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Spencer virtual learning was ready to roll when coronavirus hit

Spencer virtual learning was ready to roll when coronavirus hit Spencer virtual learning was ready to roll when coronavirus hit

When Wisconsin schools were shut down suddenly in mid-March due to the coronavirus outbreak, teachers and students in Spencer were all but ready to go online with a virtual learning system. Quite serendipitously, the horrible winter weather that forced schools to close several times a year ago was the reason.

As they were in all other area schools, classes were cancelled in Spencer almost 10 days in early 2019 due to extreme cold and snow. Administrators, teachers and students alike were disrupted by the repeated closures, to the point where the district said enough was enough. It decided late last year to implement a virtual learning system that would kick in on snow days to hold online classes instead of just having kids stay home and waste their time with video games or Instagram messages.

While Spencer teachers received some training in August to begin a virtual system when snow days began this winter, none ever did. However, the work that had been done proved more than worthwhile when Gov. Tony Evers announced on March 13 that all schools would be closed within five days.

Spencer grade 6-12 principal Jason Gorst said early rumblings of a possible statewide school shutdown had the administrative team prepared for what would come.

“Once there started to be more talk about this coming up, we just accelerated the process,” he said. Teachers had worked with instructional technology coaches during in-service days in August, and had each been directed to prepare three days worth of lessons in the event of winter weather cancellations. Now those plans would be used for the COVID-19 closure.

Spencer had already surveyed students and knew how many did not have proper internet access at home to learn on-line. It purchased 100 Wi-Fi “hot spots” and gave them to students in need, so they can connect to the school from remote locations. No one would be able to use the excuse of not having access.

After Gov. Evers’ closure order on a Friday afternoon, Spencer had all students and staff report on the following Monday to have one day together to make a virtual plan.

“We actually trained all of our students that day,” Gorst said. “We were pretty well set because we were already 1:1 with Chromebooks.”

Also, Gorst said, Spencer had an advantage because for several years it had been using a program called “Canvas” through which students and staff could communicate electronically. Canvas is the program running the online system. “Everybody’s been using it to some degree so there was a pretty good familiarity with teachers and students,” Gorst said. With teachers given the Monday to get ready to teach online, the system went live already on the Tuesday following the governor’s order According to Spencer High School social studies teacher Ryan Sprenger, the staff was mostly prepared for the launch. “Most of the teachers had a few lessons ready to go,” Sprenger said. “Some of them had to start from scratch.”

With almost all teachers working from their homes, Sprenger said they began to record videos of themselves with a day’s lecture, to post assignments, or to engage students in group online discussions. The system has 2-way capabilities for interaction between teachers and students and between students themselves. A teacher can pose a discussion question, and students can engage each other with responses.

“It’s like a real class going on from home,” Sprenger said.

The lessons and postings are made so students do not have to all be present at a given time. Some who may have other responsibilities can tend to them, and visit the postings later.

“Some kids might be taking care of other siblings,” Sprenger said. “We are very flexible when it comes to that. We understand it’s a new time for everyone.”

Gorst said the system has options that allow teachers to make sure everyone stays involved. They know if a student has logged in or not, and students are required to participate in discussions and finish online assignments. Teachers can also schedule 1-on-1 meetings with individual students to answer questions or deal with issues.

For some subjects, like social studies or math, online learning is easier as teachers can post lectures or lay out topics. Even then, Sprenger said, different students learn in different ways and at varying speeds, so care is being taken to leave no one behind.

“We’re trying to make it very personal,” he said.

Some courses are not so simply taught online. Technology education, for one, is hands-on learning, and teachers in that field need to find ways to move along in their curriculum. They can upload how-to videos, as an example, or demonstrate a skill in a video recorded from the shop.

And then there’s music. High school choral music teacher Saydi Olson said there’s even a way for her to make progress online.

She uses a program called “Smart Music” that engages students at home. They can be given a selection, which they then sing into the computer. The program listens and offers a critique and feedback on things such as tempo and pitch.

Most of Olson’s usual classes are spent in group singing, and that is something she can’t replicate online.

“That’s what I struggle with for sure. That’s been my challenge,” Olson said. “It’s not ideal, but we’re learning something new every day.”

Olson said she is getting a chance to listen more to each student, and coach them accordingly. She’s able to give more individual attention, but they are missing out on the benefits of singing in an ensemble.

“For the kids that rely on others from their sections, doing it by themselves is a little hard,” Olson said.

Gorst said he has been impressed by his staff’s creativity on sending virtual lessons to students. The family and consumer science teacher, for example, has students cooking dishes on their home stoves. Physical education teachers are making videos to keep kids moving. “Students need to stay active and to stay physically and mentally healthy through all of this,” Gorst said. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the types of lessons. I think we set a pretty aggressive bar for the teachers. The teachers have not only reached that level but surpassed it in many cases. They’re like, ‘How can I make this happen?’” Gorst said several staff members have taken the lead to implement the system. “There are teachers who are very, very good at this,” Gorst said. “They’ve served as great, great resources.”

Sprenger and high school math teacher Jenny Wilke are two of the in-house “experts” who have helped get the system in place so quickly. Wilke said the entire school system should be commended for taking this on in such short order.

“First and foremost, I am beyond proud of the staff district-wide for going at the virtual learning experience with open minds and keeping our students at heart,” Wilke said. “That is why anyone in the building is in the profession they are in, for the kids. That includes everyone — from our administration to food services, and everyone in between. I also am so proud of our students, family, and community for the amount of support they have shown us during this transition period. It truly wouldn’t be possible without them.”

Wilke said Spencer’s system attempts to keep routines in place as much as possible.

“For my classes,” she said, “students log on and find their daily assignments, which include instructional videos of me interacting with their online textbooks, articles, and other interactive websites/games. Each day opens up with a video from me telling them good morning/afternoon and giving them any important information or updates that the district has put out there. There are reminders I share with them for my classes as well in that daily message. There are so many how-to videos that have been made to make the transition as easy as possible for students, when doing something new.

“One of the best features I have found is the oneon- one video chats that I do with students, especially if they are stuck somewhere in their thinking. I have shared my screen with students and they talk out their math problems with me, I scribe on my screen so they can see, and then we discuss where their thinking might have veered off. I look forward to doing this more often. For example, mini-group meetings for students that missed the learning target for the day will take place the following day, so I can clarify in detail with them on a more personable level.”

Sprenger said those personal interactions between teacher and student are crucial. Students are used to a face-to-face connection each day, and simply trying to teach by straight 1-way lecture would not be effective.

“We at Spencer believe we need to keep that communication with students,” Sprenger said. “We’re trying to keep learning as normal as possible. I think it’s very, very important that we still have that connection with students, that personal touch. They do say they’re missing that personal connection part of it.”

Gorst said one of his main concerns with the extended school shutdown is the mental health impact on students. Many rely on the emotional support they receive each days from friends and teachers, and that is suddenly gone from their lives. Having the virtual system in place should help some.

“There’s a lot of kids right now that crave that connection, they need that support,” Gorst said. “They are spending a lot of time in true isolation. It’s a big piece to keep that line of communication open.” Gorst and Sprenger said Spencer is prepared to finish out the school year with virtual learning if necessary, with possible tweaks to come. It might try a day when classes meet online at their usual daily class times to simulate an 8-period day. It would be far better for the coronavirus threat to pass and for everyone to be back in school to finish the year, but Gorst said at least this way students are getting their education and earning the credits they need to keep them on track toward graduation.

As long as the closure drags on, he said, Spencer teachers will be at work.

“We’re planning for the worst and hoping for the best,” he said.

“We at Spencer believe we need to keep that communication with students. We’re trying to keep learning as normal as possible. I think it’s very, very important that we still have that connection with students, that personal touch. They do say they’re missing that personal connection part of it.” -- Spencer High School social studies teacher Ryan Sprenger

Jason Gorst