With Virginia’s K-12 schools shuttered for the remainder of the academic year, our city and county districts have moved into uncharted territory: figuring out not only how to teach thousands of students outside of the classroom, but also making distance learning accessible and equitable for all.
The districts say they are still developing formal distance learning programs, which will be rolled out after spring break, on April 13. In the meantime, some teachers in both the city and county have provided students with optional online modules and activities, reviewing previously taught material. Educators have also been using video conference services like Zoom and Google Hangouts to bring kids together.
Accessing these resources, however, is more difficult for some than others. Up to 30 percent of Albemarle County Public Schools students don’t have adequate access to the internet at home. And while Charlottesville City Schools do not have division-wide data on students’ internet access, its most recent CHS student survey indicated that 6 percent of households have no internet.
To bridge this digital divide, ACPS has boosted the WiFi signal at all of its schools, as well the Yancey School Community Center, allowing anyone to get onto the internet from parking lots. Several hundred cars have already been spotted taking advantage of this crucial resource, according to ACPS spokesman Phil Giaramita.
ACPS has also leased part of its broadband spectrum to Shentel, enabling the company to expand internet to more rural, underserved households in the area. With the lease revenue, it’s ordered about 100 Kajeet Smart Spots, which are “devices you can install in your house that will access the network of local carriers in your area,” explains Giaramita. Once they’re delivered, “we’re going to start distributing those to teachers [and students] who don’t have internet access at home,” and will order more as needed.
In the city, CCS recommends that students who have inadequate internet access connect to an AT&T or Xfinity hot spot, as both companies have recently opened up all of their U.S. hot spots to non-customers. The district is also distributing hot spots to students who are unable to use those publicly available.
Both city and county school districts are giving laptops to students in grades two and up who need them. ACPS also plans to distribute iPads to kindergarteners through second graders.
At CCS, learning guides are available online for pre-K, kindergarten, and first grade students with suggested activities that do not require access to the internet.
Despite these efforts, CHS senior Jack Dreesen-Higginbotham remains concerned about the city’s transition to distance learning. “I know they’ve been working on trying to set up hot spots for students, but I don’t know if it will be accessible to everybody. And [still], not everyone has a school-provided laptop,” he says. “My brother, who is in sixth grade, wasn’t provided one, so he’s had to use mine to do his work.”
However, Dreesen-Higginbotham’s CHS teachers, who currently use Zoom, are doing a “very good job at instructing their classes and organizing lessons, so that they can be inclusive to everybody,” he says.
After spring break, both CCS and ACPS will provide more formal online—and offline—academic instruction and enrichment for each grade level.
“We’re looking at finding specific solutions for individual families, whether online, offline, or a combination,” says CCS spokeswoman Beth Cheuk.
“Offline could simply mean working with kids by telephone, by regular mail. We’ve asked teachers to be creative, so that there isn’t any student who is disadvantaged by their access to technology,” adds Giaramita.
While students will learn new material through distance learning, there will be no grading (or SOLs). Instead, teachers will provide feedback on a regular basis.
To former CHS teacher Margaret Thornton, now a Ph.D. candidate in educational leadership at UVA, this is an opportunity for local schools to explore different types of evaluation systems.
“I hope that we can make lemonade out of these lemons, and re-evaluate a lot of our policies—grading is certainly one of them,” she says.
“We’ve [also] known for a long time that our standardized testing system has created a lot of inequality,” Thornton adds. “We can be rethinking assessments at this time, and how we can make it more formative and more useful in instruction.”
Both school divisions want to ensure that as many students as possible graduate or are promoted to the next grade level. Per guidance from the Virginia Department of Education, students who were on track to pass before schools closed will do so. But on April 6, ACPS announced that if distance learning is not “the best fit” for a student, they will have the option to complete the school year by attending classes in July, or (excluding seniors) during the next school year.
While ACPS’ lesson plans will not go into effect until April 13, Giaramita says one of its distance-learning initiatives has already been implemented: Check and Connect. Students will now be contacted at least once a week by a teacher, counselor, administrator, or principal to talk about their distance learning experience, what assistance they need, and what their internet access is like. So that no student is left out, this contact can take place by phone, email, video call, or even snail mail.
CCS has also asked teachers to connect with each of their students to identify which ones need additional support, regarding WiFi or other issues.
Such practices may be particularly beneficial to those who do not have parents at home to help and support them throughout the day.
“So many service workers are being considered essential, and are doing essential work. But that means often that their kids are going to be home alone without adult interaction,” Thornton says. “The relationships between teachers and students are [going to be] key.”
Other teachers, parents, and community members have expressed similar concerns for students with limited access to adult instruction and interaction, such as those from refugee or ESOL families. And with a significant amount of students without adequate internet access, some fear students won’t be prepared for the next school year.
“It is really hard to live in the county and not have reliable [internet] access. We don’t even have cellular service so we can’t utilize a hot spot,” says Jessiah Mansfield, who has a senior at Western Albemarle High School. “If we need something important, we have to go to Charlottesville to download it. I’m sure we aren’t the only ones with this issue, but it will impact our children.”
However, others remain hopeful that teachers will be able to help their students make it through the rest of the semester.
“As the crisis continues and escalates, so does anxiety for all. Learning should be suggested. Remember we are at home trying to work not working from home. Connecting with my students is just as important for them as it is for me,” says Libby Nicholson, a fourth-grade teacher at Broadus Wood Elementary School. “We are in this together! We got this!”