Ready for some real talk? None of us knows what we’re doing. Pandemic Teaching 101 simply wasn’t offered back when we were in college. Neither was Advanced Topics in Education while Quarantined.
We’re all just taking the best, most educated guesses we can as we deal with the present and plan for the future. And, when we can, we’re seeking guidance and inspiration from other’s successes.
Marietta City Schools is one example of a school system worth looking to. A public charter school district about 25 miles north of Atlanta, it has nearly 9,000 students and 1,200 employees spread across 11 schools and one early learning center. When school closures started making headlines, district leaders weren’t quite sure what to do.
“We went back and forth for a while asking ourselves, are we closing? Are we not closing?” says Belinda Walters-Brazile, the district’s deputy superintendent. “In the Office of Academics, we started talking about it pretty early, as soon as we started seeing things unfold in Seattle.” The last day of in-person classes ended up being March 13.
That’s when Belinda and her colleagues flipped the switch to teaching amid a pandemic. Here are some lessons they’ve learned that are continuing to guide their efforts during school closures.
Lesson #1: Listen early and listen often
When Marietta City Schools closed in March, one of the first things they did was send a survey to all families in the district so they could address what is, arguably, the most critical factor in distance learning: reliable access to technology.
“All parents were directly emailed from our student information system,” explains Jennifer Hernandez, executive director of academic achievement. “For those that did not respond to the survey, schools were then tasked with reaching out to ensure we had as close to 100% participation as possible.”
The district was lucky it had already started rolling out a learning management system (LMS), Schoology. The survey revealed that students were trying to access it using devices that were just too slow or otherwise ill-suited to learning, however. So families were asked what they needed to allow for online learning at home. Follow-up surveys ensured kids knew how to use Schoology and other online platforms effectively. Leaders also asked for feedback on what was going well during the transition to distance learning and what could be done differently.
“I thought we would have a lot more negativity in those surveys,” Belinda admits. But the opposite was true. Families made it clear they felt well supported and like they were part of the school community during these trying times.
Lesson #2: Get technology in the right hands—including teachers’
When survey responses made it clear which students needed support with technology, district leadership went straight to work getting about 3,400 Chromebooks and 700 hotspots to them. They set up 12 buses with hotspots as well. They are parked throughout the district, allowing students to simply sit nearby in their car and work online if they don’t have reliable internet access at home.
“Our technology department worked on that effort,” Jennifer says. “They pulled existing Chromebooks out of several of the schools that were located around our central office.” Funds garnered through a social media campaign called Connect-a-Kid raised enough money to purchase hundreds of additional hotspots.
Speeding up the rollout of Schoology—and ensuring teachers had the professional learning they needed to succeed—was a vital part of technology efforts, too. Jennifer’s team worked with Rob Pinto, instructional technology coordinator for the district, and many in his department to make that happen. They quickly curated training videos, and Rob designed a professional learning course all teachers were required to take soon after the pandemic escalated. The teams also provided course shells, samples of what effective classrooms could look like, and as much direct support as needed.
“We’re very lucky because we’re a small district,” Belinda acknowledges. “That let us customize and offer individual support. It would be much harder to get that done in a large district.”
As teachers have gotten more comfortable with the LMS, Rob has been leading efforts to continue to roll out professional development. These subsequent offerings have focused on how to take Schoology to the next level, moving beyond basic discussion boards or grading to things like embedding videos and having live sessions, as well as digging into best practices for distance learning and exploring how to reach more vulnerable populations, like students with disabilities or English language learners.
Lesson #3: Engage with calls and new pedagogical approaches
Here’s a statistic rare in distance education: more than 96% of Marietta City Schools students are actively engaged in remote learning.
When asked how the district was able to achieve—and maintain—such an enviable engagement rate, Michael Huneke, director of assessment, pointed to the marriage of data and a human connection. He’s able to pull data from Schoology that shows which students are signing on, when, and for how long. A spreadsheet goes to every school in the district once a week, and educators know what to do about any kids who aren’t as active as they should be: call them.
“As soon as students become disengaged, then the principals have said, ‘You reach out,’” Belinda says. “So if a teacher hasn’t heard from a student for several days, or if Schoology shows they’ve been absent, then they’re going to get a phone call.” At some schools, counselors are supporting teachers by making those calls themselves. At others, the calls are made by a teacher or building administrator.
Teachers haven’t shied away from infusing their practice with some unconventional tactics, either. “We’re seeing our teachers do some really creative things,” says Rob. “I’ve seen schools posting their daily news show online now. Teachers are making use of live sessions and office hours, too.” One principal has even been reading bedtime stories to her students on Zoom.
“Things like that make students want to sign on,” Rob adds. “They give them that sense that they’ve still got school going, even if it’s a little different now.”
Lesson #4: Never stop learning
“We’re not experts by any means,” Belinda say about the district’s response to school closures. But nobody is. And it’s that humility that keeps Marietta City Schools leaders thinking about how they can improve their efforts during this time. Now that they’re somewhat settled into a new normal and have slivers of time for reflection, they’re asking themselves questions like, how do we get better? How do we support and develop our teachers? How do we keep students engaged, especially younger kids less well suited to online learning?
Leadership is particularly concerned with meeting the needs of students already more likely to fall through the cracks, like those with disabilities and English language learners. And how can they reach students who just aren’t responding to calls and emails?
“We have this percentage of kids who, for lack of a better term, have ghosted us,” Belinda explains. “They have maybe gone to live somewhere else, like with grandparents, so parents can work. Whatever the reason, there are some kids we just can’t find. It’s a small percentage, but we really worry about that group. That’s a group that could, and probably does, already potentially have a gap and we’ve just made that gap even larger.”
They’re also working to improve consistency in communication and even instruction across the schools in the district. “I think consistency is key especially for families that have students at multiple schools,” Jennifer says. “It important to make sure the way Schoology courses are set up is very similar so kids and parents aren’t hunting for information.”
Lesson #5: Give thanks
Marietta City Schools leadership hasn’t let the past few months go by without acknowledging the educators on the frontline every day. And while saying thank you can seem like a small thing, it can feel like a huge gesture during such stressful times.
Leadership wanted teachers to know exactly how much they were valued, by them but also by students and the community at large. So on Teacher Appreciation Week, a group of volunteers, including school board members, put thank you signs in the yard of every instructional staff member in the district, from classroom teachers to principals. There were 900 in all.
“It didn’t matter where they lived,” Belinda says. “People drove near and far. And every single person had a yard sign appreciating them for all the work that they do in our school system. Soon after, my Facebook feed, my Instagram, and my Twitter were all completely filled with smiling faces of our staff members that felt appreciated and felt the connection.”
That appreciation and connection bolstered teachers weighed down by uncertainty and the responsibility of looking out for their students as well as their own families. It also encouraged many to sign on to teach during this year’s summer program, because there’s no doubt that their dedication and sacrifices are valued. Participation is voluntary, but all teachers who sign on will receive an additional thank you: supplemental pay.
While meeting the needs of teachers, students, and families in the present, leaders have also begun to plan for the future. And the future starts with summer school.
“We found ourselves talking about every kid having a learning loss,” Belinda says. “Summer school isn’t just for kids who were behind before closures. This is a learning opportunity for every single child.”
The goal of the summer learning program is to allow students to keep working with their teachers and mitigate learning loss as much as possible. Though no one is required to attend, nearly a third of the student body has already signed up.
All the schools in the district have also started to talk about how to approach the new school year when classes resume August 4. Each has been tasked with developing a plan that will work for their specific students, and testing with MAP® Growth™ early in the year will be at the top of everyone’s to-do list.
“One of the first things we want to do right away is test our students,” Michael says. “The information we will get from that is going to really show us where students are and what we need to do next with them.” If school starts as scheduled, Michael hopes assessment will be done by the end of August.
Until then, the entire team at Marietta City Schools remains optimistic—and determined to take things one day at a time.