NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — In households across Rhode Island, Monday marked the start of a “new normal” through at least April 3 as public schools began their first day of what’s been deemed “distance learning,” where students will learn through classes taught through online video chats and assignments.
For students and staff in North Kingstown, where all students from first grade through their senior year of high school were provided with Chromebooks, the first day had some bumps but mostly was smooth sailing according to Superintendent Phil Auger and Assistant Superintendent Denise Mancieri.
“We’re hearing all kinds of wonderful stories, a lot of parents are checking in with us, sending us pictures of their kids at a laptop and with their books out and they’re very happy with it,” Auger said. “On the other hand we’re also hearing slow internet and so our technology team is working to do everything we can on our end to make sure that the internet functionality works as well as possible, but we realize that every system today is probably being used as much as it has been in the history of the internet, so we had a lot of kids getting on all at the same time here in North Kingstown, I’m sure they were all over Rhode Island and all over the country.”
“Hopefully as kids engage at different times of day where they get assignments and they’re doing them, not necessarily doing them at the same time, we’re hoping that we’re going to find things move out in terms of internet access and how easily people can engage with their work,” Auger added.
In addition, both noted there are plans in place to get Chromebooks to kindergartners soon as well.
Following Gov. Gina Raimondo’s March 13 declaration to move April vacations across the state up to last week, the North Kingstown School Department got to work on preparing for the task ahead.
“We heard about it on Friday and we had a meeting on Friday with all of the principals, Dr. Auger told everybody to be ready for Monday morning and we all met on Monday morning and we divided into four different teams: the elementary team, the middle school team, the high school team and school personnel and what we were able to do is we were able to get a distance learning plan in place up to RIDE for Wednesday of that week and we went from there,” Mancieri said, praising the work of teachers, administrators and staff of coming together even during their vacation time to ensure things would go well.
“They did not think twice about it being their vacation, and then once we had the initial plan in place, so many teachers started also working at home to try to get Google Meetings going and all of the planning we were going to do to get sped up, so we felt one of the things that we did feel good about is that so many people from our district were already involved,” Mancieri said. “We felt awful that it was during their vacation, but at the same time, many said that they wanted to be prepared for today and that they felt better about doing it.”
To make the transition easier, the district decided to go with familiar Google platforms such as Google Meetings and Google Classroom, both of which have been previously used by the district, over other popular programs such as Zoom, which they say their IT cautioned them about.
“We heard from our IT coach that sometimes what happens is (Zoom) seems easy but people can jump onto that and it’s not as secure, so we’re sticking with the whole Google platform,” Mancieri said. “At the high school and the middle school levels and every level, teachers have been trained, but at the high school with the students being older a lot of them are using it on a daily basis to begin with, so it was a pretty easy transition and at the elementary school level so many teachers were helping one another and making sure they knew how to do it.”
To show how easy the platform was to use, Auger and Mancieri made a video message on the platform to share with the district and ensure they felt supported in their transition to distance learning, something which Auger believes the district has an advantage in as early adapters of such online educational technology.
“In North Kingstown about five or six years ago, we really made a concerted effort to ramp up our use of technology and made the goal to have one-to-one devices at every level and with that came a lot of professional development for our teachers, even a lot of infrastructure improvements in terms of North Kingstown School Department having its own broadband, so there have been so many things done in the past five years that we’re really taking advantage of something that has been a multi-tiered, multi-year effort for the past five years to be ready for this moment, so I think in that respect we are as ready if not more ready than most of the communities in Rhode Island to take this on,” Auger said. “If we had been even a few years behind on this, there’s a lot of this we would not be able to do today.”
With some students not having access to such technology at home however, the district made sure all students would have access to district Chromebooks, while Cox has stepped up to provide free internet to students who qualify for free or reduced lunch that otherwise would not have it.
“I don’t know specifically to what extent everybody’s got what they need, but we’re not hearing reports that there are wide swabs of kids who can’t engage either,” Auger said.
The district is also making sure all students are accounted for in regards to Chromebooks.
“We have staff members at each school that are reaching out to families that they knew of to make sure they can meet any needs that they had, so if somebody for instance didn’t come to pick up their Chromebook when they needed to come pick up their Chromebook, we have a list of people that are coming back and the IT department is calling them or the clerks in the building are calling them or the principals and the deans, so they’ve had quite a few people on the phones today manning that to make sure that everybody is getting what they need,” Mancieri said.
In terms of teachers, they said most felt the transition was going well.
“They’ve got some frustrations here and there with the technology and all that, but they’re having good experiences and we’re hearing from the kids that they are engaged in their schoolwork and that’s the goal,” Auger said.
As for parents and students on adjusting to the new system, Mancieri’s advise was to be patient with the system.
“I would think my advice would be to just have patience,” Mancieri said. “Everything is brand new for most of them. We had a principal send a video out to her community yesterday, Kaitlin Donahue. Many principals did, but she had her two little ones on the bed, she had her dogs, a little dog and a big dog. One of the kids was a little baby and was kind of falling over and at the same time she was reading a book to all of her students at Hamilton that she missed and I was laughing because that is really what’s going on. At the same time we have teachers that are trying to teach and we have parents that are at home and they have that same situation, maybe they’re a teacher at a different school and they also have to teach their kids and then have to help their own children, so I think patience is definitely the name of the game and to realize that anything that we miss we’re going to back up and we’re going to help the kids with once we get back to normal but for right now just do the best that you can, that’s all we can ask.”
She also had particular praise for English Language Learner (ELL) and special education teachers for adjusting their usual plans to this new technology while keeping with students Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and working one-on-one with students through this new environment.
In addition to distance learning, the district is still providing breakfast and lunch to anyone 18 and under in North Kingstown Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to noon at Wilson Park and 12:15 p.m. to 1:15 p.m. at McGinn Park.
Further updates on what’s going on in the district during this pandemic can be found on the district website at nksd.net or by downloading the North Kingstown School Department app available in all major app stores.