning plan as a model for best practices.
Students in pre-kindergarten and grades 1 and 2 are using the SeeSaw and Zoom online platforms, while grades 3-12 use Google Classroom and Google Meet.
The platforms will allow learning to be both “synchronous and asynchronous,” officials said. Each day, students will have some online face-to-face time with teachers and some time that will be interactive and require student independent learning based on the work provided.
Teachers are being asked to take and record daily attendance of the students, and staff will monitor student participation.
“We believe that real-time face-to-face conversations are a significant part of our virtual learning,” a message to parents said. “To make these experiences meaningful, your child’s attendance and active participation are critical. We understand that there will be technical issues and other challenges but we ask that you take this requirement seriously.”
The school district has set up a special web page for information about distance learning. Here, parents can review class schedules at the different schools, fill out a form if they need a computer and internet access, and get more information on how distance learning works. All students in grades 5-12 have been assigned student-issued laptops.
The district also is providing ‘Grab & Go’ breakfast and lunch from 8 .m. to 9:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Curtis Corner Middle School.
South Kingstown High School Principal Chip McGair reassured students and thanked them for their patience.
“I know that the situation we find ourselves in is not fair,” he said. “It has been challenging to accept this current and indefinite reality. I especially feel for our seniors, who have important events, such as prom and graduation scheduled. I can assure you that we will do everything we can to have as many of the events that make our school special, even though holding them is not all under our control.”
Narragansett schools have also been hard at work preparing for the start of distance learning, which the state has mandated until April 3 and perhaps beyond.
“We have received questions throughout the week from parents and students, and have created a frequently asked questions page on our website,” Narragansett Superintendent of Schools Peter Cummings said. It covers tech support, breakfast/lunch availability, special education support, internet access and other important details.
As in South Kingstown, student attendance and participation is being strictly monitored, with regular “check-ins” scheduled via Google Hangouts, Zoom or other services.
The schedule for the first week of distance learning is a blend of fixed meeting times and asynchronous completion of assignments that will have a more flexible timeline but common due date, Cummings said.
“Special education teachers have been working closely with classroom teachers to modify assignments for students who need accommodations, and each case manager will make contact with the students and families on his or her caseload,” he said.
The mental health support staff will be checking in on students and families throughout the week, as will guidance counselors, Cummings said.
The schools are working with Cox to provide internet access to all students. Free wi-fi hotspots are available through Cox, and the company is offering free internet for 30 days to households that qualify for free and reduced lunch.
Narragansett also is not collecting preschool tuition at this time. All students will be considered as continuing to be enrolled.
Like South Kingstown, Narragansett has also started a free ‘Grab & Go’ breakfast and lunch program for children under 18. Pick up will take place at Narragansett High School each day.
Savastano and Cummings, like educators around the state and even Gov. Gina Raimondo, reminded students that the distance learning is intended to be a continuation of instruction in the classroom.
“This is not an extended vacation,” Cummings said. “Distance Learning days are school days and both students and teachers are expected to be engaged with instruction. Districts are expected to make sure everyone is accountable.”
Patience, communication and flexibility are key, Cummings told parents.
“I ask that you remember our teachers and staff members are also learning to work from home and are establishing routines with their own families while meeting the responsibilities of suddenly becoming ‘on-line’ educators. They have been working incredibly hard to prepare for tomorrow and the coming distance learning days, and I am grateful for their commitment to our children and incredible professionalism in this time of crisis.”