I had a chance to chat virtually with Michael Fawcett, who teaches 5th grade geography and mathematics in a rural Virginia school district. His district chose to go 100% virtual rather than risk the possibility of exposing students to Covid-19. Here is what he had to say about the first few weeks of school.
So, Michael, what are challenges for a rural district at this moment that suburban or urban districts may not have?
One of the biggest challenges we’ve been facing as a rural district during this time of virtual learning is simply ensuring that all students have internet and computer access. Affordable rural internet is an issue that’s currently being discussed in the Virginia legislature.
This also brings up the issue of equitable grading practices. If a student does not have access to the same information as their classmates, how can they possibly be graded in the same manner?
How have rural school districts worked to overcome these challenges?
Many rural districts have issued WiFi hotspots to families that give them internet access. This works well, provided that cell service is available in their areas. The districts are also issuing Chromebooks for families to use during this time.
In many cases one family may have students studying at each level of the district – elementary, middle and high – and because of this, many districts are offering a staggered schedule so that families do not need to worry about more than one student needing to be online at a time.
Due to this staggered schedule, instruction time is shortened; however, in good teaching practices where students are actually in the classroom, direct instruction usually lasts at most 20 minutes before the students should be working on their own or in small groups. And so direct instruction actually remains about the same, with small group instruction and independent work occurring throughout the afternoon.
Districts are still working hard to find solutions for those students who still are unable to access the internet at home. Thumb drives with recorded lessons and printable assignments are provided to those students who at least have computer access, while printed copies and instructions are provided to those who have neither computer nor internet access. In these cases teachers often provide direct instruction over the phone. While this system is not perfect, it at least helps the student keep from falling too far behind until a better solution is found.
How are you making connections with students?
In my district each student is assigned a homeroom in Google Classroom, and a homeroom morning meeting is held every morning; this gives students and teachers a chance to check in with each other, make sure everything’s going OK, and troubleshoot any problems that might be occurring. This homeroom is a vital time for building relationships between students and their teachers, which is so important towards building student investment in their lessons.
Teachers are also working to streamline their instruction to make it as easily accessible as possible. By using platforms such as Google Classroom, Screencastify, and Google Meet, teachers can provide direct instruction to their students and then provide recordings of their lessons with resources and assignments in a timeline style format via the Google Classroom stream. Should a student miss a day of online instruction, he or she still has a summary and all of the resources to help him or her with easy access.
By putting all of these practices into play it’s our hope that we can make the student experience as equitable and enjoyable as possible.