Haywood County students will begin the new school year Monday unlike any other in history: by logging on to their computers.
All students will resume the school year under a remote-learning model, with a goal of making in-person school an option after the first month. Families could then choose to continue with remote learning from home or send their kids back to school in person. Those who return would track in and out on an alternating schedule to keep class size down.
With the first day of remote learning nearly underway, teachers, staff and administrators have been hard at work learning new procedures, safety measures and getting trained on new virtual technology.
Teachers’ preparations also included several days of online orientation, featuring discussions led by Superintendent Bill Nolte, Associate Superintendents Jill Barker and Trevor Putnam and even Mark Jaben, Haywood County’s medical director.
On Wednesday morning, Jaben discussed common misconceptions regarding COVID-19 and reinforced safety precautions that will be in place at the school.
Nolte said Jaben also emphasized the effectiveness of staying 6 feet apart and wearing a mask.
“The data is showing that most of the transmission we are having across the country is personal transmission,” Nolte said on Wednesday after the orientation. “Most of it is going to a birthday party or weddings. If we will come to school and do the things we are supposed to do, we will be as safe as possible.”
Putnam, who oversees the school system’s support services, has been working with all principals and program directors to ensure that the schools properly use the hand sanitizer dispensers and masks that have been provided to them. In addition, all staff are expected to adhere to the 6 foot social distancing rule at all times.
Barker oversees the curriculum, which has been shifted to completely online. Teachers will now be expected to check in with their students every day, as long as it’s physically possible.
In some cases, students may not have access to reliable internet, Nolte said. The school system has a limited supply of hotspots to provide to families that can’t afford internet. But where internet simply isn’t available due to geography, students will have to travel to a community WiFi site.
Teachers will be in charge of offering some kind of daily instruction to their students, and then will provide an assignment that same day. Teachers will also be taking role virtually and posting grades on a regular basis, just as before.
“The big picture idea is this is very different than the emergency crisis supplemental learning we did last spring,” Nolte said. “Here we are, several months later, and it’s our responsibility to provide remote instruction at a high level of quality and high quality in-person instruction later when we can do that.”
For Nolte, one of the most important responsibilities for each teacher was developing relationships and trust with their students. The first week of school, many teachers will be meeting with parents in person — socially distanced, of course — to establish a relationship and trust.
“Many of us have not seen each other since March,” Nolte said.
How school will look
Students will be easing into learning the first week of school, with much of the week dedicated to getting students and parents up to speed on expectations and how to use the remote learning technology. Elementary students will even be doing one-on-one in-person orientations with their teacher over the course of the first week.
In addition, teachers will be providing assignments the first week that are more fun and laid back, with a focus on getting to know each other. This first week will also help students get adjusted to the new remote learning system.
Nolte also emphasized that the school planned to offer two types of learning this year — both remote and in-person.
“We want our community to know that as we get into the first five weeks of school, if they want to stay on remote learning, we will provide that,” he said. “And if we can have in-person learning, we will want to provide that. One does not cancel the other out. We want to allow families to have a choice that best fits their families needs.”
All students will be expected to log onto a virtual platform to receive their lessons and assignments. Students in grades K-2 will be logging on to a virtual platform called SeeSaw, and students in grades 3-12 will be using Google Classroom.
Students at an elementary school level will be given a specific time to check in with their teacher during the day — this will be when a teacher is giving a virtual lesson, and will be taking role.
At the middle school level, teachers will have virtual instruction time slots, similar to office hours, where teachers will be focusing on courses that pertain to different grade levels.
For example, a sixth-grade student would be able to log on at a certain time to learn core information for their grade level — and this will be taught by a teacher who is available at that time.
“The high school schedule will look a lot like regular school,” Nolte said. “Students come in and have class. It’s different but it is not a whole lot different. Teachers will be doing a shorter lesson and providing students with something to do, but in reality that happens already with teachers.”
High schoolers will be expected to virtually join their classes in the same format as before — with first, second, third and fourth period classes being scheduled at the same times as a normal school day.
“We do not expect students or teachers to be together online for an hour or anything like that but we would expect, for our students sake, at the beginning of first period, there will be a short lesson and they will be given follow up activities prior to the next day,” Nolte said.
But virtual classes also raises the issue of whether a student will actually show up online to do their work.
“We will aggressively try to find out who’s not logging in and why,” Nolte said. “This is not crisis school. It’s real school either way. It’s real school, if it’s remote or in person. If they can’t get access, we will figure out what to do. We will take them packets or a hot spot. If they just choose not to log in, then they’re absent not getting credit.”
This time around, the state rules have changed, Nolte said. Now that the school is no longer in crisis mode, and state policies and procedures are in place, there’s no such thing as free grades, and students will be expected to show up.
“We’re back to real school – it’s not normal like we had last fall, but it’s real school with attendance and we will do that reasonably,” Nolte said. “We will exercise a lot of grace but it’s real school with everything else.”
What about specials classes?Kendra Kirkpatrick, a music teacher at both Clyde and Jonathan Valley Elementary Schools, is doing her best to plan a virtual lesson plan for her students — but she is still waiting on the exact requirements from the state.
For now, Kirkpatrick and all other music, arts, PE and library instructors, are working on pre-recording content ahead of time that they can release to parents and students about a week ahead of time.
“That way, if students don’t have easy access to internet, they have time to work on it,” Kirkpatrick said.
With her lessons all being pre-recorded and released early, Kirkpatrick doesn’t know if she will be interacting with her students during remote learning. She is a new music teacher at Clyde Elementary this school year, so she has not been able to meet those students in person yet.
“I don’t know if I’ll get to see my kids or not,” she said. “It comes from running out of time in the day for everybody to be able have the Google meets they need.”
However, specials teachers are invited to log in during a classroom teacher’s instruction time to say hello to students, introduce themselves and connect with them virtually to put a face to the name.
As she plans her remote learning lessons, Kirkpatrick said her biggest obstacles were finding the right kind of programs and resources among the many available online, and making the lessons appealing to families.
“My biggest worry is that families won’t have enough time to get their work done and doing music and art and library and PE will kind of be their last concern,” Kirkpatrick said. “One of my goals is, I’m hoping that my lessons will not feel like more work so they will feel fun and excited to do them.”
Kirkpatrick is passionate about teaching music to young children and in her three years of teaching, she knows that music and art are some of the best outlets for students.
“Specials classes are where our kids sometimes shine when they don’t shine anywhere else in school,” she said. “There can be a kid in the front row of music class who always knows the answer and sings her heart out the entire time, and at the end of the year, you find out she really struggles in her general classroom. They come to music or art and they love it.”
As Kirkpatrick plans for the next five weeks, she’s thinking of incorporating music from all over the world, which is easy to learn from a distance using clips of music and assigned reading to help students learn about the country it came from.
Moving forward into the in-person curriculum, Kirkpatrick still has many questions about how that will look. For example, it has not been decided if students will be allowed to sing, or handle instruments.
This might mean in-person music classes will be very focused on listening, reading music and clapping rhythms since students will have to be 6 feet apart and wearing masks in class, Kirkpatrick said.
For now, specials teachers are working diligently to prepare their lessons ahead of time, and waiting for more guidance from the state.