School was in session — at least off campus — on Monday in the Watertown Unified School District as officials try to salvage what’s left of the school year amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Campuses across most districts are not scheduled to open in-person classes until April 24 though state officials have said schools might need to be remain closed much longer.
The Watertown Unified School District launched its distance/virtual learning plan Monday, on what Superintendent Cassandra Schug called “the first day of a new school year” Monday at the Watertown Board of Education meeting. The district closed its campuses March 17 and plans to keep them shut through Gov. Tony Evers executive order of April 24.
“I think it’s been a real positive start,” Schug said. “We were able to use the week before spring break to do some planning and coordinating of efforts. That really allowed us to communicate with our families and staff ahead of time. After a little breather during spring break, we found our staff was ready and our parents were ready.”
As the district transitions to a new online environment, work given to students may be old or new material while teachers work through the changes.
“Our staff has been phenomenal in turning around this transition to distance/virtual learning in a very, very short period of time,” she said.
The district recently distributed 600 devices and Chromebook laptop computers to families without home access to computers, according to Dave Vitale, assistant superintendent and director of curriculum of the Watertown Unified School District. He said most of the families in the district do have a device and are connected to the district’s distance/virtual learning plan.
“It’s worked out to this point very well,” Vitale said Monday. “We anticipate there is going to be some follow-up calls in the next few days from folks who didn’t get a chance to connect with a device or a hot spot. By in large, we had a good response from our families. It’s good to provide that level of support to those who needed it.”
For those families who reside in the more rural areas and find it difficult to receive internet access, the district secured 30 hot spots from U.S. Cellular.
“We did boost our connectivity in those areas,” he said.
Schug said the goal of distance/virtual learning is to have teachers and students practice and feel confident working within the new learning platform.
Students can interact with teachers through email, online discussion boards and other methods. Instructional platforms vary teacher to teacher, depending on what they’ve used previously, she said.
“We’re encouraging more asynchronous opportunities because households sometimes have multiple kids and maybe two devices and you can’t have kids playing tug-of-war over who is going to get the computer,” Vitale said. “It’s combined for folks to connect. A lot of the younger kids and teachers of younger kids really find it important for students to see one another and make that personal connection in a remote kind of way.”
Vitale said the district is just getting started and will be adjusting as it goes.
“I think this is true of every district around us and throughout the state,” he said. “This has been an abrupt change of circumstances.”
Schug said the staff will maintain office hours for students and families between 9 and 11 a.m. during the week.
“That doesn’t mean that’s the only time they are working, but that’s the time they will be able to respond most immediately to communications from families,” Schug said.
She said every week on Friday teachers will send home the week’s schedule for their students in elementary, middle and high school.
“We asked at the elementary level the students be given about two hours of work a day such, as an engaging learning activity a day,” she said. “And, at the middle and high school levels, we asked that our students be given about four hours of work. We want to be really cognizant that the circumstances in our families are really different and we want to support our families and our students, but really trying to understand that less is more at this particular time, and really focus on what is important.”