Remote learning in NY

Steven Sabo, a teacher at North Tonawanda Intermediate School in western New York, uses several methods to achieve a feeling of "normalcy" in his digital classroom, as seen here. He uses the app Zoom to hold conference calls with his students and hooks an iPad up to his laptop so they are able to watch him demonstrating how to work out math problems.

Vice President Mike Pence on Monday singled out New Hampshire as a state that was “setting the pace” in efforts to transition students to remote learning. And he said that U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos had pointed to both New Hampshire and Florida as states that were leading the way in the change.

N.H. School Administrative Unit 29 Superintendent Robert Malay said he agrees with Pence’s assessment and said he has been working with colleagues in other parts of the country, or even overseas, to answer their questions about remote learning.

“There’s not doubt in my mind that the people of New Hampshire hold themselves to high expectations,” Malay said. “The Vice President made that statement, and it felt really good to be recognized for the work that we are doing.”

Representatives from SAU 29, Monadnock Regional School District and the Jaffrey-Rindge Cooperative School District all say they had already been been utilizing many of the programs and technology that are now being depended on to make remote learning possible. Many have been using Google software and Chromebooks in their classrooms for years, and teachers and students were both able to pick up and continue using those assets once schools shut down.

Jeremy Rathbun, director of curriculum, direction and assessment at the Monadnock Regional School District, said that’s one of the reasons his district has been able to make such a swift adjustment. He said the district began providing Chromebooks for each of its students in grades 6 through 12 several years ago, which he said has eased the transition from classroom to digital learning.

“We’ve really had to think about the fact that we’re in the 21st century, and we want our students to be prepared for what they’re going to experience in life and the workforce outside of [school],” he said. “Our district really jumped into it years back … and that is what has made the big difference for us to be able to transition so fast into this.”

Brett Blanchard, principal of Jaffrey-Rindge Middle School and Conant High School, said that the Jaffrey-Rindge district had been preparing before the school closures were announced, but said it was the hard work and cooperation of the school community that allowed the adjustment to go as smoothly as it has so far.

“I could not be more impressed with how my staff handled the situation and how my learners and their parents and the community have reacted,” Blanchard said. “... When the Vice President [made] those comments, it was interesting to hear. I can affirm that we were not taken unaware, no matter what, though, it’s not going to be easy.”

Out-of-state snapshot

Schools in other parts of the country, including in states that have been more heavily affected by COVID-19, are taking steps similar to those in New Hampshire to make sure their students are able to continue learning. They’re utilizing video chats, emails, prerecorded instructional videos and other digital platforms to communicate lesson plans to students and engage them as they do their work.

Andrew Wyant, a middle-school special education English teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District, says his digital classroom follows a routine. It starts with a morning announcement in which he lists the activities and assignments students are responsible for each day, then he provides step-by-step instructions detailing how to complete them. He narrates the instructions for students who may struggle to comprehend written text.

During the week, Wyant’s students are given an article to read and then they complete discussion activities related to the article. He also hosts a weekly conference call so students can communicate with him and their classmates in real time.

“Every Wednesday we have FaceTime sessions for each class,” he explained, “where students come onto a video conference call as a class to meet, ask questions, explain assignments, check in and just see each other and talk [and] hang out.”

Much like SAU 29, Wyant said his district started the process by issuing a mass survey to get an idea of how many students had access to computers and WiFi in their homes and then worked to provide those students with the equipment they needed to ensure they’d be able to continue their studies while schools were closed.

Steven Sabo, a teacher at North Tonawanda Intermediate School in western New York who also serves as a school board president in a neighboring district, said New York teachers are using a number of different methods to conduct their remote lessons.

From 11 to noon each day, Sabo is in a digital classroom with his students, around half of whom attend on any given day, to go over math problems via video chat. He says they use the program Zoom, which allows students to watch Sabo work on an iPad that can be mirrored onto his computer so they’re able to follow what he does.

Sabo says using newer technology to assist in his lessons is something he’s very familiar with, but that’s not the case for every teacher, and districts haven’t offered much uniformity in terms of what programs are being used and what technology is available. Some of his colleagues’ lessons are a bit less hi-tech, he said.

“It’s different from teacher to teacher and district to district,” he said. “We make use of whatever we can.”

He also said access to technology varies from student to student. Older students are each assigned an iPad to take to and from school with them, but not all students have access to the Internet at home. He mentioned that one student can get online at home only on his mother’s personal smartphone. Other students’ parents still use flip phones, he added.

Mia Summerson can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or Follow her on Twitter @MiaSummerson