POWHATAN – For Powhatan County Public Schools, transitioning to a distance learning model in the last six weeks has been all about constant re-assessment.
When Dr. Eric Jones, superintendent, initially made the decision on March 12 to close the schools in light of growing concerns about COVID-19, it was for two weeks. He was just as surprised as many in the county when Governor Ralph Northam made the call on March 23 to keep schools closed for the remainder of the school year.
In the intervening weeks, school staff has spent countless hours trying to figure out the logistics of making a distance learning model work for Powhatan, especially in light of how many families struggle with poor or no internet connectivity.
Staff gave a presentation to the Powhatan County Board during their virtual meeting held on Tuesday, April 14 about the progress that has been made with distance learning since the closings, the challenges they still face, and how they continue to evaluate and readjust.
Dr. Tracie Omohundro, assistant superintendent for instruction, talked about educators transitioning from review and enrichment-based activities in the first few weeks of the closures, which she called Phase 1, to launching Phase 2 on April 14, after students returned from Spring Break. Phase 2 involves providing new content for students to learn and work being graded on a pass/fail basis.
Continuity of instruction is important because, at some point, most students will return to the classroom, and educators need to make sure they are ready for that future learning, she said. Staff has worked to identify the essential skills students would be missing during this timeframe “so that when they return to our classrooms, they are ready to pick up where they left off or we have a plan in place to transition students who may not have been able to access everything.”
At the same time, the school division has to acknowledge that this is a stressful time for families, who all have unique situations and challenges. They are dealing with barriers to learning related to demographics, lack of internet access, and not being able to have face-to-face time with students. For those students with barriers to learning, schools will be working on individualized plans to help them overcome some of those challenges.
Elementary schools are issuing weekly calendars for students with learning activities based on identified essential skills from their teachers. The work will now be sent out on Monday nights and needs to be completed by the following Monday using the Seesaw program.
The goal with student workload at the elementary level is to have students doing reading/writing, math, science, and social studies for 15 to 30 minutes each day. The work should not exceed two hours per day for kindergarten through second grade and should be two to three hours for third through fifth grades.
At the secondary level, teachers will also be sending out a calendar of activities on Monday for students to complete by the following Monday using Schoology. These plans will look different depending on the level and content area, but teachers have been told to assign a maximum of two to three hours of work per class per week. This is a maximum of 15 hours per week per student.
Teachers are supposed to provide a suggested work time for how long each assignment should take to finish so that if it is taking significantly longer, families should provide feedback and adjustments can be made, Omohundro said.
Personalized instruction is being set up as needed. The schools also have set up Google Voice for the counselors so they can make and receive personal calls to students. The counselors may be a resource in a variety of situations. A social worker has compiled an exhaustive list of resources for families. Operation School Supply also donated school supplies that will be available during meal pickups in the coming weeks.
The goal of the new grading system is to befair and thoughtful about the different challenges students and their families may be experiencing.
For the third quarter, grading closed on March 13. At the elementary level, any outstanding assignments will be excused. Any makeup work for grades six to 12 must be completed prior to May 4 in order to be graded and counted into a student’s grade.
“Teachers are working individually with students for that, and that will be completed by May 4. Then we will update grades for marking period three,” she said.
The fourth quarter began on April 14. Activities are being assessed based on effort and completion with a final pass/fail designation, Omohundro said. Teachers are supposed to enter information into the grading program to provide feedback to students so they know how they are progressing and grasping a subject.
The grade for year-long courses will be an average of the first semester (67 percent of grade) and third quarter (33 percent). Any student who was failing a course at the end of the third nine weeks will have the opportunity to complete new work during the fourth quarter for a number grade to be averaged with the rest of their term grades in an effort to pass the course.
Dr. Eric Jones, superintendent, said there was no guidance from the state on grading, but in discussion with other divisions in Region 1, most are following this model of grading. Division staff is working on additional information for teachers to pass on to families.
The schools are regularly reaching out to families to see if more support is needed. The division recently did a survey of almost 500 families who had not been accessing technology with regularity. Of those, 78 families responded they needed help, and the division reached out to provide personalized plans, Omohundro said. Another 79 families said they did not need extra help, but 312 didn’t respond.
Last week, administrators reached out to those families, Omohundro said Friday. By April 22, only about 75 students had not been reached to assess their needs and help where needed. By Friday, they got it down to 11 students.
Dr. Lynn Clayton-Prince, director of special education, said the division is also working with the parents of students with special needs, including making sure they have equipment they need and delivering paper packets with permission. Staff is working with parents of post graduate students who stay in the special education classes until they are 22 to share what resources are available to them, and students in outside placement situations at other facilities to hold them accountable for providing for the students.
Omohundro said the first two weeks of Phase 2 would be monitored to see where adjustments are needed. Staff has received some feedback but encourages parents having struggles to reach out to their teachers and explain the problem. If the teachers cannot find a solution, take the issue to the division level.
The division has been working on a distribution plan for technology support, such as 200 hotspots ordered for students and teachers with internet connection issues, she said. The division is developing additional support plans for those students’ with limited access.
One big focus moving forward will be planning for Phase 3, which is how the division will address gaps in student learning as Powhatan transitions back to regular instruction, such as summer school and the beginning of the next school year.
School board members stressed the need to make sure that everything possible was being done to help families with internet connectivity issues so students in those families weren’t being left behind.
Rick Cole, who represents District 1, said he is happy to hear staff is working with families with issues. Equity of learning is a challenge he has been the most concerned about, he said.
“What I am hearing is we are doing everything we can to try to make this fair to students and at the same time trying to challenge them and give them work so they will be prepared for next year,” Cole said. “We are in a time where there are no easy guidelines and no easy right and wrong answers. We are kind of inventing this as we go along, so I suspect we are going to learn something from this. I appreciate the flexibility and the hard work that our staff is doing to try to make this happen.”
Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.