By Dave Ongie, News Editor
At the outset of spring break, administrators inside Johnson City Schools had a good sense of what was coming.
Major sporting events and other large gatherings were being canceled en masse, colleges and universities were moving to online classes and social distancing orders were just starting to be issued by the Center for Disease Control as the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak began to make its presence known in the United States. So on Monday, March 16 – the first day of spring break – administrators got busy developing an at-home online curriculum for students from kindergarten through 12th grade.
“We knew that there was a very strong possibility that we were going to move to some type of remote learning,” said Dr. David Timbs, supervisor of secondary and instructional technology for JCS. “I emailed our group of around 60 technology teacher leaders that our board has invested training in over the last few years, and we sort of activated that network of teacher leaders and instructional coaches.”
Despite the fact that teachers were technically in the midst of a vacation week, the technology leaders sprung into action to help teachers throughout the school system to develop an online curriculum on the fly. Galina Rozhkova, an eighth-grade teacher at Liberty Bell, was among the technology teacher leaders charged with developing and implementing the online curriculum.
“Even though a lot of people were on vacation during spring break, a lot of teachers jumped on it to try to develop the paper packets we’ve created for students to take home as well as the online curriculum and anything else,” she said, adding that administrators at central office and the individual schools were proactive from the get-to. “They did a very good job the week of spring break communicating with all of the teachers across the board.”
Throughout the spring break week, technology leaders held virtual meetings with teachers across the school system to help develop and execute lesson plans that could be delivered to students working from home. Rozhkova said things went relatively smoothly because the curriculum was built upon a firm foundation of technological know-how gained by students and teachers on a daily basis.
“That’s been the culture in this district for the last four years, making sure technology is part of our instruction,” Timbs said. “I think what has helped a lot of students and their families is that we’re not asking them to use a lot of things that they haven’t used in the classroom on a frequent basis.”
Since working with technology was not a foreign concept to teachers and students, the rollout of the remote learning curriculum was able to take place during the week of March 23. Students of all ages were able to pick up packets of work from their respective schools, and students from seventh through 12th grade were able to pick up their Chromebooks and chargers in order to work from home.
With a return date uncertain, Timbs said the school system has been developing a series of three-week learning plans for students. The first three-week plan is wrapping up, and students will have another packet waiting for them this week as the social distancing initiatives stretch into the month of April.
Meanwhile, teachers and students are connecting on a regular basis for meetings on Zoom and other virtual meeting apps. Learning is certainly a priority, but Timbs said maintaining a connection between teachers and students and ensuring students have the support they need in all aspects of their lives takes precedence at this time.
No matter how long this season of social distancing lasts, Timbs and Rozhkova both believe this period of time will have a lasting impact on education moving forward. Timbs said teachers will be more likely to build out classroom resources online in the future and view virtual learning as a core part of the education process.
Rozhkova added that technology is opening the door for teachers to provide a more individualized instruction for students in the future.
“It’s hard to reach every single student during your 65- to 85-minute instruction period,” she said. “But as a result of having this technology, we’re able to differentiate and close those gaps in knowledge and make students more successful.”