PARIS — In-class education for Oxford Hills was turned upside down last March when COVID-19 forced school closures. While online programs have been around in colleges and professional development/training for years, there was no tested blueprint that public schools could follow for the sudden need to distance-learn. Administrators, teachers and families were forced to improvise on the fly, scrap experiential lesson plans, utilize technology in new ways and create a support system for students that no one ever had to visualize before.

SAD 17 Curriculum Director Heather Manchester at a School Board presentation in 2019. Nicole Carter / Advertiser Democrat

SAD 17’s Curriculum Director Heather Manchester is now taking stock of what worked and what the district can adopt in the coming school year as distance learning is likely to become an ongoing mode of operation, to a degree not yet known.

Looking back, Manchester said it’s difficult to pinpoint the exactly what individual learning units were suspended from class to class.

“Some of the science courses with labs obviously were affected, since students could not do the labs themselves,” Manchester said. “Some teachers tried workarounds like videoing themselves and sharing those them with students. This summer, the math departments are working to readjust their curricula in order to make up for the standards that were not taught this spring.

“Since we were thrown in an emergency learning situation, teachers were focused on enriching and remediating standards that were already taught.”

With children limited to the walls of their own homes for their education parents and caregivers took on additional roles in the process. Now SAD 17 is adjusting to support that structure, increasing technology between teachers and households and developing consistent expectations for staff and students.

“If and when we go to remote learning again, the goal is for students to continue moving their learning forward,” Manchester said. “We will have clear procedures for attendance, scheduling of classes, and communicating with parents and families. It will not be an ‘emergency’ the way it was last spring.”

Many teachers, elementary in particular, found that phone/internet communication helped them get to know the families of their students. Rather than being situational, direct contact between educators and parents became the standard for learning. And students benefited.

“Kids were able to work more at their own pace,” Manchester explained.  “Many teachers reported that they provided more student choice during this time period, and students responded.”

Manchester said that teachers found more support with each other as they collaborated on lesson plans and ways to engage the students from a far.

“The biggest happy surprise was the number of staff who tried specific technology applications for the first time and loved it,” she said. “The collaboration among our staff was tremendous. The fact that we were able to provide a district-wide enrichment unit, ‘History in the Hills,’ developed over Zoom in under two weeks was pretty phenomenal. We were able to create excitement and a shared experience for all the schools, even though we were apart.”

Manchester said her team is in the process of rewriting the roles that other in-class educators like education technicians will fill if they have to continue teaching from afar.

“Our ed techs will use different methods to support student learning. They might be working with small groups, calling students, and working with individuals that way,” Manchester said. “Our coaches will continue to provide professional development, support staff with lesson design and provide support for district learning goals. Our entire staff is vital to student success in future remote learning.”

Access to technology – connectivity as well as to devices – is an ongoing challenge, especially for families living in remote areas of already rural communities. Last March was a mad scramble to identify the gaps and even with assistance at the state level, many students had to receive and submit their assignments through hand delivery and snail mail.

SAD 17 staff is still in the process of confirming what every family in the district currently has and what they need for regular, ongoing web access. Additional tools are being incorporated into the education arsenal.

“We are using CARES money to purchase several digital subscriptions for digital tools to support learning and communication,” Manchester said. “This will ensure that parents will not have to manage several different platforms if they have different children. It will also help us provide more consistent professional development for staff if they are all using the same platforms.”

Manchester’s final thoughts as she recounted the silver linings SAD 17 educators found while inventing ways to educate in quarantine are about the difficulties many students throughout the district experienced before COVID-19.

“I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that this pandemic illuminated the inequities in our community,” she said. “Our schools support so many families and the community with access not only to learning, but to mental health support, and with food insecurity. We have many families who struggle in our district, and for some, remote learning took a backseat because it was more important to focus on safety and security.

“It’s up to all to make remote learning work for everyone.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.