From Classroom to Zoom: UD, Private and Charter Schools Embark on Unprecedented Experiment

6th graders Zoom for a math class with teacher Kathleen Maloney

For UD students and those fortunate enough to attend a school able to offer online learning during the statewide quarantine, this week is the beginning of a ‘new normal’ in learning.

Some local private and charter schools are still in the planning stages to transition to online classes and are conducting test runs, while others are going live for the first time this week. The new approach amounts to a massive educational experiment that is already leading to learnings around best practices and important new relationships on the other side of the country.

Brooks gets a little distance learning homework help from his cat Garfield

The Independence School (preschool through 8th grade) actually launched a three-day pilot distance learning program for all grade levels on March 18 to “test drive” the new approach. 

Assignments were made available on Google Classroom and the school’s existing online learning classroom group spaces.

Teachers used a variety of online instructional tools and a mix of video instruction, real-time Zoom meetings and other programs for educators and students. Parents and students were provided specific instructions to be prepared in advance of the rollout. 

 

“We received really positive responses from our families,” said school spokesperson Claire Brechter.

Brechter said feedback from the initial three-day trial helped inform the school’s approach to the distance learning they are continuing now that the school is back from its planned spring break.

“Fortunately, we are well-prepared for our middle school students since they have already been using online learning in many ways. The exciting new twist is for our lower school students now being exposed to some great distance learning experiences,” said Brechter.

This Tatnall student in the Early Childhood division is A-okay with distance learning in Week 1

At Tatnall School, students are benefitting from the school’s 1:1 program with iPads in the youngest grades to Chromebooks through Lower School and Middle School. And Upper School students continue to work with their teachers through their learning management system.

The familiarity with the technology such as Seesaw and Google Classroom and their internal MyTatnall system has made the switch to online classes easy for our students. 

Special programming on Wednesdays will connect students outside the classroom with their extracurricular activities, advisors, and athletic teams.

Tatnall Physics Teacher and Science Dept. Chair Jim Brice teaching a class from home

The learning services department is in daily contact with students and their families as they continue their support by holding 1-1 and small group sessions. Students have also continued access to health and wellness faculty and staff while the campus is closed.

“Even with distance learning, Tatnall does all things in love as we continue to educate the whole child during this time, fulfilling our mission and reinforcing connectivity through a variety of innovative ways,” says Tatnall spokesperson Page McConnell.

This Charter School of Wilmington freshman sets up her online learning space inside her kitchen

Charter School of Wilmington – an early adopter of online learning

The Charter School of Wilmington (CSW) made the shift to online learning two weeks ago and has implemented four periods of morning classes that alternate day by day.

“When we started we were using Schoology, but it got too jammed up with traffic,” said Charter School President Jim Capolupo. So his teachers have moved on to a variety of other distance learning platforms, and Capolupo says those seem to be going well.

Some CSW students report there are a few technical glitches with some of the online learning software – for example that not all students can see the messages on Google Meet. And if pupils “refresh” the page, they can get locked out. But because instructors are trying different platforms, some have migrated over to online learning sites that have a more seamless interaction with students.

CSW teachers are also assigning group projects as a way to help connect their students. “This allows our scholars to work together and come back and then report their findings. We are trying to be adaptive,” said Capolupo.

 

Ursuline Academy students are now in their second week of home-based learning for students age 3 – 12th grade. Students are utilizing Zoom, Google Classroom, DreamBox, and YouTube to learn virtually. Teachers are using the opportunity to push their innovation and leverage technology to create fun lessons (see this video by a middle school science teacher). 
 
“The school community quickly banded together to ensure our students have the best possible experience learning from home,” says communications manager Brittany Keller.  “The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive from students, parents, and faculty. The strength of our community is truly shining through in the way we all have collaborated to continue providing our students with the highest quality education.”
 
“Our teachers are truly top-notch, and this experience has only made this more apparent.”
 
Keller says that athletic teams are also using Zoom daily to continue strength and conditioning workouts.

Schools like Wilmington Friends have already integrated aspects of their classes online, so the transitions were smooth.

“Since we have a one-to-one laptop program, our IT department could install Zoom on all of our devices,” said director of communications Susan Finizio. “We also already use our website for assignments, grading, and sharing material, so we are well poised to transition to remote learning.”

“Parents have already shared photos of activities and workstations at home.”

Students at Wilmington Friends School started their online learning last week

The differences between learning at home and at school are striking for students, but their teachers and community wish to hold together despite the distances between them.

Tower Hill students will begin a remote learning orientation and adjusted schedule tomorrow. 

Teachers there were given one more day today to workout their curricula and to take a deep dive with an online learning specialist who addressed the entire faculty – remotely. They took part in a session called, Insights into Remote Learning given by Brad Rathgeber, the head of school at CEO of One Schoolhouse, an online school. 

 

Director of Advancement and Enrollment Kristin Mumford said Tower Hill spent the last few weeks studying the online academic landscape to try to avoid any potential hiccups with their remote learning program.

“We’re looking at schools that are two to three weeks ahead of us in this venture. We’ve picked up best practices about things like content, rigor, extra work, and downtime, and we’re learning from other schools’ stumbles,” she said. She also noted that Head of School Bessie Speers has many connections with heads at other schools and has been able to tap into those resources for guidance.

Each student will have synchronous learning time (with other students and their teachers) and asynchronous learning, where they will work on projects with other students and visit teachers’ “classrooms” for extra help. They will also still have advisory and morning meetings “so that we are all together as a community,” said Mumford.

Class periods at Tower Hill will be slightly less, going from one hour to 50 minutes. And there will be designated office hours for each teacher at the end of the day from about 3 to 5 pm. 

Mumford added that the entire school adopted the Zoom platform for instruction. “We wanted to make the learning platform universal so everyone was speaking the same language. This way students have continuity from class to class. Zoom was also ideal because you don’t have to download any software to use it.” 

 

Academics aren’t the only part of school life altered by the closings.

While not at school, students are unable to hang out with their friends or participate in statewide athletics. Seniors will likely not attend prom or graduation if the virus does not recede.

Some students have developed anxiety over the closing of school, but digital communications tools might alleviate these worries. Some schools like Sanford plan to implement online counseling and fun activities using the Zoom program. 

Sanford School’s online learning approach is framed around three specific goals:

• allow for a meaningful learning experience
• keep students connected with teachers and with each other and
• support students through a difficult time by demonstrating understanding and flexibility

“This pandemic has contributed to such a sense of unease and uncertainty that we want to create ways to still find joy and connection in our community,” said Abbi Smith, upper school head at Sanford. 

 

Like Tower Hill, other local schools have used this as an opportunity to reach out to experts across the education industry, building professional networks in the process of developing innovative distance learning plans.  

Many institutions have IT departments leading the charge, with some, like Wilmington Friends, leveraging membership in the Malone School Online Consortium (MSOC), which offers synchronous learning programs.

Teachers have many choices of lesson plans and technologies to integrate into their online classrooms. In addition to Zoom and Google Meet, teachers are also using services like Loom and YouTube.

Wilmington Friends has implemented ViewPure, a site that allows younger students to watch Youtube videos without any attached video links. Educators can also use sites like Khan Academy and EdPuzzle for supplementary learning. With many programs at their disposal, educators have the flexibility for what fits their teaching best.

 

While by no means an ideal situation, students and faculty at these schools all recognize they are among only a few in the state able to continue their classroom educations, sustaining learning from home and maintain ties with their school community.

Though social distancing is impacting so many other facets of the school experience, these schools are finding a way to keep the educational flames alive at a time when that is needed more than ever.

Photos of children: Kelli Wilke Photography


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About the Contributor

Jack Vander Laan

Jack Vander Laan

A recent University of Delaware graduate with a double major in English and History, Jack Vander Laan has worked at Auburn Valley state park as a historic interpreter and program writer.

1 Comment

  • My son attends First State Montessori Academy In Wilmington (Public Charter Elementary School) and our staff and teachers just launched an incredible and very customized online learning platform from scratch for our students beginning today. Grades K – 8. Outstanding ! It’s not just private schools!