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What students can expect as they ‘go virtual’ this fall

Parent and child doing e-learning
For some families, e-learning will be new territory for students and parents.
(Source: Adobe Stock)

Last spring, education as we know it in West St. Louis County came to a screeching halt. While students in the Parkway and Rockwood school districts were enjoying spring break, they learned they would not be going back to the classroom due to the spread of COVID-19.

Administrators and teachers scrambled to continue education practices via e-learning. Parents and educators alike agree that the result was less than ideal. As students prepare to go back to school, with virtual learning being at least part of the students’ academic structure, many parents are struggling to feel confident about the upcoming academic year.

“Community members experienced e-learning in the spring of 2020,” said Dr. Courtney Yeager, Parkway School District’s middle school coordinator of English, language arts, social studies and reading intervention. “I think we need to give grace and thanks to all of the amazing educators throughout the region and country who literally built the plane while flying it last spring.”

Dr. Shelley Willott, assistant superintendent of learning and support systems for the Rockwood School District also noted that the district chose its name carefully last spring.

“We did not use ‘virtual,’ ‘online’ or ‘remote’ last spring because it wasn’t any of those things,” Willott explained.

Both districts recently rolled out their plans for the fall, with Parkway going back virtually for the first nine weeks (first quarter), and Rockwood offering 100% virtual or a hybrid model that combines two days of in-person instruction with three days of virtual learning. Recent communications have assured parents and students that virtual learning will not look like what it did last spring. 

“Throughout the summer, Parkway educators have been working tirelessly to create a new school – the Parkway Virtual Campus,” Yeager explained. “This work has included moving all of our resources and curriculum online, providing teachers with training on digital tools and platforms, learning about best practices for asynchronous (not all at once) and synchronous (all at once) experiences, and creating a schedule that guarantees students have regular contact time and interactions with teachers.”

Rockwood teachers have spent their summer the same way, being asked to start developing curriculum in May. 

Rockwood Online

“We had about 250 teachers writing online content,” Willott said. Rockwood has been looking at virtual learning for a few years, working with an organization called Quality Matters, an organization that helps schools develop online learning.

During the Rockwood Alternative Learning Plan this past spring, links were sent out on Monday, followed by not much teacher contact the rest of the week. Willott assures this will not be the case with Rockwood Online. 

Elementary students will have Zoom meetings in all four core areas, as well as small group meetings and individual sessions. 

“They will have regular contact with teachers and much more structure,” Willott explained. 

Content will be easy for young students to navigate, including buttons that will allow instructions to be read to students, which will help early readers. Elementary students will have two scheduled check-ins per day with teachers. Willott expects for students to be engaged in learning for four hours per day. 

Secondary students will also have regular interaction with teachers, as well as recorded video lessons. Students who do not appear to be engaged in learning will receive calls and emails from their teachers. Middle and high school students are expected to be putting in four to five hours of instruction daily. Sample schedules for all grade levels can be found on Rockwood’s website. 

Rockwood will be using Canvas Learning Management to provide one place for a calendar and due dates, communication, course information, class expectations and links to lessons.  Willott pointed to Canvas Inbox, a protected email feature that will provide secure communication between families and teachers. 

“We hope that this will allow students to take control of their learning,” she said. 

Willott added both virtual and online classes will be paced the same way to seamlessly move in and out of in-person and virtual learning if necessary. 

“Courses are designed to change with little disruption,” Willott said. “When parents see the work that has been done, the structure that has been put in place, they will see a marked difference (from the e-learning of this past spring). 

Parkway Virtual Campus

According to Yeager, all Parkway students will begin the year with a teacher from his or her own school. In the middle schools, students will have a short class with every teacher on Mondays. 

“Teachers will set the stage for the week of learning in engaging ways,” Yeager said. Mondays will also serve as a ‘team meeting’ day with opportunities for community building, celebrating and goal setting. The rest of the week students will follow a block schedule with two classes in the morning and two in the afternoon each day. 

Middle and high school students will have four hours of synchronous learning, with a break for lunch. Elementary students will have a 30-minute check-in meeting, followed by a larger learning block in the morning and afternoon with a one-hour break for lunch. Sample schedules can be found on Parkway’s website.

Yeager is confident in the work that has been done to provide local students with a quality, virtual learning experience that is not reminiscent of last spring’s emergency plans. 

“We have worked hard to think outside the box about how each teacher can stay connected with students and engage with curriculum,” said Yeager.  

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