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Local divisions building on lessons of spring to increase structure of virtual learning
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Local divisions building on lessons of spring to increase structure of virtual learning

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As Albemarle County and Charlottesville schools gear up for the academic year, educators are working to differentiate between the emergency learning in the spring and the virtual learning they say students will experience starting Sept. 8.

During the months since in-person instruction shut down, teachers have been working together and attending professional development sessions to ensure that virtual school will not be a repeat of the spring, when parents reported that they struggled with the different platforms and new responsibilities to keep their children engaged and learning.

Both school systems are eyeing more live online classes, more regular weekly schedules and concrete activities when the screen is off and clear expectations for families.

“We are now moving our focus away from that emergency closing and moving full force ahead to opening school and embracing the possibilities of what we can do with going online in a virtual environment,” Charlottesville schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins said at a School Board meeting earlier this month.

She added that she was optimistic that most students will have a good experience with virtual school.

“We are going to focus on standards,” she said. “ We are going to focus on closing some of the gaps that have been created during COVID and working with our students to make sure that we give them high quality instruction so that we may respond to what their needs are — and our students certainly do have many needs now. They’ve been out of school for over six months.”

Draft schedules presented to the city School Board break the school day into different chunks with a mix of whole class meetings, small group sessions for different subjects and one-on-one meetings with teachers along with time for special classes such as music and physical education. The online activities would be a mix of live instruction and independent work time.

Most days would start at 8:45 a.m. Cognizant of the bandwidth of a household with multiple children and that the high schoolers might be helping their younger siblings, Charlottesville High School is planning for virtual instruction from 12:30 p.m. to 4 p.m.

The middle and high schools in both school systems are planning to follow the typical block schedule of classes.

Albemarle middle and high schoolers will be taking four classes this semester and will virtually attend each daily. At the elementary level, the division is planning a common schedule for all students to follow.

Scheduled online learning will be from Monday to Thursday in both school systems. On Fridays, students will work independently on different projects or activities, and teachers will have professional development.

Jennifer Sublette, director of professional learning for Albemarle County schools, said that Friday will be an intensive work day, but it will give teachers and the division flexibility that they haven’t had in previous school years.

“That’s a game changer for us in education; we just haven’t had that before,” she said. “I think it’ll be really interesting to see how that allows us to support the ongoing professional learning, and the ongoing collaborative work that teachers will do.”

For students, it will give them a break from the screen and time to process and work.

“Friday can be a time where if teachers have multiple resources that kids can access to learn content,” she said. “They’ve got time to process, time to write, or time to make something to show their mastery of content. It really does give them a break from sort of one-on-one traditional interaction.”

In Albemarle County, elementary students could expect one to three hours a day of direct virtual instruction, depending on grade level. The virtual week would include special classes such as art, music and physical education. Middle and high school students could expect about four hours of direct instruction with each day including four classes.

Elementary teachers got a glimpse at the division’s schedule this week as they formally returned to work and many quickly took issue with the time requirements for online instruction, among other concerns.

“Elementary teachers will need to be live on Zoom for extreme amounts of time,” the Albemarle Education Association said in a letter to schools Superintendent Matt Haas. “Kindergarten, first, and second grade teachers will be online for about 5 hours per day and third, fourth, and fifth grade teachers will be live for almost 6 hours daily.”

The county School Board will hear more about the daily and weekly schedule for students during Thursday’s meeting, which starts at 6:30 p.m.

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Virtual learning prep

Both school systems are planning to better utilize their learning management systems, which will serve as a one-stop shop for assignments, online classes and other resources. Charlottesville will use Canvas division-wide and Albemarle will use SeeSaw for the elementary schools and Schoology for the middle and high schools.

Much of the professional learning this summer for both school divisions focused on those platforms and how teachers can get the most out of them, including effective distance learning practices and social-emotional learning over the internet.

“We know that our parents and our students need both clarity of the focus on our learning targets and the clarity of the instruction and feedback, but also we just need to connect that our kids have been home since March,” Sublette said. “... And now we’re going to need a whole new crop of students, and how do we help them feel connected to each other and to us. And how do we do that even if we’re in a virtual learning environment, and so that priority is something that we’ve held on to.”

Sublette said the division had higher participation rates in the summer professional development with more teachers taking advantage of the optional sessions.

“It really is because people see that need and we want to have a fall that feels good and awesome,” Sublette said.

During the online training, teachers had the chance to experience the platforms as students will and they workshopped learning plans.

“I learned so much as a teacher and as a student,” said Melissa Black, a math teacher at Burley Middle School. “It’s really, I think, going to help me be a much better teacher this fall and connect with my students and make instruction engaging. I think I’m going to have time to really connect with students one-on-one and in small groups. There will probably be more opportunities to speak with parents to really support the students as they’re learning this year.”

Black added that a key takeaway for her from the professional development sessions was the need for consistency. She’s planning to keep all the learning resources in one place, so students don’t have to go to multiple websites for lessons or information.

Last school year, a handful of county elementary schools used SeeSaw and the middle and high schools were in the first year of Schoology. That made getting the most of the platforms more difficult.

“We’re past that point of teachers needing to learn how SeeSaw functions,” Spencer said. “Now that they know how SeeSaw functions, what can we do with the learning that we’re asking students to do?”

Brit Mullinex, who teaches a multiage class at Agnor-Hurt Elementary with kindergartners through second-graders, likes to start every year by setting up her classroom. This year, she did that virtually using Bitmoji featuring an avatar of herself.

“I’m setting up classrooms virtually so that kids still have a place that they can come to to learn in and not just be activities sent to them like it was in the springtime,” she said.

In the spring, Mullinex and other teachers were learning about the technology and focused on finding ways to connect with students.

“Now I feel like we’ve moved past that,” she said. “We know what works, what doesn’t work for connecting and now it’s more like how do we make it creative.”

Despite the many uncertainties with this school year, she and other teachers said they are excited to continue learning and figuring out new ways to connect and teach students remotely.

“Trying to figure out a way that kids can communicate and can feel successful, and feel a part of something is my biggest goal for this year,” she said, adding that she’s looking forward to welcoming the students back.

In a typical year, Mullinex works with her mixed-grade students to explicitly teach skills, and she doesn’t think that will change with virtual classes, though the skills will change to how to be on Zoom call and how to raise their hands.

That might sound like a painstaking effort to parents, she said.

“But we get there and it just takes time,” she said. “I hope parents will just give us the time to go to teach them those skills.”

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