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County schools forge through online learning

By MARINA WATERS

Staff Writer

[email protected]

When Washington County Schools announced the plan to move to an online format for the first month of school this year, parents, teachers and community members asked how virtual school might work. During the Washington County Board of Education’s Aug. 4 meeting, the county’s school system directors explained just that.

At the school board’s Tuesday, Aug. 4 meeting, Secondary Education Director Ashley Keys, along with Special Services Director Mindy Meyers and Elementary Education Director Cindy Hayes, presented the back to school plan complete with information on the online program for a school year that Director of Schools Bill Flanary said has been unprecedented.

“Washington County Schools opened on Aug. 3 and I can say without feeling a contradiction it has been unlike any other,” Flanary said. “Teachers began interaction with students days ago and have continued. We have made virtual contact with the majority of students.”

Keys said one of the main goals last school year was to go “one-to-one” in the high schools, meaning each student would have access to his or her individual Chromebook. Since last spring, Washington County educators have also been learning and honing their skills on Canvas, an online education platform that is currently being used by teachers and students to complete lessons and school work. That program has since been a centerpiece to the online format, she said.

“We had Warren Lewis, who is a technology support specialist, training our teachers and working with students so they were able to use Canvas and blended learning effectively,” Keys said. “That started in January. There was training during planning periods; we have one-on-one with teachers on using Canvas and digital resources. 

“We’re very blessed that we did that because we had no idea COVID was right around the corner when we made those decisions. Without that, we would not be in a good place in our high schools. But because of that, we are in a good place.”

The school system has also done extra training for teachers who are struggling with the online platforms.

As for students, Keys said 95% of students have logged on at the high school level and that Canvas has the ability to grade multiple choice activities and tests on the spot, which cuts down on grading for teachers.

But what about the students who don’t have internet access?

For students without internet access, the school system has 1,000 flash drives available onto which students can upload their completed assignments to take to the school for their teacher to grade.

“(Teachers are) meeting with parents to create individualized remote learning plans so that we are working with our families to do what they need,” Keys said. “They are setting those expectations together and they’re creating those plans to support those families that do not have internet. I know some of those families cannot get internet at their location. It’s not that they just don’t want it, it’s that it’s not in that area. We are working through that together.”

Flanary added that the school system has loaned out around 4,048 Chromebooks to students, but they still await the arrival of more of those devices. 

“We have been able to meet demands so far,” Flanary said. “We do have hundreds of Chromebooks on backorder because the United States Department of State has placed multiple Chinese technology manufacturing companies under sanction of human rights violations. We think we will receive a shipment later this month but have no guarantee of that.”

What about students who struggle at home?

Keys said in a normal classroom setting, teachers are able to pick up on the signs that a student may have a tough homelife, but the online setting has changed that. She said students logging on to Canvas and communicating with classmates and teachers have served as a sort of welfare check for students in the county.

“It does a check on how (a student) is doing today. And that’s important because if you have a kid that’s lonely, isolated and needs to talk to someone, we need to know that,” Keys said. “In my classroom, I can tell that a kid isn’t himself. He puts his head down and he’s not working. How can you tell in that remote environment that that child needs help? So we are trying to reach out. If he doesn’t do his attendance verification, which is really his wellness check for the day, then a teacher, an instructional assistant, the attendance principal, is going to call and see what’s going on.”

While students and teachers have been online, board members — along with the community —have wondered just how long students will attend school virtually.

Flanary said he’s waiting for a medical professional to give the go-ahead, but is yet to see that happen.

“What we don’t have are medical professionals at the state level. The Tennessee Department of Health they’re saying, ‘You need to put kids back in school.’ And we say, ‘Okay, give us a measurement. Tell us how to do that safely.’ And they won’t. I need a number. All of us need a number. What is the cut off? When is it safe to put a 6-year-old back in school. That’s what we’re waiting on.

“I’m listening to all these physicians, all these epidemiologists, and none of them will draw a line in the sand and say, ‘This is when you can do it.’ We’re making this up as we go.”

The next BOE meeting will be held on Thursday, Sept. 3. That meeting will be livestreamed and can be viewed at wcde.org or at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCDnmnXQAmOV6q16q0xrEpPA/videos.