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Helping Families Support Student Learning During the Pandemic

Southeast | June 01, 2020
Helping Families Support Student Learning During the Pandemic

The Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Southeast is featuring a blog series, Voices from the Field, to highlight first-hand experiences from educators working at the school- and district-level across the REL Southeast region. In this blog post, Anna-Marie Cote, Ed. D., Deputy Superintendent of Instructional Excellence and Equity for Seminole County Schools in central Florida, shares her district's experience in navigating the COVID-19 crisis.

Seminole County Public School started Spring Break on Monday, March 16, 2020, expecting to return to school on Monday March 23, as we have done for decades before. The unprecedented events that occurred the week of "spring break" resulted in an educational shift never experienced in our history. On the evening of March 20, I wrote the following to our staff as they finalized plans for one week of, "At Home Learning" and simultaneously prepared on-line lessons and teacher training for the following week's Distance Learning implementation.

When Clayton Christensen wrote Disrupting Class he could not possibly have imagined the literal "disruptions" our entire country is experiencing. That being said, we will learn a great deal from the next several weeks and emerge smarter and stronger. There will be clarity regarding urgent needed improvements and abandonment opportunities, as well as a new sense of community and sharing. You will be the leaders that bring forward new, improved educational opportunities and services for all of our students and staff. Please keep these thoughts in mind so we can discuss and formalize next steps for improvement.
Seminole County Public Schools

As we prepare to implement summer distance learning opportunities and devise multiple options for opening the 2020/21 academic year, understanding that we may be opening and reopening multiple times, those words still hold true. The urgency for figuring out how to best support our students has created multiple possibilities and challenges, but brought clarity to the importance of relationships and social emotional and mental health needs. It is crystal clear that accelerated differentiated learning is key to ensuring students are supported in their areas of need. Teachers will not be able to assume that students have had an opportunity to learn prior standards or practice and apply new skills. As district leaders responsible for the education of 67,000+ students, how do we prepare for the unknown and create structures that are fluid enough to shift to changing environments, but still deliver the quality education our students and families deserve and expect?

First and foremost, the need for social emotional and mental health support will be built into our opening weeks' lessons and we will continue to offer support to teachers, staff and parents via hotlines and mental health counselors.

We are building time into our plans to encourage relationship building and getting to know each other. Due to the abrupt shift to distance learning, there was no face-to-face academic year closure for students and teachers. Transition grades (5 to 6 and 8 to 9) as well as seniors may never go back to a campus that they were on for many years, may never see each other again and never have the opportunity to say good-bye and good luck. Learning can't occur until we address these issues.

We've heard from our teachers, many of whom are parents now balancing teaching from home and trying to help their children learn from home, that they are working very long hours and can't separate their work life from their home life. Parents have called to say they just don't know what to do anymore … they've lost a job, can't "make" their child do their schoolwork and don't know where to turn. Families who have students with disabilities and English learner students are facing even more obstacles.

In collaboration with community partners, we have prioritized the need for helping people understand what can be controlled and the options for addressing their challenges. Our district is fortunate because our Food Services staff immediately committed to remote feeding locations and our Transportation staff devised plans to bring the food to the children. Our Facilities and Maintenance staff made sure all schools were deep cleaned and repairs were done. Information services loaned 10,000+ devices and provided hotspots so families could access the internet. Our Sheriff's and law enforcement departments helped monitor food and laptop distribution to support social distancing and protect our staff and families. Our Superintendent has built a culture of relationships and now more than ever, we witnessed solution development. Quite honestly, there was never a comment of we can't, it was always, we'll figure it out.

  • This infographic provides school-wide implementation strategies for connecting social and emotional learning, school climate, and student voice.
  • This infographic provides tips for gaining insights into and supporting teacher well-being.

Second, our parent choice options are being communicated and marketed so that our families can make the best decisions for their students.

We have expanded fulltime and part-time K-12 virtual options so that especially families with medically fragile children or others in their household know they don't have to attend our brick and mortar schools to remain a part of our school system. The Superintendent established a Re-Opening Task Force composed of all stakeholders, including parents, business partners, community leaders, teachers, administrators, faith leaders, etc., to make recommendations for reopening strategies and structures.

  • This Ask A REL provides references to education research, briefs, and articles, to help answer the following question - What challenges do students experience when re-entering school after a crisis or extended school closure, and what strategies can educators use to support student needs during re-entry?

Third, our 2020/21 instructional frameworks are being designed with distance learning options so teachers can transition to an on-line platform with minimal disruption should the need occur.

As we ease back into face-to-face/blended brick and mortar environments, diagnostic and formative progress monitoring assessments will help us understand the needed differentiated support. Teacher professional development in the areas of on-line instructional design, distance learning and virtual education has been prioritized to accommodate as many teachers as possible. The Re-Visioning Task Force, again composed of all stakeholders, suggested different ways to continue educating our students for the long term. Anecdotal information shared by teachers has been interesting … some students who struggled in a face-to-face environment are literally achieving more in the distance learning environment. Teachers have reported that they "know" their students better because they see them in their home environment, have more 1-1 conversations, and that parents who may have never attended a teacher conference or open house are willing to engage on-line.

  • This handout presents strategies and resources for bridging the digital divide during remote learning.
  • This infographic provides links to recent research on K-12 online and blended learning.

Finally, the Superintendent and Board are continuing their efforts to communicate honestly and regularly so that staff, parents and community members have updated, accurate information.

From the outset of the decision to expand spring break and then continue distance learning until the end of the school year, communication has been prioritized. The Superintendent sent numerous updates via social media, district call outs, press releases, etc. Teachers and parents have overwhelmingly thanked him for doing so. In a world of uncertainty, hearing directly from the leader of the school district has created confidence in his actions and trust in his decisions. The Superintendent's Communication Task Force will make recommendations to expand and improve on those efforts.

As we step back and reflect on the last two months, educators throughout the country can be confident that they accomplished miracles and shifted practices more quickly than ever before. Technology was essential, and despite our preconceived notions of student and teacher readiness to move to on-line instruction, they did it and did it extremely well. These experiences and outcomes ensure that the future of education is promising and holds more opportunities than ever before imagined.

Anna-Marie Cote, Ed. D., taught elementary and middle school in Massachusetts for 10 years, then spent 23 years as a Seminole County teacher, curriculum specialist, and district administrator prior to becoming the Seminole County Deputy Superintendent of Instructional Excellence and Equity.

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