With school buildings closed for the foreseeable future, the state’s teachers, students and administrators are embarking on a novel instructional journey: distance learning. Teachers working from home “beam” up their lessons, while students log in, from their home, to download the materials or connect with their teachers. The lessons may consist of taped presentations or videos from educational sites or straight up assignments. “We seem to be figuring it out,” Amity School Supt. Dr. Jennifer Byars said cautiously on Day 4 of the journey.
The first step was to make sure that everybody, teachers included, had access to a computer. The middle school students already had their designated laptops, but the policy at the high school up until recently had been “bring your own” device. Now it was imperative to make sure that everybody had the tools they needed.
Even though most households have a computer, with more and more people working from home, not all families had a designated device for each member of the family, she said. Another problem that some families ran into was that with everyone connecting at the same time, the network connections became fickle. The technology department asked for patience. “We are working very hard to get this working,” they wrote.
“While we’ve tried to keep spirits up with funny memes and sharing here, I know it’s been tougher than we’d all like to admit,” posted one mother on Facebook. “I marvel at how much teachers/staff are in contact with our kids. This is all uncharted territory.”
Some parent frustration was reflected in online sites, such as the BOWA Distance Learning Support Group on Facebook. “What is CTE?” posted one mother, signing off with “confused.” “Keeping my 6-year-old from bothering his older sisters and not losing interest is my biggest issue,” shared another. “PowerSchool just isn’t working today,” posted one parent. “I finally told mine to forget it and go outside.”
One teacher pointed out how many teachers are torn between care for their students and care for their families. “We are all learning this new life together,” she wrote. “Keep in mind, teachers are people too—many of us are teaching, helping our own children with their online school, or taking care of small children while meeting students on Zoom or recording lessons on Screencastify. Some of our students are caring for siblings in addition to working hard on online school. Some have sick family members they care for. Some are watching their parents figure out how to pay bills or make rent. Some are depressed that sports have ended for the year.”
Byars acknowledged the stress that these recent changes can bring to families. It is one reason, she said, they decided to keep the April vacation intact, giving everyone a breather between April 10 to 17.
School calendar: Governor Ned Lamont in mid-March signed an executive order extending public school closures through April 20, but he also went on record saying that schools likely will not reopen until the fall. Even so, Byars said the decision to cancel future events has not been taken yet, such as whether or not the Bermuda trip will happen in June and whether or not there will be prom or a graduation ceremony.
They did cancel the senior internship program, partly because the school year has been shortened significantly as it is. Also canceled were the traditional middle school trips to Nature’s Classroom (AMSB) and Washington DC (AMSO).
School musical: The musical, “The Drowsy Chaperone,” which was scheduled to open last week, has been postponed. The hope is that they may be able to stage the production in the summer for the community to enjoy. Students have been practicing their roles online, via YouTube and Facebook, Byars said.
Spring sports: As of the printing of this paper, the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) of which Amity is a part, has not made a determination as to the spring sports season. “Following an online meeting with nearly 70 school, athletic and governmental leaders CIAC reached a consensus that canceling the entirety of the spring sports season is premature at this time,” it posted on March 18. “There is a strong desire to provide student athletes some spring athletic experience if possible.” In the meantime, Amity coaches are reaching out to students who have signed up, in an effort to provide ongoing training. “We’ll have to wait and see,” Byars said.
Testing: The state Department of Education has granted districts a waiver from all testing requirements, which includes The Smarter Balance Assessment, which 7th and 8th grade students take. The College Board also has agreed to administer AP tests online, and will only cover content up to March, Byars said.
Lunch: The four BOWA districts coordinated a school lunch and breakfast program, which is open to any student 18 or younger in the district. That means a two-year-old sibling will not qualify, but students at the elementary level will, Byars said. Families can sign up for the number of meals they need and then drive up between 10 a.m. and noon. They are asked to display an 8×11 sheet of paper with the name of the student and how many lunches they need, Byars said. Aides will place the lunches in the trunk.
They started with a drive-through lunch distribution at the high school, and had about 150 meal requests, Byars said. However, for some parents it was inconvenient to drive to Woodbridge for the pickup, so they added the middle schools in Bethany and Orange as pickup points. By the end of the week, they had handed out over 300 meals in one day. The program is supported by a federal grant, she said, and is free to the district as well as to local families.
Support: School administrators are available by phone or email. They are working at the office during staggered hours, to adhere to social distancing. School counselors also are available to help with technical issues or stress and anxiety related to the new learning environment.
School nurses are available for students and their families. Families are asked to call in and report student illnesses, Byars said. It will help the school keep track of the severity of the outbreak in this area. Should numbers spike, it would give officials an idea how the general population is affected. “We are encouraging parents to call in if their kids are not feeling well or have a temperature,” she said.
School budget: Byars said the Governor extended the period for budgeting by 30 days. If no referendum takes place, the Board of Education would be authorized to adopt the budget. Byars said she was planning to have a “virtual” meeting of the Amity Finance Committee, and work with the town representatives of the three member towns.
She also was planning to offer a virtual “hearing” for residents to voice their opinions and ask questions in some shape or form before the board takes a vote. Details have not been worked out yet.
By Bettina Thiel – Orange Town News Correspondent