EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third in a series examining how local school districts are handling instruction in the era of COVID-19. The fourth story will appear in next week’s edition.
With a population of 235 students, the Joppa-Maple Grove Unit School District was able to take an almost normal approach to the 2020-21 school year while offering both in-person and remote learning.
“We had a great first month of school,” principal Dr. Jeff DuFour told the school board during its Sept 21 meeting. “I can’t thank the teachers, students and community enough. It’s been different; there’s been times where it’s been challenging. But it’s just been good to have the students back in the classroom, seeing the teachers collaborate. Getting that routine has been great for the students.”
That routine meant coming to school the first two weeks of the year, which began Aug. 17. During that time, superintendent Dr. Vickie Artman explained, fourth- through 12th-graders learned about their new Chromebooks — “how to take are of it, use it and not be scared of it was very beneficial for our students. I’ve seen a degree of excitement with the Chromebooks. Students have told me it’s great and they’re happy to have it. We haven’t had any problems with the Chromebooks we purchased; students are taking care of them.”
It’s through the Chromebooks students are submitting what was normally pencil and paperwork; how high schoolers are doing lab work; where some books are located; and how remote learners are taking classes and staying in touch with teachers.
“There are a lot of things available online that have opened up a lot of opportunities for our students,” Artman said. “Teachers have put in a lot of time as far as finding resources available online.”
After those initial two weeks, J-MG began its hybrid instruction. In-person learning is 8 a.m. until 2 p.m. daily with 2-3 p.m. open daily for teachers to work with remote learners “who may be having issues, allowing teachers to do one-on-one instruction; checking in on students during that time; speaking to parents about students. We’ve had a few students come in for services during that last hour and for one-on-one face time with the teacher for instruction. That has worked very well for us,” Artman said.
That scheduling changed last week following a meeting with teachers gaining input on what do they need, what do the students need, what is the weakness, what are the strengths and where are the challenges in utilizing the technology.
“Initially getting students back to school so they can continue learning was our No. 1 goal while making sure it was a safe enthronement. Making sure the mental and emotional toll this is taking on our students and teachers was addressed. So by having this meeting with everybody being open, we decided let’s switch.
“We decided to switch to four full days in-person and one remote because the teachers needed more time for the remote learning,” Artman said. “It’s a learning time for us and the students.”
Last Wednesday, Sept. 23, Artman and DuFour walked through every J-MG classroom to observe that first day of remote learning.
“Students were having lessons with the teachers. It was phenomenal. We’re very pleased with that,” Artman said. “We did find a few things we need to tweak” — from connectivity problems to finding the work in Google Classroom to students responding to teachers.
For Artman, keeping the lines of communication between administration, teachers, parents and community is a key to making education work for students, especially now.
“When we came up with our return-to-school plan, we had meetings with the teachers, meetings with the board, with the community. We gave a survey and asked the community. We had 82% who wanted students to return. So we knew we needed to try and get our students back to school every day.”
Another community survey is being planned for the coming weeks.
“We want to make sure the community knows they have a voice; we want them to know we’re willing to listen and work together,” Artman said. “We do not have all the answers right now. We’re being very flexible, but we’re trying to meet everyone’s needs. That continued collaboration with everyone is very important. We want to be honest and transparent with everyone in the community.”
One of those communication forms is the district’s new website — www.jmg38.com.
“Keeping our parents informed is so important to us,” Artman said. “This year we redid our website and are constantly putting things on it and Facebook. I’m very proud of our teachers taking pictures and putting things out there.”
Teachers also have their own websites now to better communicate with parents.
“We didn’t just say to keep up with your page, we sat them down and walked them through it. They were so excited. Technology can be intimidating and is a big responsibility because students are having trouble. As the leader of the classroom, you want to be able to confidently explain and show your students how to do it and move on to the learning part. They’ve all taken on that challenge. To see the excitement in the eyes of my teachers — I’m so fortunate to have great teachers here.”
Teachers also keep in touch with each other. “We use email quite a bit and our teachers communicate with each other. They learn from each other. They ask if anyone’s had problems and get answers on how to handle it. That’s been great,” Artman said.
And the staff keeps in touch with the students. Artman said officials are out daily to welcome students and check on them.
“I want students to see a friendly face, to know that we care. Somebody’s coming up and not having a good day, we can address it right then,” she said. “We want them to come to school, that it’s a happy place where people care about you. That social, emotional learning now is so important to make sure everyone’s fine. Students are very at ease asking questions. (Being smaller) it’s a lot more one-on-one and there’s a comfortableness our students have with our teachers.
“At our elementary school, our cook put a positive note on every student’s lunch bag that went out on Wednesday. What an amazing impact that has on our students,” she continued. “We’ve placed some new signs throughout the school this year trying to display some positivity to our students, letting them know how much we appreciate them.”
Adapting the space
To make the social distancing allowances for in-person learners, Artman said many teachers had to make classroom changes.
“Some of our teachers had beautiful reading corners, areas for creativity. We had to move anything extra out of the rooms so our students are placed as far apart as possible. We’ve been very fortunate in that area because our sizes are so small that we’ve been able to do that,” Artman said. “Dr. DuFour went through the high school and walked off each classroom to make sure it was 6 feet. If it wasn’t, we looked for what we could take out or rearrange for more room.”
Because they’re in attendance all day, lunch is served a little differently than last year. With less than 50 students in the junior high, they are in the cafeteria with one student per table. High school students lunch either in the cafeteria or a classroom. Elementary students are divided between the cafeteria and library. All students receive breakfast in their classrooms.
“We are having more students eat breakfast now than we’ve ever had because we’re bringing it right to them. Expansion of the free school meals program is a wonderful opportunity for out students. At lunch, everybody goes through so there’s no pressure or stereotype; everybody’s getting the same thing. It’s less stressful for the students,” Artman said.
The J-MG return-to-school plan had a lot of input — from Artman to DuFour to teacher to the community to the board — before the school board approved it at its August meeting.
“It was a continuous document until it was approved,” Artman said. “There were things you didn’t think about until it was mentioned, so it continued to evolve.
“Chromebook etiquette is something we hadn’t thought about at the beginning. We still have our handbook and students have to abide by the rules. Now we have Chromebook etiquette — when you’re in Zoom or GoogleClassroom: the need to be dressed appropriately, be in a quiet place where not distracted, this is how you raise your hand or chat with a teacher or ask a question. There’s a lot of preparation in advance so everything runs smoothly.”
But looking back on those last few months of the 2019-20 school year interrupted by COVID gave some enlightenment.
“When we were thrown into it on March 17, we were thinking of things as they happened,” Artman said. “That’s definitely prepared us for now. We’re thinking further in advance what we need to do. At the beginning of the year, we didn’t know how long we’d be in person, so we were constantly thinking about ordering supplies; teachers preparing lessons and making sure students are comfortable if we have to go full-remote. We purchased cameras with microphones to put on all the computers so now the teacher can turn the camera and teach the class so students who are doing synchronized learning at home still watch the teacher and it’s not a big distraction.
“It’s amazing we’ve gotten this far,” Artman said, reflecting on the school year. “We have awesome teachers and the things they and the staff are doing — I didn’t have anyone say they couldn’t do this.”