EDITOR’S NOTE: More details are on the Wilkes County Schools website at https://www.wilkescountyschools.org. 

The 2020-21 academic year started Monday without students actually in the Wilkes County schools.

The Wilkes school board approved having students stay home and learn remotely (Plan C), based on the advice of Wilkes Health Director Rachel Willard after COVID-19 cases spiked in Wilkes the first week in August.

The goal is for most students to transition to a combination of remote and in-school learning (Plan B) starting Sept. 8. About 25% of students opted to learn remotely for the entire first nine weeks.

Dr. Donna Cotton, chief academic officer for the Wilkes schools, reviewed the local remote learning plan at the Aug 10 school board meeting.

Cotton said that during an “emergency time of remote instruction” for the last 2 1/2 months of the prior school year, “we did the best we could and we have learned so much from that – what works and doesn’t work.” She said the experience reflected that most teachers aren’t taught to teach online.

School staff at schools

Unlike remote learning this past spring, Wilkes teachers must be in their schools for normal working hours each day when Plan C is used. They are expected to post established office hours online to make them more accessible to parents and students.

Cotton said principals and assistant principals will also be at their schools each day. She said these school administrators will monitor the quality of remote instruction materials and presentation, observe online instruction, provide feedback to teachers and make sure teachers are focusing on learning targets and have correct lesson designs.

School counselors, instructional coaches, social workers, nurses and all others “who make the school run will be in the building doing what they would be doing if the students were there,” she said.

“They’ll be contacting students and supporting teachers. They’ll make sure our instructional programs continue as they should as best as we can in a remote situation.”

Student access to lessons

Cotton said teachers must post lessons and assignments online for students on a daily or weekly basis, but the Wilkes County Schools Remote Instruction Plan said it should never be for more than a week in advance.

They're utilizing one of three learning management systems for this. Kindergarten through fifth grade students will use Seesaw or Google Classroom or a combination of them, while older students are using Canvas.

Wi-Fi hotspots were added and more Chromebook laptops were bought to provide each student with a laptop, but school officials say there will still be instances of students not having online access. When this occurs, said Cotton, students will be provided with lessons on thumb drives, on paper or through other means as needed.

A Wilkes school technology help desk has been established for help with digital software or hardware problems. Each school has a technology technician for students to contact. Loaner devices will be available.

Daily contact

“We are asking teachers to have daily contact with students,” said Cotton, citing phone calls, online meetings via Zoom or emails from teachers with students responding as examples.

She said teachers are expected to let students know their daily learning targets, including telling them what each assignment is supposed to help them learn.

The remote instruction plan emphasizes frequently reminding students that grades will be given since student work wasn’t graded during remote learning last spring.

Cotton said, “It’s really hard to read instructions and know what somebody wants, so we have to be very clear and very purposeful in the way we present assignments” and due dates.

She said teachers are expected to give feedback or a descriptive grade within one week for every assignment. “That’s challenging and it’s a lot of work on teachers.”

When students are in their classrooms, she said, teachers provide this feedback frequently each day in impromptu one-on-one exchanges with them. “You don’t have that in an on-line class and our kids need it. If they’re not face-to-face or in a Zoom meeting - and some of kids can’t do Zoom due to technical difficulties - there’s got to be some way to get that feedback to them.

She said parents are being asked to help students become comfortable communicating with teachers if they have problems with assignments, technology or for any other reason since they won’t know them yet.

Student attendance

The N.C. Department of Public Instruction requires that student attendance be taken each day in remote learning. The remote instruction plan requires that it be taken before 3:30 p.m. each day by homeroom teachers in kindergarten through eighth grades and by course teachers in high school grades.

Cotton said a student will be counted as absent if he or she isn’t present for class virtually or by calling or emailing, isn’t engaged in any way or can’t be contacted. Completing an assignment or participating in class or virtual discussion counts for being present. Communication involving academic or emotional support with a student and family also counts.

 “If we don’t hear anything from a student in over three days, we’ll ask school staff to get involved and maybe send a social worker and check on that student,” she said.

Special needs, CCP

The remote instruction plan outlines how needs of special population students are met, including those with individualized education plans, English as a second language students, academically and/or intellectually gifted students and students considered homeless. Cotton said this includes accommodations for testing.

The plan says Wilkes County School and Wilkes Community College officials are working together to continue making Career and College Promise (CCP) courses available during remote learning.

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