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The Country School pre-Kindergarten student Sydney Amara of Madison got a jump on her studies by setting up her classroom at the kitchen table. (Photo courtesy of Teresa Sullivan )
The Country School 5th-grader Lucy Burke of Westbrook Zooms with her classmates and teachers (Zoom is a popular online videoconferencing app). (Photo courtesy of Teresa Sullivan )
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As students and educators across the state come to grips with the reality of a closure likely to last much longer than a week or two, schools in Madison are settling in for an unprecedented second half of the school year, with living rooms taking the place of classrooms and teachers speaking from a screens instead of from a podium.
After announcing an optional, supplemental learning program to cover a two-week closure, Madison Superintendent of Schools Tom Scarice sent a letter out to parents and community members that laid an outline for a more in-depth remote learning experience to begin on Monday, March 30.
Following the district’s initial closure on March 13, the state Department of Education and Governor Ned Lamont released a series of new guidelines and relaxed standards for remote learning in response to the ongoing coronavirus crisis, notably waiving the 180-school-day requirement and allowing more flexibility for districts.
Scarice told a special meeting of the Board of Selectmen on March 23 that while there would be plenty of interactivity between students and teachers, Madison public schools would be leaning toward more “asynchronous” activities—students completing work independently on their own time.
The district does not have a tablet or computer for every single student, he said at the meeting, though principals are working with families who might need more devices. For the most part, he said people will be expected to share devices between siblings, and that the learning day will remain flexible to allow this.
With the unprecedented nature of what the district is attempting, Scarice cautioned that there would likely be “false starts” as teachers attempt to provide resources and availability to students from their homes.
“They’re eager, but they’re also anxious,” Scarice said. “They want to do it right.”
Scarice said the district was also trying to be extremely “cautious” about how much it asked parents to do as far as supporting their students, knowing many of them are also working from home.
“To set up an instructional program that requires maybe mom...and dad to be supporting their student in an online program at home...is, I think, unreasonable,” Scarice said.
Teachers will also be available during certain hours for live support, though what that will look like would vary by class and grade. He said the goal would be to provide a strong schedule for students, saying that teachers were “so important” in providing “some sense of normalcy and routine” for students.
Scarice said more specifics would be going out to parents this week, ahead of the March 30 kickoff of the program.
The Country School
Over at the private Pre-K-8 The Country School, which serves a little more than 200 students, Head of School John Fixx said the school is launching its remote learning program beginning this week.
Though Fixx also emphasized that there will be a learning curve, he told The Source that the school’s teachers have been “working toward and planning for” a virtual continuation of curriculum.
“It is important to recognize that we have been doing distant learning during various snow days for some years and so our students and teachers have more familiarity with this remote approach than in many schools,” Fixx said via email. “We hope that The Country School can be a leader and an example of connectivity and ingenuity during this unusual time of social isolation but educational imperative.”
Fixx outlined the general schedule of a virtual day, with younger grades—5th and below—aiming for at least one daily live check-in with their teachers, with video lessons and other material throughout the day, and potentially an afternoon live check-out session as well.
Fixx said these conferences will “serve as a touchpoint during a time when our students will be missing one another and missing their teachers.”
Middle school students will engage in “substantial” video conference work during the week, Fixx said, and teachers of all grades and subjects will also touch base with students and parents on the phone to answer questions.
“One hallmark of The Country School for 65 years has been the intimacy of our school community,” Fixx said. “While we will miss the physical proximity on campus, we want to replicate the interpersonal interaction on a daily basis and we are confident we will be able to do so.”
The school will also provide additional iPads and Chromebooks to students as needed, according to Fixx.
With no real way of knowing how long the distance learning will go on, Fixx said teachers and administrators would review what was possible as far as “educational experiences” on a weekly basis and modify as needed, though the school would be following the regular curriculum “as much as possible.”
According to a letter to the community posted on The Country School’s website, the first day of distance learning for the school is a “shake-out-the-bugs day” for both parents and students to familiarize themselves with software, while teachers spend a virtual day collaborating and planning.
Fixx emphasized the school was being careful to consider the responsibilities of parents, who, though they might act as “occasional at-home teaching assistants,” had their own jobs and responsibilities to attend to during the day.
With all the continued uncertainty, and the uncharted and unprecedented nature of educating students under the current circumstances, both Fixx and Scarice promised their schools would do everything possible to keep providing an education to students as long as was necessary.
“Our families have turned to us for an academic advantage and we are going to do our best to fulfill that even during this time of community distancing,” Fixx told The Source.
“I want to assure you that those who care for your children every day in our schools accept the responsibility to help our community through this crisis,” Scarice wrote in his letter. “It is time to see our very best.”
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