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Imagine Farmville — Future of education

By Emily Hollingsworth

Special to The Farmville Herald

This edition of Imagine Farmville explores the numerous ways school systems in the area have adapted to distance and at-home learning as a result of the coronavirus, the triumphs and challenges that resulted from distance learning, and if there are distance learning features that will be implemented into the next school year.

Gov. Ralph Northam issued a phased plan for school reopening across Virginia Tuesday, June 9, incorporating social distancing measures and offering flexibility to school divisions to meet the specific needs of their students. The full plan can be read online at governor.virginia.gov.

PRINCE EDWARD COUNTY PUBLIC SCHOOLS

As a music instructor with Prince Edward County Public Schools (PECPS), David Lawson has taught his students under unimaginable circumstances. The coronavirus in March prompted school facilities to close across the commonwealth. Video conferencing was among the resources he and other instructors used to teach students.

“These virtual meetings seemed very beneficial to everyone who could attend,” Lawson said. “Students who participated were not only able to continue their academics with their teachers, but they got a chance to socialize with their classmates and share their experiences. There were many times I attended that students were able to express their emotions and just share about their day … In the case of my daughter, who is also a PECES student, her amazing teachers were able to go beyond the packets on their zoom meetings — they completed book studies and did a fun project.”

History instructor Louis Gould also used Zoom to teach students. He said while some students did not connect as well with the new learning method, it did help some students.

“For some students that usually don’t participate in class, (they) were now participating in Zoom sessions, which was great,” Gould said.

Video conferencing was a challenge for students and families in areas where broadband access was lacking. Students also received materials and learning packets mailed to their homes.

“Though the Zoom meetings were very beneficial in many ways for families and students, it was evident that not all students were able to attend the virtual meetings,” Lawson said. “I tried to reach out to families via Class Dojo (an educational platform that we use at school), social media, email, and phone calls. As a resource teacher, I called five classes a week to speak with the families and offer any support needed. Those who I was able to speak with were very appreciative and were able to get answers to questions or needs that they had.”

Gould said the transition to distance learning presented a challenge for many students.

“For a lot of students it was hard for them to adjust to this new norm,” Gould said. “I don’t think some took it seriously. It was their first time being in something like this, so I know it was a ton of emotions and thoughts that they were going through. Just a difficult time for certain students to be able to adjust to, when so much around them is going on.”

Social media remains an effective and innovative way to reach students. Lawson hosts music challenge videos, which are shared on the Prince Edward County Public Schools’ Facebook page. He said as of the previous week, the videos reached 11,300 people and were engaged with by 2,752 people, which included comments, likes and shares.

“Although I miss my students and it is not the same as being with them in person and seeing their love of music develop through the whole school year, I thoroughly enjoyed making them and look forward to continuing to make and share more,” Lawson said.

PECPS Superintendent Dr. Barbara Johnson said Tuesday, June 9, that the school system is preparing for the fall semester, following the guidance of state and federal health departments and the governor.

“Prince Edward County Public Schools continues to work diligently on plans to reopen for the 2020-2021 school-year,” Johnson said in a statement. “We plan to have a draft to share with the community in a few weeks. As we work, our primary guiding principles are the safety and well-being of our children and the ability to provide quality instruction through multiple modalities.”

FUQUA SCHOOL

Fuqua School has implemented similar methods to connect and instruct students over the spring semester.

The Fuqua School Board of Trustees approved a one-to-one Chromebook program in grades 6-12 so students could access 21st century technology and learning tools. 

“We have never confronted a national and international crisis of this intensity, duration, and complexity,” outgoing Head of School John Melton said in a letter to students, alumni and families, but said the instructors, students and school remain resilient.

In anticipation of the 2020-2021 school year, Melton said in a statement that the school formed a reopening committee.

“We have begun intensive consultation with doctors, public health professionals, peer schools, colleges, and universities studying these issues,” Melton said.

Melton said the school’s reopening process will follow guidance from the Virginia Department of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Prince Edward County Health Department, including for arts and athletic programs. 

“There is no playbook to address this global pandemic,” Melton said. “I admit to feeling not only fear at times, but also great loss — a loss of our daily routines, of our connections to one another, and of the comfort we too often take for granted regarding the health of our family, friends, and colleagues. And yet, even as our lives have been turned upside down, I have found inspiration in the one constant through it all — your commitment to educating our children and caring for one another.”

FULL CIRCLE SCHOOL

The challenge for younger and older students, instructors with Full Circle School said, is adjusting to a completely different mode of education. Students are now working to retain information taught in isolation rather than with other students, or with instructors who are teaching remotely.

For the fall, instructors are exploring ways to address challenges students are facing. The school is considering implementing a socially-distant computer lab for students who lack broadband access, or the possibility of teaching students in small group at an outdoor pavilion where students can be socially distant.

Full Circle, a progressive school, is partnering with VHS Learning, endorsed by MIT and Harvard, and implementing Google Classroom to help instructors organize assignments more effectively. 

“We are in uncharted waters as educators,” Director and High School Instructor Angela Whittaker said. “What we must do is design a new system that meets the needs of families, teachers, and students. The system must be flexible and address the emotional, academic and physical needs of every child we serve. We do not and must not be limited by what appear to be insurmountable challenges. Our community (teachers, caregivers, students) needs us, and we must be there for them. Failure and mediocracy are not options.”

ADDRESSING CHALLENGES

While social distancing measures and meeting guidelines by state and federal health departments remain a challenge for school systems, funding for school systems and broadband access for students are challenges in and of themselves.

Localities across the United States have made difficult decisions to cut or level funding for school divisions. These decisions may have unintended consequences, as the need for secure forms of remote education are more necessary than ever.

Federal and state funding have been issued for school divisions because of the coronavirus.

The Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors voted to approve level funding for PECPS by reducing the proposed amount by $57,644. The board voted to not grant a request of $120,000 for a school bus.

PECPS will receive $801,046.31 from the Coronavirus Aid, Recovery, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The funding is being allocated to the food services department to feed students over the summer, Johnson said.

Johnson said the coronavirus and shifts in education could bring unanticipated needs.

County Administrator Wade Bartlett said Tuesday, June 9, that the county has the opportunity to adjust its budget throughout the year to address unanticipated needs for the school system.

“The decision to not fund a school bus was based on the decrease in usage/mileage because of the closing of the schools this spring,” Bartlett said. “Increased costs or decreased funding caused by COVID-19 played little part in the Board of Supervisors budgetary decisions.  At this time there is great uncertainty of the costs that may increase due to COVID-19 for the next school year … All in all there are more questions than answers at this time.”

Broadband access to numerous students in the county, and the challenge of affording broadband, remains a crucial challenge, Cameron Patterson, director of the Moton Museum, said Tuesday.

The museum offers education opportunities for students through field trips to learn about the struggle for education equality in Prince Edward. The shift to remote education opportunities has highlighted inequities. Those who can access the online education resources have broadband and are often in more financially secure backgrounds, while students in rural areas without broadband or access to technology are shut out.

“The digital divide is definitely something we have to intensify our efforts at solving as a commonwealth,” Patterson said.

He addressed the need not only for broadband access in all areas of Virginia, but ensuring that broadband is affordable for families.

“We also need to be prepared to look at inequities of families accessing broadband financially,” Patterson said.

“That is a daunting task to try to solve at the start of the next academic year for students K-12,” Patterson said, but said the actions taken by the state to address broadband access will be instrumental in students’ access to education.