Virus offers learning opportunities

Wendy Bowman, Fort Loudoun Middle School sixth-grade math teacher, works one-on-one with a virtual student.

Although coronavirus sent educators and students into a tailspin in March, some positive impacts of the pandemic include new learning resources for students.

Loudon County Schools prior to March were already one-to-one with online learning, meaning some students met with teachers individually for virtual instruction. In those cases, many popular virtual learning tools had already been in place, Jennifer Malone, county schools supervisor of technology and middle schools, said.

But there have been new developments since virtual learning became more widely used, Malone said.

“The 20% (of students) that started out virtual, which is now down to about 15%, we did purchase an online curriculum for them that was from Florida Virtual School that was aligned to Tennessee standards,” she said. “Our teachers, however, monitor that work. Either through Zoom or Microsoft Teams, they are on with those kids every day for at least 30 minutes. If they’re pre-K to 2, we hired a couple virtual teachers who are doing foundational skills with the K to 1 kids that are virtual. That’s something different this year. We did add iPads for our littles, our K to 2s, and sort of a learning management platform for them called Seesaw. We had not been using that.”

The Career and Technical Education department added a program that allows students to access curriculum content and “industrial credentialing-type quizzes,” Malone said.

Another addition to the growing pool of learning resources is Ready4K, a text messaging service for parents of students in kindergarten through third grade.

The service sends parents a text three times a week with advice on how to help teach children with reading and other ways to make learning at home easier, Jeanne Barker, Lenoir City director of schools, said.

The Tennessee Department of Education helped put out new resources as well by posting educational videos students can watch at home to supplement learning.

“We have seen an influx of opportunities for purchasing new technology and internet access,” Barker said. “That has come from initial dollars from the state and federal government. That has been a blessing. We’re just now seeing some additional monies come through that will help support summer programs and after-school programs and tutoring programs. That’s the next bunch of money that is coming down the pike from stimulus is to provide instructional time for students that lost time last spring. We moved from our initial supports that we were getting that were all on devices and technology and internet solutions, to now we’re looking at how can we provide additional instructional time for students through adding resources of people.”

Lenoir City has facilitated learning by beefing up wireless internet access. Students and families can now go online from the parking lot of every city school building in an effort to provide fair and safe opportunities to complete virtual assignments, Barker said.

The system is planning to implement a new age of tutoring and receiving additional instruction, Millicent Smith, city schools supervisor of curriculum and instruction, said.

“Our focus is on student success and acceleration,” Smith said. “… We don’t like the term learning loss because we really feel strongly, and our data tells us, that where students are struggling is where they just didn’t have access to particular instruction. Whether it was back in the spring when we were on pause or even going into this year if they’ve been quarantined or had to be at home for periods of time, there were interruptions in their direct instruction. It wasn’t so much that they lost anything, as much as it is they just haven’t had the opportunity to acquire whatever the knowledge and skill is to help them move forward.”

Smith said she recognizes the challenges students face with after-school availability.

“What we’re trying to do is think about how to use our resources to make sure that we can get students the help they need just in time,” Smith said. “Trying really hard to think about how we can use time during the school day. It’s hard for kids. They work. They have extracurricular activities. They’re helping out at home. It’s so hard for kids to do things after school. That just is an additional burden rather than a support.

“… If it’s a little tutoring or a reteaching or just additional practice to make sure they’re caught up, and then they just keep right on going with their instruction,” she added. “… We’re going to try to use our resources to help us figure out a plan to make that happen during the day as much as possible for kids.”

A “small pilot” program has already begun at Lenoir City High School to iron out details. A new round of grants is on the way and will be used to purchase resources needed to take the program across the district, Smith said.

“We also have our high quality instructional materials, and they provide a lot of resources for us to scaffold students during class, during tier-one instruction,” she said. “If they need additional support, the materials we use already have those supports built in, so it really provides tools for teachers to help students during class time so that they can keep moving forward.”