When Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker officially closed schools until May 4 it became clear that distance learning would be the way to go, at least for the time being. While many districts scrambled to execute a way of educating students they hadn’t previously put into practice, Monomoy Schools and the Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School hit the ground running, and, according to administrators, are ready to keep the distance learning rolling as long as necessary.
Armed with a background in biological science, Monomoy Superintendent Dr. Scott Carpenter said he began watching the situation in Wuhan, China, closely starting in January, having suspicions that COVID-19 would eventually make its way to US shores. Acting on that hunch, Carpenter worked with district educators on formulating a plan for remote learning, ensuring that when the school closures came, the Monomoy district was ready.
The result was a host of educators venturing online last week for video check-ins with students, as well as the launch of the district’s grab-and-go meals program to help keep kids fed during the closure.
“I’m proud of the staff I work with. The teachers that we work with, the cafeteria workers, everybody,” Carpenter said. “It’s not me. It’s them. They’re the ones that are showing what can happen. I’ve been encouraging others in my superintendent community that the key here is connection to others.”
Carpenter said the most important aspect of distance learning is that connection.
“That connection time isn’t to teach, necessarily, but to make sure those social-emotional pieces are in place,” he said. “Then when a teacher says they’ve posted a lesson, students are going to be engaged in learning. They’re not going into this alone.”
For students struggling with fears around the pandemic, Carpenter said the district’s guidance counselors are available for regular check-ins, as well, and that the district is keeping an eye on students not “showing up” for online meetings.
“If students aren’t showing up at morning meetings or not getting work done, teachers will be communicating that back to principals,” Carpenter said. “What’s getting in the way of that? What do we have to do to help?”
Now, as he analyzes disease trends coming from Wuhan, Italy, and Spain, the hardest hit after the US, Carpenter said he’s greatly concerned that a May 4 reopening of schools is incredibly ambitious, especially given the reluctance of many in this country to practice social distancing.
“I’m a little concerned when people start saying, ‘Oh the schools are closed until May 4,” he said. “[The Johns Hopkins] graph doesn’t show the schools opening on May 4.”
He added, “Me being the realist and having been watching this data, I’m a little concerned that we’re going to get to May 4 and if we’re not as a society practicing social distancing appropriately, we’re not going to see it level off like it did in China.”
Which is why Monomoy’s educators are being prepared for the reality of remote learning through the remainder of the school year. Monomoy Regional Middle School Principal Mark Wilson said the biggest challenge lies in the lack of face-to-face connection.
“Remote learning can never replace classroom learning, as education requires human interaction on so many levels,” Wilson said. “Replicating the day-to-day supports we have in place to assist students with their academic and social-emotional growth is a challenge.”
Wilson said the school closures have temporarily done away with before and after school tutoring, lunchtime help sessions, and homework clubs. It’s also difficult to ensure all students, including those with special needs, are taken care of.
“The unique needs of each student must be considered when developing lessons, choosing instructional materials, and assessing student progress,” Wilson said. “There has never been a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to schooling, and that holds true for remote learning, as well.”
Carpenter acknowledged that an indefinite school closure would be far from ideal.
“I think it’s tough,” he said. “I think it’s tough for all of our kids. They miss interacting with each other. We just need to try to do our best to have some continuity and normalcy given some challenging times for the kids. I just applaud our teachers for what they’re doing, and our cafeteria workers, and our instructional assistants. We’re setting an example of how other districts can move forward.”
The same goes for Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School, where they’ve been using remote learning for nearly three weeks. Executive Director Paul Niles said they, too, are prepared to continue the practice for the remainder of the year if necessary.
“I think that’s entirely possible,” Niles said. “I don’t think we can make that determination yet, but it’s entirely possible. Our main focus at this point is on how to handle what we call distance learning 2.0, which is this next phase. We’re handling that with a slight ramp-up of what we’re doing already, with a little more precision on the kids we were not reaching as well as some, so we’re developing systems of greater communication with those families.”
The challenge is making the next phase work well, while also lending support to the school’s special needs population. Niles said plans are in the works for summer learning, if needed. The school is also looking at how best to alter end-of-the-year celebrations for the school’s departing eighth graders.
Niles said he’s been blown away by the resilience of his students and the determination of his staff.
“I’ve been very much inspired by the great creativity and investment of our staff,” he said. “They’ve been putting out a great range of learning experiences that fit the criteria for strong distance learning. I’ve been very inspired by the work ethic of the kids who are really trying to make the best of this, and incredibly inspired by some of the families who are having to struggle to provide structure to their kids’ lives.”
Niles noted that many of the parents and guardians of CCLCS students are on the front lines in dealing with the pandemic, working in healthcare or other service industries, many of whom work arduous shifts before returning home to try and help balance the lives of their middle schoolers.
“I am very inspired by those folks who work their butts off and come home and hold it all together,” Niles said. “Just talking to the folks that do that, you can hear it in their voices, the strain, the worry. And then they’ve got to hold their families together. It’s just amazing how hard everyone is bearing down to make this work.”
Niles said what is increasingly frustrating is what he, and many others, sees as the mishandling of the situation by the federal government.
“As someone who has his own slice of management and power, to see the way our federal leaders are handling this is appalling,” Niles said. “When I look at what they’re asking people to do, our federal government has so mismanaged it. I just have to let that anger roll off of me and not take over. But it’s a hard pill to swallow.”