Distance Learning Begins: A view from two Superintendents

Students can feel very isolated when studying through a distance education programme. Shutterstock

We saw images of kids on Facebook exercising at the direction of teachers over the internet and others hunkered down behind computers as both students and teachers began practicing distance learning, the new normal for education during the COVID-19 crisis.

School systems throughout Rhode Island, and much of the nation, have changed the way they deliver education as they practice “social distancing,” waiting until we get this virus under control, and can get back to normal.

The thing is, as some educators suggest, we will learn a great deal during this process and getting back to normal will not quite be the same.

This has also been such an economic disruption that the plans school systems had for substantial school building bond issues that would have made school buildings safe and ready for 21st century learning are now in jeopardy.

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We caught up with two Superintendents of Schools, Dr. Mark Garceau in Westerly and Dr. Colleen Jermain in Newport. In what is, of course, a very busy week they took a few minutes to answer a few of our questions:

WUN: I know it’s very early, but did the rollout of distance learning go as planned?

Garceau: “We began planning for this possibility two weeks ago. So much of it did go as planned in terms of distributing technology and other learning materials. We were frankly very pleased with day 1, the emphasis of which was just reconnecting our teachers with their students and re-establishing norms and expectations; a lot of the same kind of groundwork that we would do the first week in September.”

Jermain: “Everyone is doing an amazing job – teachers, parents, students, and administrators. We have hit a few hiccups and addressing them as we roll out. This week is a learning week for all of us and it is very exciting. Everyone is pulling together. Wow”

WUN: Did all students have access to computers or chrome books?

Garceau: “We are still distributing Chromebooks.  We have designated times when parents can drive up with an ID and be issued a unit.  Our high school and middle school kids were the easiest to get them out to and we did this before closing on March 13. Now, we are mostly dealing with kids in the younger grades and have distributed approximately 300 more Chromebooks since yesterday (Monday). “

Jermain:” Most if not all of our 2-12 students have a Chromebook or device. If the school closure is extended, we will have Chromebooks and IPads for our K&1 students. We will distribute those the week of April 6.”

WUN:  How well is the free breakfast and lunch program going? 

Garceau: “Between our three sites (Tower, Springbrook and the Jonnycake Center) we are averaging about 150 lunches per day. The Ocean House is also offering free lunches to students 16 and younger from their truck at the skating rink area each day.”

Jermain: “It is going well and lots of volunteers and coordination. Our food provider, Chartwells led by Cindy King is doing an amazing job. We start Bayside Village Apartments tomorrow (Thursday).” Here’s Newport’s “Grab and Go Bags” schedule:

  • Stationary pickup locations: 
    • Pell Elementary School, noon to 1 p.m., daily
    • Martin Luther King Center, 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m., daily
  • Neighborhood van/bus distribution locations:
    • Chapel Terrace Housing, 11 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., daily
    • Festival Field Housing, 11:45 a.m. to 12:15 p.m., daily
    • Bayside Village Apartments, 12:30 p.m. – 1 p.m., daily

WUN: Any early feedback from parents, teachers, students?

Garceau: Yesterday (Monday), being day one, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive.”

Jermain: “Early feedback has been very positive from everyone.”

WUN: What are your greatest concerns about distance learning?

Garceau: “Technology and connectivity in particular will be a challenge.  We also have teachers, parents and students who have never experienced distance learning before, so we all need to be patient with each other. We are also creating some of our own capacity as we go. So, it is a challenge, but we are on it.”

Jermain: “Right now we are taking it one day at a time. We will know more I am certain as we move forward. Our number one concern is everyone’s health and safety and being able to provide support and help to everyone that needs it. Sustaining work will be a ‘work in progress.’”

WUN: When things have returned to normal, do you envision distance learning being incorporated in some way in future programs? Will it be a tool that can virtually eliminate snow days? 

Garceau: “There has been and will be a great deal of learning. I would expect that this experience will open a lot of eyes and minds to the possibilities of distance learning. Not just that it can happen and maybe help eliminate snow days, but that it provides opportunities to provide for learning in ways and at times that the 9-3, brick and mortar schoolhouses just do not.  I hope to see us all come out of this with a larger palette of strategies and approaches.”

Jermain: “Too soon to answer this one.”

WUN:  Someone in Westerly mentioned that she has two children in the schools. Being home, watching her children interact with teachers, she said she’s gaining a new appreciation for the work they do. 

Garceau: “Overdue”

Jermain: “There is a silver lining. I believe all of us are gaining great appreciation for each other and how lucky we are to have such support and collaboration.”

WUN: With a struggling economy – lost jobs, lost revenue, what do you believe the prospects are now that communities will pass substantial school building referenda? 

Garceau: “I think all building projects and the monies needed to fund them are going to be very much up in the air for the time being. The damage being done daily to the local and national economy is dwarfing the challenge we faced in 08-09 when a school building project moratorium had to be put in place.”

Jermain: “Too soon to tell. I believe time will tell as this rolls out. I am hoping soon, in the near future, Newport will have a process to continue discussions on the financing of a bond, understanding our priorities now have shifted rightfully so to the pandemic. RIDE has informed us as of Tuesday of this week, they are expecting us to have all our supplemental work to them by April 13th. They are still on the path forward for school construction and incentives for districts.”