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As Districts Prepare For Long Closure, Teachers and Parents Piece Together Remote Learning

Three kids sitting at table, eating donuts
Pat Levy-Lavelle's children made donuts as part of a lesson on fractions. (Photo: Pat Levy-Lavelle)

On Monday, Gov. Ralph Northam announced K-12 students across Virginia will be out of school for the remainder of the academic school year. Teachers and school divisions have been scrambling to put together worksheets and set up video lessons. 

But as school districts grapple with how to proceed, there are looming questions about equity and access. According to guidance documents released Monday from the Virginia Department of Education, “accessible technology may afford students, including students with disabilities, an opportunity to have access to high-quality educational instruction during an extended school closure.” 

But there are also federal rules that stipulate: “students are served equitably, regardless of income level, access to technology, English learner status, or special needs.” And there are also unanswered questions about how - if at all - the state and federal government will allow school divisions to count “instructional time” during this ongoing school closure.  

Many area teachers like Robert Dunham, a fifth-grade special education teacher at Overby-Sheppard Elementary School, have started launching their own online lessons for students. He’s using Zoom to teach a class Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, since Zoom is offering unlimited meetings for teachers during the COVID-19 crisis. He told me one topic he wanted to focus these lessons on: fractions. 

“And so what I decided to do is to look at the areas that fifth grade students traditionally struggle in,” Dunham said. “And those are the areas of the content that I'm going to be focusing on instruction.”

And while he’s hopeful at least some of his students will hop online, he knows not all of them have access to the technology they need at home. During the last day of in-person class, he took a headcount. Only seven out of his twelve students had access to either a cell phone or laptop. 

“I believe that every student should have access to a laptop or some type of technological device such as an iPad,” he said. “And let them check that out in the beginning of the year, let them sign it out.”

But what Dunham’s teaching right now doesn’t officially count as instructional time, according to a spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Education. That’s partly because not all of his students can access his classes online, along with other federal accessibility concerns for students with disabilities. The same goes for all other online resources and learning at this point, which VDOE is considering “positive proactive strategies,” not instructional time. VDOE is also encouraging school divisions not to grade work, either, largely due to equity concerns. 

Additionally, there hasn’t been guidance issued on how online learning could count as instructional time. A guidance document released Monday evening carried the disclaimer that, “this document does not address seat time, SOL testing and other assessments, and accreditation and will issue separate communications on those items once state and federal waiver processes have been completed.”

“We can't legally require them [students and parents] to access it [online materials] because it would count as seat time,” said Catherine Gholson, a kindergarten teacher at George Mason Elementary in Richmond. “And if it counts as seat time, then the students with disabilities have to be serviced. Not all IEP accommodations are video-chatable. Some of those accommodations just have to be done in person.”

Gholson fully acknowledges that some families are just trying to keep afloat and meet basic needs like food and shelter.  But if those are taken care of, she hopes parents will take time to engage their kids in learning activities, at least a little. She prefers students use this time to focus on learning that doesn’t require screens - like reading. One goal she has for parents is to read at least 20 minutes a day.

“I texted the whole class. And I said, ‘I would love if you would video your child reading to you and send it to me so I can hear my babies read,’ ” Gholson said. “I'm really relying heavily on the parents right now. I'm really hoping that they put their shoulder to the wheel and work with me here, because their child’s success depends on it.”

That’s easier said than done, especially for parents of young kids like Pat Levy-Lavelle. Levy-Lavelle says he’s been relying heavily on a variety of resources, like online homeschooling forums, for support. 

“It feels like sort of being given a stack of lumber and being told, build a house. And, you know, for folks who don't specialize in house feels sort of daunting,” Levy-Lavelle said. 

Levy-Lavelle and his wife are both trying to work their full-time jobs from home while supervising a three-year-old, third grader and fifth grader, which he says has been a big balancing act. He says even a daily list of activities from teachers at Mary Munford Elementary for his kids would be helpful. While Levy-Lavelle doesn’t expect teachers to offer full-day instruction, he hopes they’ll figure out a way to engage students every day, even if only for an hour or two.

“I can hear my wife on the other side of the door saying, ‘Daddy's on the phone,’ and my three-year-old sort of like, playfully shrieking, so that's Exhibit A,” Levy-Lavelle said. “People say, you know, focus on the fact that you're home a lot together during this time and remember that and let that be special.  And at times it feels like that, and then times it just feels kind of crazy.”

It’s a big responsibility for elementary school parents. Rasheeda Creighton’s five-year-old, a kindergartner at Southampton Elementary School in Richmond, is full of energy. She knew her daughter was highly extroverted, but she didn’t know quite how much. 

“She loves to dance, and she really loves to learn. She actually asked me to do work,” Creighton said.

Creighton’s in transition herself, moving from a corporate job to consulting. Since the schools shut down she’s instituted what she calls “mom camp.” 

Creighton says “mom camp” is pretty structured, with different learning stations in her daughter’s bedroom, and around the house. But she also makes time to go outside, and for her daughter to dance and talk to family and friends.

“Wednesday was pajama day. And we were totally fine with that, because they [kids] need a break,” Creighton said. “Just like we need breaks from time to time, and we’ve gotta stop pushing kids non-stop.”

She hopes local, state and federal officials will take this time to reset and reevaluate what’s really being taught to kids – and even bigger questions about the goals of education, how success is viewed and what role testing should – or shouldn’t – play.

Megan Pauly reports on early childhood and higher education news in Virginia
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