District navigates remote learning

By Dedra Cordle
Staff Writer

The last day of school may have been on May 28, but to officials in the South-Western City Schools District, it was the beginning of a new and arduous work period.

Immediately following the completion of the 2019-2020 school year, hundreds of exit surveys were sent out to parents in order to mine their experience with remote learning – the model that the district transitioned to in March when the state mandated that all school buildings close in order to slow the spread of a novel coronavirus. The participation in the exit survey was high, officials said, and the response to their experience with remote learning was varied.

“Overall, I would say that the parents who responded to the survey were appreciative of the efforts of our teachers,” said David Stewart, the district’s deputy superintendent, “but they were not afraid to say that there was room for improvement.”

He said at that time, the most challenging aspect of the remote model was the rapid transition between in-person instruction to the virtual setting.

“While our teachers do have familiarity with the tools that are used in a remote setting, very few had experience with purely remote learning,” he said.

That gap in training, he said, led to some frustration with teachers, students and parents.

“We were all navigating this new setting as it came, so we gave everyone room to adapt,” Stewart said. “We told them to do the best that they could with what they knew at the time and I think they all did a fantastic job at adapting to a medium that flies against the nature of what they are all used to.”

However, he did state that more training and improvements to the remote model were needed if they wanted that experience to “go more smoothly.”

One of the steps the district took in making the process easier to handle, said Stewart, was to purchase more devices for student instruction.

With funds provided by the federally approved Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, the board of education purchased enough Chromebooks for each student who needs a device.

“When we transitioned to remote learning near the end of the school year, each household was given one device,” said Stewart. “This proved to be an issue for some as there were multiple children needing to access the device.”

He said for the 2020-2021 school year, each student who requests a device will receive one. He added at the Aug. 10 board of education meeting that they will all come with security features in place.

The district will also provide hot spots to households with limited to no internet access.

In regards to training, Stewart said the educators in the district went “above and beyond” to familiarize themselves with the intricacies of remote learning.

“We had a summer program for the elementary level and over 1,000 teachers participated in the offered courses,” he said. Further extensive instruction will be provided from Aug. 24-26.

In addition to training, the district has also made requirements of the educators. For instance, teachers will be using Google Classroom as the primary learning management tool, which makes it easier for parents and students to access. Teachers will also be required to provide live interaction in conjunction with pre-recorded sessions.

“One of the things parents told us is that their kids needed to see their teachers, that they needed that face-to-face instruction,” said Stewart. “Due to our current situation, we cannot offer in-person learning at this time but we can offer a better opportunity for live interactions via remote learning.”

Another requirement for Remote Learning 2.0 is the establishment of “office hours” for parents where they can speak to their children’s teachers and ask questions about instruction; parents whose children are in the Individualized Education Program will also be able to access time to speak about instruction or intervention. At the board meeting, Superintendent Dr. Bill Wise said there will be some opportunity for IEP students to come into the buildings for extra support services.

Also included at the meeting was board approval of the Responsible Restart Plan and the Remote Learning Plan. Board member Anthony Caldwell asked how long it would take to transition to the hybrid model should coronavirus data prove favorable and allow for modified in-person instruction; Wise said that they could make the transition within a week.

The board also approved a one-year contract extension with members of the Ohio Association of Public School Employees (OAPSE). According to Sandra Nekoloff, the district’s director of communications, there are approximately 880 OAPSE members and their duties range from aides, bus drivers, cooks, IT/computer technicians and maintenance. They will receive a 2.5 percent base wage increase.

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