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Schools adjust to virtual learning in wake of closures

  • Sam Boillot, an eighth-grader from Williamsburg, takes part in one of The Academy at Charlemont’s online classes. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Eighth-grader Gus Grinley of Williamsburg participates in an online class through The Academy at Charlemont. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 4/3/2020 4:53:40 PM
Modified: 4/3/2020 4:53:25 PM

In the wake of mandated closures brought on by the spread of COVID-19, schools across Massachusetts are finding alternative ways to continue their students’ education.

In some schools, teachers are communicating with their classes via email — sending assignments and useful links to their students at home. Alternatively, they are providing students with pre-recorded lessons they can access through sites such as YouTube.

Other teachers, however, like those at The Academy at Charlemont, are trying something a little more out of their wheelhouse as they return from spring break. They’re going virtual.

“We value what we offer as a school and think that our faculty and content provides students with a meaningful and significant education,” said Associate Head of School John Schatz. “Simply providing a page of links … without interaction with humans just wasn’t sufficient and what we’re shooting to do as a school.”

Teachers at The Academy at Charlemont began conducting lessons in real-time using Zoom, a platform for video and audio conference calling, and convening one-hour classes a few times a week.

The academy opened its “virtual doors” to Franklin, Hampshire and Windham county schools, he said. The school has had 20 new students sign up to join its classes. So far, most students have come from Hampshire County.

“(Local students) are worried about not staying ahead in math or biology and want that in-person connection with a teacher, rather than just following a link,” he said, adding that some schools are still working out how to support their students. “It’s part of our mission to be part of the local communities and not be a picket fence school that isn’t connected to where it exists.”

Schatz said classes at The Academy at Charlemont offer a degree of continuity from what students were learning prior to spring break and the state’s decision to close schools.

“We were lucky enough to have had spring break to talk about how to do this,” he said. “Our faculty are definitely working hard to make it happen.”

Still, the adjustment has been harder on some than others.

“It’s tough for some of our teachers, who have kids at home,” he said. “But so far we’re navigating it pretty well.”

Where virtual is the norm

For schools like Greenfield Commonwealth Virtual School, teaching in virtual classrooms is the norm. The school, which has 750 students enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade, is an online-only public school that serves students across the state.

Teachers there, like Hadley resident Jack Czajkowski, know what educators today are dealing with as they transition into alternative methods of teaching. Czajkowski, who has been at the school for two years, taught for 23 years at various brick-and-mortar schools, including in Montague.

“It was a pretty steep learning curve at first,” Czajkowski said. “I was used to the teaching, and I’m pretty familiar with working with middle school kids … but just managing the kids and learning the technology was the biggest change.”

He recognizes he had an entire summer to get ready for becoming a virtual teacher.

“I had some time to breathe, to experiment. … For a lot of teachers, they have to learn on the spot,” he said.

Czajkowski said a major challenge in virtual teaching is making sure students are engaged.

“How do you make sure that in a classroom of 30 students, all the students are engaged and learning … that they’re not on their phones or on Netflix?” he said.

Addressing the issue of engagement really depends on the age of the students, he said. It may require modifying lesson plans, for example. Using the platform Blackboard, he is able to have break-out sessions with students while the rest of the class works in small groups.

Technology can also pose a challenge, he said. Not all students are going to have access to reliable Wi-Fi, for instance.

Although Schatz said the school’s first day of classes went relatively smoothly, they have taken into consideration the reality that some students are going to struggle with Wi-Fi connectivity issues.

“We’re making sure we are providing alternatives for them … recording (lessons) or providing text,” he said.

He said the school’s goal this semester was to maintain some semblance of normalcy for the students.

“It’s as if our school year never stopped,” he said.

Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 263.




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