Learning continues in the midst of a pandemic

ALBANY COUNTY — With living and dining rooms now doubling as classrooms, teachers and administrators have said that the first days of at-home learning amid the coronavirus have been fairly smooth. The course load was admittedly lighter than normal because everyone was trying just to gain their bearings, but, overall, school districts have had little to quibble with over the rollout of their online education.

And there have been significant repercussions already since Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order on March 16 closing schools for two weeks. State testing for grades three through eight has been suspended for the year. On the same day, March 20, the federal government announced that it will waive standardized testing mandates for schools this year.

Come April 1, Cuomo will reassess the situation and make a decision whether or not to reopen schools — which, at the moment, seems unlikely.

Timothy Mundell, superintendent of the Berne-Knox-Westerlo schools, and Frank Macri, Voorheesville’s superintendent, both said that there had been an effort on the part of their school districts to work on the problem at the regional level.

Learning in the Guilderland schools had been featured in an earlier Enterprise article as that district faced a disadvantage since it had to close ahead of the state directive, leaving teachers unable to train and access supplies, because of a case of COVID-19 connected to Farnsworth Middle School.

About two weeks before the pandemic hit the region, Macri said, superintendents from the school districts served by the Capital Region Board of Cooperative Educational Services began working with one another, and one thing that came out of that was a shared document in which the resources of each school district are in one place for all to use. 

Teachers won’t be handing out grades for the work their students do over the next couple of weeks, said Karen Conroy, Voorheesville’s director of curriculum. But the students are being asked to do the assignments to the best of their ability and the hope is that they will use the resources provided to them daily, which will let them maintain and strengthen their knowledge and skills.

Asked about avoiding an academic slide if students end up being out of school long-term, Conroy said that is currently being planned for but Voorheesville has to wait for guidance from the State Education Department. Right now, she said, Voorheesville is not  replicating classroom instruction; rather, the goal is to support students and families by providing learning opportunities, and keeping the students engaged and the community connected.

“People have really gone above and beyond to try to give students — I know it can’t be normal — but a little bit of what they were used to,” Conroy said.

Mundell said BKW’s task is to provide educational opportunities for students in the absence of school, to keep them growing, keep them engaged, and give them activities that align with their personal interests, which comes from teachers really knowing each of their students individually. 

And for students in classes that typically conclude with a state Regents exam, Mark Pitterson, principal of BKW’s secondary school, has asked teachers to try to anticipate what skills students will need to do well on the exam. Because no one knows if the Regents exams will be given — and if they are given,what portion of the school year the exams will cover. At his point, Pitterson is anticipating a full-year exam and teachers are getting information to students based on that assumption, which has been working well so far, he said. 

Annette Landry, BKW’s elementary-school principal, noted that students who received support while at school from the districts’ pupil personnel team — counselors and psychologists — continue to do so while they are at home. She also said that many teachers had told her they had set up a way to have daily communication with families. 

Neither school district has one-to-one technology — where each student is given a laptop by the district — but both superintendents made it clear that, if a student needs help, he or she will get it. 

Macri said for families who may not have a computer at home, all they have to do is call the district and it will lend one out — Voorheesville has lent 100, so far. “If they need a Chromebook, they need to contact us and we’ll make sure they get one,” Macri said.

The school district, Macri said, has partnered with the Voorheesville Public Library to obtain additional wifi hotspots, which allow internet access. The entire secondary campus is currently functioning as a hotspot, so students can go to the parking lot and use the school’s wifi.

Mundell said BKW had created a loan program for students who may not have electronic devices at home. And, being a rural school district, he said it’s assumed about 30 percent of the population doesn’t have internet access, but, through hotspots and cellphones, students have been able to gain online access.

And if hotspots and cellphones are not a feasible option, Mundell said, the district is making other arrangements to ensure the students get the curricula. He also said BKW is also looking into how to get access to additional hotspots.

 

Teaching and learning online

In Voorheesville and Berne-Knox-Westerlo, students already use the Google Classroom suite of tools — Drive, Docs, Sheets, Slides, and Gmail — so, in the past week, they’ve only had to familiarize themselves with one new Google tool: Meet, a video-conferencing app.

William Dergosits, a third-grade teacher at BKW, said he was going back-and-forth on whether to use Google Meet or Zoom, another video-conferencing app, and found that Zoom required more bandwidth. But also, he said, since BKW is a Google school, every student already has a Google account, which makes it very easy to login and have conversations.

Dergosits said that he has seen an increase in collaboration among his students — something he always pushed — but what he’s found, when he’s not physically there, is that the students are able to rely on one another to find solutions to the problems they may have.

Students are integrating technology into their daily science labs, when they go outside and report what they are seeing, hearing, feeling — “Not tasting, I made that very clear,” Dergosits said with a laugh. On Monday, for example, students could either write or post a short video explaining the weather.

Anne Lyons-Johnson teaches world history primarily to ninth-graders in Voorheesville. She has used Google Meet just twice — both in the past week; about a third of her students attended the first Meet and about half attended the second one. Lyons-Johnson said she had no real problem using the technology.

Her students are enrolled in Remind, which is a platform that she has been using all year, Lyons-Johnson said, so now she sends out a message saying that she will be having a Meet at 2 p.m. on a given day and students will respond to her via email and she will add them to the Meet. 

On Tuesday, for example, she held a 2 p.m. Meet that could be considered somewhat normal — a lecture. Lyons-Johnson has been working on medieval Asia and continued with her curriculum this week as she normally would.

Next week, she said, she plans to offer students the opportunity to meet one-on-one with her for 15 minutes to receive feedback on an essay each has written — it would be a Google Meet where she can see the student and look at the document as well.

Lyons-Johnson said one downside to the technology so far: There have been a few students with whom she had yet to interact this week.

Also, in a traditional classroom setting, if she’s doing a PowerPoint presentation lecture, for example, she can look out at the students and see if any are raising their hands with a question. With Google Meet, there is a chat version for raising their hand, which can sometimes be a problem because she doesn’t see the chat hand being raised. But she’s confident she’ll learn these things as she uses the program more.

The rollout has been a lot smoother than she had anticipated, Lyons-Johnson said, which she attributed to the administration’s giving teachers the freedom,  flexibility, and autonomy “to do these experiment[s],” and know that, if they fail, they won’t be penalized for it. 

“I tried it, it didn’t work — OK, I’ll try something else,” she said. “It’s a nice feeling that we have that opportunity to try to experiment with new types of technology, experiment with new types of teaching, knowing that our administration has got our back and is going to be supportive.”

Brian McCoy, a BKW chemistry teacher who finds himself teaching quite a bit of biology this year, said he’s gone kind of “low-tech.” With an iPad recording him, he uses a stylus to write down lessons on his Microsoft SurfacePro much as he would write on a whiteboard in his classroom, he then uploads the videos to his YouTube channel.

McCoy said that the work he’s given in Google Classroom so far has been done, but there might have been one or two students who had yet to hand in their assignments. 

He said he would give the students a little more time before reaching out, but said he hadn’t given out a lot of work because he, too, is trying to figure out a lot of new things.

On Tuesday morning, he gave students a bit more work, so he’ll see how kids respond.

 

Here are some useful links The Enterprise has come across to help students learn at home:

— The Center for Educational Reform has a page of educational resources families can use during the pandemic.

TurfMutt Foundation’s Education Program — Based on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) principles, through creative writing, outdoor-themed activity sheets, and digital storybooks, this program teaches “kids to learn about the benefits of their family yard and taking care of the green spaces around them”;

Eight easy art projects for kids at home during Coronavirus isolation — Eight easy-to-do at-home art projects;

Coronavirus family survival guide: Setting a schedule — From National Geographic, a how-to on dealing with your child “colleagues” during the coronavirus shutdown;

Albany Institute of History & Art Presents: Museum at Home — Explore the museum remotely through its collection of digital materials;

Guilderland Central School District updates and resources on Coronavirus;

Voorheesville Central School District updates and resources on Coronavirus;

Berne-Knox-Westerlo Central School District;

Parenting and Mental Health Resources During Coronavirus from VCSD;

Social and Emotional Learning Resources from GCSD;

Home Learning Online Resources, Activities and Ideas from GCSD;

Altamont Elementary School Digital Library;

Guilderland Elementary School Digital Library;

Lynnwood Elementary School Digital Library;

Pine Bush Elementary School Digital Library;

Westmere Elementary School Digital Library;

Farnsworth Middle School Digital Library;

Guilderland High School Digital Library;

Voorheesville Public Library; and

Altamont Free Library.

 

More Regional News

  • To present a balanced spending plan for 2021, Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy’s budget relies on tapping the county’s $60 million rainy-day fund for $3 million, reallocating $5 million that would have otherwise been appropriated toward paying off county debt, and $5 million in salaries and benefits savings from 72 employees who each accepted a $15,000 early-separation payout.

  • “Albany County departments provide many of the services LEAD uses and this money is a game-changer during a financially challenging time and one in which mental health and addiction issues have increased,” said Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy.

  • Governor Andrew Cuomo announced an expansion of food stamps, now called SNAP, to nearly 75,000 low-income college students who are enrolled in career or technical education courses.

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