Schools: From distance learning to distance meeting

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It’s now been more than two weeks since Warwick Public Schools made the unprecedented transition to distance learning, with plans to continue the process through to the end of April in accordance with state policy. Faced with the inability to host traditional meetings due to social distancing guidelines, the Warwick School Committee also shifted to an online format for meetings. Livestreamed on an official Youtube channel this past Tuesday evening, the most recent public session mirrored the type of virtual discussion that has become the norm for classrooms across Warwick - complete with all of the new complications that have become essential to address in order to facilitate effective learning. 

With a total of 17 school officials in attendance at the Zoom virtual conference meeting, typical decorum was altered as participants tuned in from their homes across Warwick; while spotty connections and corrupted audio certainly placed hurdles to communication, that was not enough to stop a reflective discussion on the current state of virtual learning.

Progress, feedback, and public reception regarding the unexpected changes to education were the central topics of the meeting. Reception from all sides of the distance learning initiative - from parents to teachers to students - has been overwhelmingly positive, according to many in attendance. 

“I’ve heard nothing but good from everyone I’ve spoken with around the district,” said chairwoman Karen Bachus. “Parents, teachers, aides… People have been absolutely fantastic, and the goal is for people to stay safe. Elementary is going better than we’d have ever thought.”

Lynn Dambruch, assistant superintendent and director of elementary education, provided an update regarding the status of distance learning at the elementary level. Identifying the process of reinventing teaching and learning as “challenging,” Dambruch commended the teachers and professionals who have worked thus far to create a smooth transition.

She noted that, while distancing learning has been largely well received, “students are missing their teachers and classmates.” She passed along the suggestion that perhaps more video conferences could help to mend this gap.

Director of Curriculum Wendy Amelotte elaborated on the use of Seesaw, a program that has gained nationwide prominence as an effective virtual platform with which to communicate with students in grades K-4 and their families. The software is currently at use in five Warwick elementary schools; with funding being allocated for two schools initially, Seesaw has opted to provide support for three additional schools at no extra cost. In addition to voting to expand the software access to all elementary schools, the committee also moved to provide the service to the Warwick Early Learning Center.

“Put the calendar back four or five years ago, and think about where the district was with tech… It’s really gratifying to see this all come to fruition, seeing where we were and where we are now,” said Superintendent Philip Thornton. He credits the relatively recent introduction of new technology into the public school system as the foundation for success with distance learning, with student-issued Chromebooks making it possible for virtual learning to become widely accessible.

Of course, the steadfast question remains: will students be able to return to traditional classrooms before the school year ends?

“If I had to guess now, I’d say probably not going to happen,” said Bachus, attributing the district’s uncertain future to a lack of information regarding the course of the pandemic and the measures that may need to be taken. “Which is going to make things very sad for our seniors.”

“Obviously, the secondary level’s a little bit different,” said David Testa regarding the loss of physical classrooms for high school students. “You have kids applying to college, you have AP exams, we have SATs… We need to make sure that we communicate as thoroughly as possible with parents who are concerned about GPAs and scholarships.”

William McCaffrey, currently serving as director of secondary education, described how 4,371 secondary students are currently involved in the remote learning process, with approximately a 91% daily attendance rate thus far. Roughly 80-85% of staff members conducting distancing learning have integrated live teaching sessions into their lessons as well. 

The committee voted to adopt the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) recommended calendar for the month of April, which would designate the 9th and 10th as days off for students and teachers. A resolution to RIDE to waive school attendance reporting requirements for the 2019-20 school year was also approved.

Douglas Alexander, director of technology, had a proposal for ensuring expanded internet access unanimously approved; 23 hotspots provided by wireless network operator T-Mobile will have enough bandwidth purchased in order to supply two months’ worth of internet connection to families in need. 

Contracted employees for Warwick Public Schools will still be paid during the pandemic; however, employees of First Student, the school transportation company, will not be paid as their services are no longer currently in use. Additionally, they are collecting unemployment and additional money from the government; while the possibility of using buses to drop off Chromebooks or meals to students exists, it is not currently in use at this time.

The public comment section included a contribution from Nancy Iadeluca. a representative of Rhode Island lunch workers through the union organization known as Local 26. 

“I want to take this time to say thank you on behalf of the cafeteria staff in Warwick, for showing them respect and appreciation during this difficult time,” Iadeluca wrote. She applauded the support offered to lunch workers in light of their efforts, which have included leaving the safety of their homes to provide meals to children during the pandemic.

Darlene Netcoh, president of the Warwick Teachers Union, also used the public comment period to assert that Warwick teachers have built upon existing bonds with students in order to create as effective a virtual learning environment as possible.

The 4/7 meeting can be viewed online on WPS Video, the Youtube channel which currently hosts meeting livestreams as well as their archives. A summary budget presentation is currently scheduled for Tuesday, April 21st, at 6 p.m. on the same channel.

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