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But it’s not all bad: Distance learning has mixed results

LAKEVILLE — Connecticut’s public schools closed on March 16 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Initially the closure was for two weeks. Then it was extended, and finally Gov. Ned Lamont ordered that schools remain closed for the remainder of the school year.

Schools were faced with an abrupt shift to “distance learning” online.

The Lakeville Journal asked administrators and teachers how distance learning is working. Stephanie Magyar, principal at Salisbury Central School (SCS), said that different teachers utilize technology in different ways.

Some teachers schedule sessions on Google Meets. Others don’t have a set time, or do set sessions.

There is a “basic template” of weekly assignments.

She said every student at SCS  has internet access, although the quality varies. Some families needed assistance. “We talked them through it.”

John Conklin, middle school science teacher at SCS, said he uses Google Meet and Zoom, follows a schedule and tries to keep the framework of question and answer — critical for science instruction — intact.

“We shifted more to keeping students involved and engaged,” he said. But he is still grading assignments and making sure skills are mastered.

“The big downside is the lack of social interaction,” he added, a sentiment echoed by others.

Ian Strever, principal at Housatonic Valley Regional High School (HVRHS), said the school does maintain a weekly class schedule but “we have to be flexible to accommodate students’ reality.”

Some HVRHS students are, at the moment, the primary breadwinner in their family.

Others are caring for younger siblings.

So requiring students to be online and ready to go every Monday at 7:50 a.m. is impractical.

Instead, “we allow students to work at their own pace.”

Strever said, “We had a pretty good head of steam,” with two weeks to go in the third grading quarter, when the shutdown happened. 

In the fourth quarter, with the school using a pass/fail grading system, Strever said he has noticed a “drop-off in participation.”

He said about 98% of HVRHS students have internet access, although some have to make arrangements to do schoolwork at the home of a family member or neighbor.

Strever said some teachers adapted faster than others. “With some it was like flipping a switch.”

Some disciplines are more suited to online instruction than others. “It’s been difficult for science teachers, because they can’t do labs.”

Amy Lake, middle school social studies teacher at the Lee H. Kellogg (LHK) elementary school in Falls Village, said that when the shutdown occurred, “We had no time to think about it.”

In her 32 years at LHK, “I’ve never taught this way.”

Lake said the challenges of the new regimen included how to be creative — how to craft an assignment “so kids can be interested and motivated.”

Lake said she does maybe half an hour of traditional lectures per week.

Peter Vermilyea, chairman of the Social Studies department at HVRHS, said distance learning“requires a lot of flexibility.”

“If I try to replicate the classroom, it’s not going to work.”

He said the students made it clear to him what was working and what wasn’t. They said that they needed flexibility, but valued the face-to-face (or screen-to-screen) time with the teacher.

Vermilyea pointed to one bright side of the situation. His United States history/ECE class is an early college experience course, so students receive credit at both HVRHS and the University of Connecticut.

The students were in the home stretch of their research papers when the lockdown began, and the papers were due at the end of March. 

That due date was changed, Vemilyea said, noting that whatever else was happening, the students now had lots of time “to do really great papers.”

After writing conferences and lots of edits and rewrites, the papers will be submitted next week.

Because he’s been intimately involved in the writing process, he already knows what’s coming

“I’m thrilled with the quality.”

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