Technology has taken on greater prominence due to its role in remote learning while the public schools are closed, but Wilkes County teachers and principals say relationships are still the key.
“We’re so fortunate about the time of year this (closure) occurred because those relationships have already been developed,” said West Wilkes Middle School Principal Pam Huffman.
Huffman was primarily referencing teacher-student relationships, but also relationships between teachers and parents and between schools and communities.
“Teachers know which of their students do better with technology, with pen and paper and independently or not,” said Huffman, this year’s Wilkes County Principal of the Year.
Huffman said this helps teachers and teacher assistants know what each student needs, which she said is especially important now while remote learning is necessary due to the coronavirus. Education despite separation by distance is the definition of remote learning.
“It’s all about connecting and letting the students know I’m here. It’s such a turbulent time,” said Laura Wills, a senior English teacher at East Wilkes High School.
Wills said some of her students have taken fast food restaurant jobs to help their families and it’s not unusual for one or both of students’ parents to be unemployed due to virus-related closures. It’s an especially stressful time for high school seniors.
Teachers are providing students with feedback but not grading their work because of the circumstances, said Wills, a teacher for 31 years. This is being done through Canvas at East and many other schools, a digital platform that Wills said works well for giving feedback.
Many Wilkes schools also use Zoom, Edmentum Digital, Class Dojo (school communication app) and other digital learning tools.
East Wilkes High senior math teacher Karen Perry said the Wilkes schools are well prepared for remote learning because of investments made in digital hardware and software.
Most of Wilkes has access to broadband internet and Wilkes Communications just installed Wi-Fi equipment at over a dozen Wilkes sites (mostly fire stations) to provide students with this service for free while schools are closed.
“I think Wilkes County is in a great place because of where we are with technology,” said Perry.
Teachers and other school staff spent most of Gov. Roy Cooper’s initial two-week school closure (starting March 16) preparing for the expected longer closure by researching and creating standards-based lesson plans for remote learning. These incorporate digital and non-digital activities. Students spent this time reviewing material covered earlier in the year.
On March 23, Cooper ordered that schools remain closed at least through May 15—two weeks before the Wilkes school year ends (May 29). Students are moving ahead with new lessons for the rest of the semester.
Last week, teachers and other school staff contacted homes to determine who lacked internet access and who needed their school-owned Chromebooks (laptop with Chrome OS operating systems) at home.
They’ve also been busy checking on basic needs of students and their families. People in the West Wilkes community donated non-perishable food for about 25 families with students at the school. It was delivered Friday.
Moravian Falls Principal Shanda Adkins said the first priority was working out school meal distributions and checking on needs of students and their families. “Many staff members have made multiple visits to check on the welfare of students and families.” Adkins said school staff also helped calm fears of parents.
Other local schools provided similar support and all are still delivering free school breakfast and lunch meals to community sites and homes each day schools are closed. At most schools, teachers and other staff take turns on buses delivering meals.
All Moravian Falls students received copies of the book, “Appleblossom the Possum,” to read with their families by April 21. Recordings of the school media specialist and other staff reading each chapter are in packets sent home with students to have the book read aloud via phone or internet in addition to students reading it on their own.
“We want students to remain connected with our staff and hearing their voices on a daily basis will help accomplish that,” said Adkins.
She added, “Our teachers have been mindful to limit at home expectations, per the district’s directive for elementary schools, to no more than an average of 2.5 hours of school work each day. School staff used creativity and laser focus to scaffold instruction and to create instructional videos and learning plans so they can interact with individual students on a remote basis.”
Mulberry Elementary Principal Ritchie Cornette said paper/pencil learning packets are being distributed to students each Friday at the school and at two school food feeding sites in the North district. They’re mailed to those who can’t pick them up. Student work from the prior week’s packet is turned in at the same sites for teachers to assess. In addition, a “smore” newsletter at https://www.smore.com/uxytb, with links, videos and teachers’ instruction complementing the learning packets, goes to parents each week for them to help children learn.
Millers Creek Elementary Principal Rebecca Mastin said her teachers communicate weekly with students through virtual read-alouds, show and tell, pre-recorded phonics lessons, small group meetings with Zoom and in other ways. School administrators post daily video announcements with the pledge, school motto and moment of silence. Teachers hold virtual meetings with students, which Mastin said helps maintain relationships. Teachers also virtually collaborate with each other to plan for students.
“Most importantly, we want our families to feel our support and encouragement during this unprecedented time, as we understand that they may feel overwhelmed,” said Mastin.
Dr. Jodi Weatherman, principal at Mountain View Elementary, said efforts at her school to reach every student utilized phone calls, emails, Class Dojo and home visits.
She said first grade teacher Jennifer Crouse discovered how to connect with students in a Zoom meeting. Crouse also learned that students can use this to talk with each other and collaborate.
Becky Vanderheide, Mountain View’s media specialist, “stood in our car line/lunch line and gave out books on (March 25). She then rode the bus to our community stop and did the same.”
Weatherman added, “Even my enhancement teachers are working together by creating choice boards with activities related to art, music, physical education. These choice boards are a part of our personalized learning approach. Our ultimate goal is to maintain a connection with all of our students in whatever means necessary.”
Packets of remote learning information prepared by teachers and books were mailed to students or picked up and times for virtual meetings with students were arranged.
“Parents have been asked to communicate with the school to let us know that there is a need for the paper assignment. Our teachers worked extremely hard to prepare hard copies of the digital assignments for those students who don’t have internet access,” said Dr. Chad Mann, principal at East Wilkes High School, adding that these were delivered to students’ homes if transportation was an issue.
Mann said that through digital learning platforms, East Wilkes High teachers can assign work, do visual tutorials and provide feedback to help students learn.
He said teachers and students at East Wilkes can communicate face to face with webcams on their computers through Zoom or through emails. Teachers are also communicating with students on phones.
Virtual teacher office hours, which are blocks of time when teachers must be available to assist students with questions, were established at several schools.