PARIS — SAD 17 closed schools in its eight-member towns effective Mar. 16, responding to the coronavirus public health emergency in accordance with other districts throughout Maine. The unprecedented closures launched a new phase of education for all – families, faculty and administrators – of the concept of distance learning.

Connectivity elusive

The biggest challenge of all for remote education is no surprise but may be the hardest to overcome. Some households in rural areas of the state just can’t get reliable internet service.

SAD 17’s Technology Director Sam Iggulden estimates that the volume of student households without online access is better than 10%. He is tapping local resources as well as in Augusta for ways to decrease the number.

Many SAD 17 students from Otisfield have inadequate internet access for distance learning. Pictured: Otisfield Community School, which has approximately 115 students enrolled. Supplied image

Even with internet limitations, the district immediately made sure that all students were at least able to continue their studies. Most students in grades seven and higher already had school-issued devices that they were allowed to take home and more were issued to fifth and sixth graders as well, whether a tablet or a laptop. From there some families have been able to establish home internet connections on their own.

“If a household does not currently have internet, but is within an area with a fixed line network parents should call their local provider (Spectrum, Firstlight, etc.),” said Iggulden. “If a household is not within a fixed line network, the next step is to identify which cell phone network has the best coverage in their area, and to call that provider (Verizon, US Cellular, T-Mobile etc…).

“In either case, parents should be sure to ask for available discounts, as many providers have adjusted pricing for student households during the COVID-19 crisis. If calling one of the wireless phone providers, parents should specify they need cellular ‘hotspot’ reception.”

Iggulden said the district is working on other ways to help families who don’t have those options. Like other districts, SAD 17 middle and high schools have opened up public WiFi connections that extend to parking lots so that students who are able to park in the lot nearest them will be able to access online assignments and projects.

Additionally, Community Concepts has partnered with T-Mobile to provide older but unused tablets that students can use as hotspots.

“Normally T-Mobile’s cellular network isn’t adequate in many of the remote areas of our district but they are working to access U.S. Cellular towers that are,” he said.

Iggulden noted that this effort is ongoing but has not brought an immediate solution. And while Community Concepts will cover the cost of the tablets through a grant, the monthly cellular charge for each would fall on the district to pay for. He hopes that at least some devices will be ready for student use this week.

Concurrently, the Maine Department of Education is pursuing the same solution on a much broader scale – reaching out to major device vendors and internet service providers on behalf of all districts. Iggulden said that the availability of state-

Distance learning

While Iggulden and SAD 17’s technology team tackles connecting students remotely, its faculty is working to bring lessons to them on a daily basis.

According to Curriculum Director Heather Manchester, the district emphasizes that lesson plans while schools are closed should foster student learning, give teachers the means to maintain relationships and connections with their students, keep them engaged and in routine and provide a variety of learning options.

Teachers are working as teams according to grade or subject to develop plans. The district already utilized online education using  GSuite and its associated apps like Google Classroom and Docs within many classrooms. Manchester said they also use Zoom video conferencing for live meetings between staff and students and other remote messaging apps like Bloomz, Seesaw, and Class Dojo.

Students with access to the internet receive their assignments electronically. For those without, teachers are mailing them learning packets on a weekly basis. Students can text message pictures of completed assignments back to instructors or return them by mail.

Making sure educators and students continue to interact while they learn apart is key.

“We’ve encouraged all teachers to establish “office hours” when they will be available to their students,” said Manchester. “Any kid or parent can contact their teacher through email, in the Google Classroom or with one of the messaging apps. And many teachers are ‘zooming’ online classes with their students.

“One teacher recorded the chemistry labs for his advanced placement students to view. Some music teachers are doing their instrumental lessons via Zoom.”

As part of SAD 17’s mission to keep students in as regular a routine as possible Manchester said the district wants students to maintain contacts with their guidance counselors or other staff. She said administrators recognize that support extends to parents who work outside the home and cannot monitor their kids’ engagement.

“One-on-one contact can happen in a variety of ways, including phone, texting, etc.,” she said. “Our education specialists and interventionists continue to focus on their students and support their development from afar.”

Grades?

Most Maine communities affected by coronavirus have officially closed their schools through the end of April, however plans are subject and likely to change as necessary. Grading class assignments from afar is not SAD 17’s intent, it is more important to recognize engagement.

“We will continue to reinforce, remediate, and enrich students with the standards we’ve taught,” said Manchester. “We are providing feedback to our students, rather than grades. This is consistent with other schools in our region, and for most across the state. We are working with other districts in our region to develop a framework for determining grades, graduation etc.,” in the event that schools will not reopen in May.

For students who are preparing for college and have suddenly lost achievement benchmarks for admissions, Manchester acknowledges that there is no established precedent.

“Colleges are in the same situation we are – building the plane as they are flying,” she said. “Anecdotally, we are hearing that many colleges will use pass/fail for grades for their students. We have not received guidance about adjustments college-prep students should expect to make.”

Manchester sees some silver linings in Maine’s crash course execution of distance learning.

“This is incredibly complex work in a rural district such as ours,” she said. “But we are seeing that the Google Apps we had in place are fantastic. Many teachers were already using the platform in their classrooms and it has provided an authentic opportunity for others to tackle teaching with digital tools for the first time. It may change our approach to snow days in the future and provide additional pathways for student learning.

“Our teachers and staff have worked tirelessly on behalf of our students to ensure that they are still connected to school and that they are still learning, even from home.”


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