Reading, MA – Taken at 2:30 pm on a Wednesday afternoon, when Parker Middle School students would usually be exiting school to congregate with friends on the field as they waited for their parents, this photo now showcases the new reality of learning during the coronavirus pandemic.
Starting the week of April 6, every student within the Reading Public School System moved to remote learning, a strategy that was designed by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in order to limit in-person interaction to slow the spread of COVID-19.
For students, this move to remote learning has most notably meant the shift away from a full school day to learning that would take place for only half the length of a normal school day. Under direction from the state, the Reading Public Schools moved to a phased system of online learning.
There are four phases: the first phase focused on the initial shutdown of brick and mortar schools, the second, which began on March 26, marked the first initial release of guidance on the part of the state. The third phase began recently, with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education suggesting that districts move to enhance their own remote learning plans based on their own experiences in the past few weeks of remote teaching. According to the “Reading Public Schools Remote Learning Plan-Phase 3”, this phase was meant to focus on the overall goal of moving “all students toward consistent engagement in remote learning, with a focus on connectedness and on the content standards most critical for success in the next grade.”
The most marked difference between the third phase and those that have preceded it was the reintroduction of synchronous connections between students and teachers, taking the form of synchronous activities (depending on grade level), regular teacher office-hours, as well as individual calls to students from RPS teachers and staff.
In the constantly changing environment of social distancing, this phased implementation of remote learning has been a purposefully slow one, allowing for educators from around the state to learn what is, and more importantly, what is not, working for their districts.
“In the beginning, we were really taking the recommendation of the state of not going too quickly and too fast in places. I am involved in quite a few state networks with other districts, and I have heard from some districts who went really quickly into jumping into things and then had to backpedal. Some people had attempted to shift into a snow-day type of online thing that they had already established or shifting right to remote schedules, but there are a lot of differences now that it is longer term, that you are thinking about making sure that everyone has the resources that they need in a long term sustainable manner” said Heather Leonard, the STEM Curriculum Coordinator for the Reading Public Schools.
For the Reading Public Schools, these resources involved not only device access, but also reliable internet, adult support, as well as making sure that teachers had access to their instructional materials outside of the classroom.
“There are so many things that go into play that the phase rollout looks at because sometimes we would be getting changes mid-week from something that was a week old or less. So, we have used those to guide the work that is happening in district” said Leonard.
For Reading, this new remote system of learning was built on collaboration between teachers, the district, and parents of students.
“What we looked at was ‘What are we seeing? What levels of engagement are we seeing from students? Where are we finding success, versus glitches and challenges? What are teachers seeing that feels good? What does not? What are we hearing from parents and families? What is working, what are the challenges there?’ But we are also using levels of engagement data, talking to our state colleagues around other districts, talking to those that we are working with at the Department of Education, and making sure that what we are doing now is setting us up safely and appropriately for the next phase,” said Leonard.
Based on this feedback, RPS decided to consolidate to two primary platforms for remote learning, Google Classroom, and Portal, as well as to rethink the frequency of student-teacher communication.
“Before this, Google Classroom was something that has been utilized at other grade levels but not necessarily district-wide. All of our middle schools as well as some upper level elementary grades had been using previously Google Classroom, as well as Portal in concert with it. But those two tools function a little differently, so they were being used for different reasons depending on the instructional need of that teacher’s classroom. When we made this shift to remote learning, Google Classroom was something that was already in the process of being expanded, but more so because teachers were finding it as another way to build that home connection digitally even when we were in brick and mortar schools. So, these two platforms made sense because they were readily available but also being utilized by enough grade levels that expanding that usage made a lot of sense” said Leonard.
However, one of the challenges of remote learning lies in the fact that many of these platforms are designed to be used by older students, and not necessarily those in the lower levels of elementary school.
“For younger students, we are using it with the understanding that we are not expecting a four-year-old to be maneuvering Google Classroom. For pre-k, kindergarten, and first grade, we are using it as a reference and resource for parents to the learning links, resources, and activities” said Leonard.
This has also meant that the district is experimenting with unplugged learning, or exercises that can be done away from a device.
“For kindergarten, for example, teachers will sometimes offer a choice for an activity, and families can choose whether to do a plugged or unplugged activity. There are some things that are just better offline, such as drawing or building or creating or writing, and so I’m hearing from a lot of grades that teachers are embedding opportunities for choice for things that you could do onscreen, or print and do, or things that you can replicate with your own household items” said Leonard.
With the constantly changing nature of COVID-19, the state is still developing what the fourth phase of remote learning may look like.