Online learning isn’t new. Schools have been tinkering with new technology and how best to use it for years, but the COVID-19 pandemic has made it nearly impossible for schools to continue teaching kids without it until schools can fully reopen.
And that’s the challenge the Greene County School System has been facing since last spring.
First the school system had to make sure each student had access to online learning platforms, so Chromebooks were distributed to students needing them during a drive-through pick-up event in early August.
According to the Greene County School System’s communication coordinator Emily McClure, the WiFi signals at all the schools were boosted so families could connect to the internet in the school parking lots, while some students used the Greene County Library or networks provided by local businesses. Not long after school started, the GCSS began providing a Verizon hotspot bus to families in need so students would have internet access at home.
According to Greene County High School principal James Peak, the school system has been able to continue a one-on-one relationship with each student throughout the various stages of lockdowns over the last few months.
Peak said the GCSS is a new online learning platform called Canvas, which is the flagship product of education technology company, Instructure, Inc.
“[Canvas] makes it a lot easier for students as well as teachers to store content that they are teaching and have the kids access that,” Peak said. “There has been a learning curve for both teachers and students, but everybody has been able to learn the management system, and students have been able to learn how to find and submit content.”
Peak said one of the biggest hurdles facing teachers has been keeping students engaged when they are not in the school building.
It’s not a big surprise that some students have adapted to the new learning platforms well, attending to assignments diligently, while others have presented more challenges regarding the new methods of instruction.
In some respects online learning mirrors the more traditional classroom setting with students required to be stationed at their computers when the online class starts. However, some parts of the learning process known as “asynchronous learning” can be tackled when the student feels ready.
Biology teacher Megan Calicott, who is one of the youngest teachers at GCHS, said adapting to the new online learning paradigm has been easier for her than it has been for some of the older teachers in the school system.
“It hasn’t been as difficult a shift for me, because I’m used to the digital environment,” Calicott said. “I’ve taken classes myself online, so I knew what to expect and how to set it up. But a lot of our staff is older and not technology savvy, so that’s been a huge learning curve for them trying to learn the technology and figure out how to teach without having the kids in front of them.”
Calicott said that when she teaches an online class, student faces don’t appear in boxes on the screen like you might find during a zoom meeting or similar platform, but more likely as icons or photos representing the student. H
“You can’t see their faces, so it’s really difficult to see if they are understanding what you’re going over,” Calicott said. “You’re not getting to see the confused looks and things like that.”
In late October, after COVID-19 numbers had declined sufficiently, Greene County High School began the process of reopening with students actually in the buildings Monday through Thursday and teachers and students participating in “distance” learning on Fridays. However, students and parents were also given the option to continue learning and not return to the school buildings.
According to Peak, about 17 percent of the high school’s 439 students chose to remain in the distance-learning program, but 83 percent chose to come back to school.
Teachers like Calicott are teaching both at the same time and she said that it’s not uncommon for her to be teaching a class and helping a student who needs special attention online simultaneously, answering questions for in-person students and distance learners.
When students began to return to class on the hybrid schedule in which they attend classes in ‘A’ and ‘B’ blocks, school administrators discovered some of the classrooms HA were too small to accommodate social distancing requirements and determined that a ANIM maximum of 12 students could be accommodated per room.
Assistant principal Jessie Draper said classes would have to be split even further, so she printed out all the students on her rosters Prac and had students with last names beginning with A through L come on designated days and the rest on a different day.
Classes that couldn’t be reduced enough were relocated to other areas.
“We’re fortunate that we are a small district, and our classes aren’t huge anyway, so we’ve only had to relocate a few classes.”
Small groups of students who need extra help are also coming to the high school on Fridays.
Innovative social distancing measures have been instituted as well, such as divided one-way halls with hand sanitizing stations set up all over the building. Lunch sessions have also been divided into three groups. Each classroom has individual shields for students.
According to Peak, the new scheduling arrangements have allowed teachers to focus on students who need additional instruction while allowing students who have mastered the curriculum to move on.
The goal of the school system is to return to normal operations as soon as possible, but it is impossible to predict when that might be.
“It’s great to be innovative and use technology, but nothing replaces an effective teacher in the classroom with face-toface instruction,” Peak said. “This has been good for us, because we’re learning as we go.”