Students and teachers across Orange County are preparing for the challenges associated with remote learning as local schools begin their academic year on Monday.
Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools will have a fully-remote fall semester ending Jan. 15. Orange County Schools will have a fully-remote first nine weeks of the school year. The district will return to school for in-person instruction when it is safe to do so, according to the OCS website.
For students, families, teachers and school administrators, the previous remote learning experience was characterized by a rapid shift to at-home learning due to an executive order from Gov. Roy Cooper in response to COVID-19.
Lauren Boening, a third-grade teacher at Morris Grove Elementary School, said during the spring semester, teachers had to quickly adapt to changing circumstances.
“That is what we're now calling, looking back on it, 'crisis teaching,'" Boening said. "It was very unusual because of course, when it started, we all expected it would just be for a shorter period of time. And so we were almost doing like stopgap measures. And we were trying to be very flexible with the fact that families were suddenly finding themselves at home."
Boening’s third-grade classroom went through changes in instructional format throughout the spring — starting with packets of work, and eventually transitioning to Google Meets. Although Boening had already built up a rapport with her students, she said her class found it difficult to adapt to the changes in routine.
She said one thing she found that did work in the spring was incorporating small-group instruction — on Fridays, students would meet with a smaller group for a science experiment or a math vocabulary game. In those environments, Boening said she was able to foster better communication and student engagement.
“I am excited because the plan that we have for the fall does allow a lot more for the small group time, and I think that was the thing that really ended up being what my students responded best to in the spring,” she said.
Lisa Kaylie, a parent of a Phillips Middle School student and an East Chapel Hill High School student, saw her children experience remote learning in different ways. She said her younger son was able to adapt quickly, but her older son, who is on the autism spectrum, found it nearly impossible to participate in remote schooling.
“He would not really participate in online school," she said. "It was not effective for him. He wasn’t really learning what he technically should have been at school.”
CHCCS administrators held a webinar Aug. 10 to discuss supports available for students served by the Exceptional Children department. Individualized Education Program teams will meet to discuss individual students’ needs, and Exceptional Children teachers will collaborate with general education teachers and service providers to transition the co-teaching model to remote instruction.
Both CHCCS and OCS have implemented 1:1 technology programs, providing a device for all students and mobile hotspots as needed, and meal distribution programs to support students who may be facing food insecurity.
CHCCS expanded the 1:1 technology program, and now provides all Kindergarten and first-grade students with iPads and older students with laptops to complete remote instruction, said Jeff Nash, executive director of community relations for CHCCS. Equipment that was previously on backorder is now ready to be distributed, he said.
Students living in rural areas may also face additional barriers to accessing remote learning.
OCS has provided all students with an OCS-issued device, Melany Stowe, public information and community engagement officer for OCS, said in an email.
OCS has set up WiFi access points at schools and on buses through the meal distribution program, she said in an interview. Stowe said students may also be able to communicate with teachers using flash drives.
Mary Patricia Peres-da-Silva, a seventh-grade math teacher at McDougle Middle School, said school administration helped provide teachers with tools to support a fully-remote learning structure. For example, teachers can come into the classroom to teach from the school in case they are facing barriers to teaching effectively at home.
Peres-da-Silva said she focused on professional development to effectively deliver remote instruction. Educational technology companies — Quizlet, Google Classroom, Kahoot, Pear Deck and Desmos, among others — have provided learning resources that she has used to increase her familiarity with teaching online.
Peres-da-Silva said she plans to incorporate social-emotional learning in the curriculum. For example, students will be able to draw faces to represent how they are feeling as part of the social-emotional learning checks. She said she will also be incorporating scavenger hunt activities and other opportunities to help students break up the days with movement.
As both school districts have rolled out plans for extended periods of remote learning, Kaylie said she wished the community would see how much support local schools provide for families.
“In addition to education, it's food support, it's childcare so that people can do their jobs," she said. "For kids with disabilities, it's vital therapies. And to some extent, respite care for parents, so that they can get some mental health care themselves. It's a lot for schools to be asked to do while figuring out how to teach all of this remotely and completely change everything that they do.”
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.