SOUTH PORTLAND — With all educational facilities closed due to the coronavirus pandemic and no official date for re-opening in sight, local school districts are using online learning tools to keep teachers connected with students.

Sschool officials told The Forecaster this week that the “ordinary” school day simply doesn’t exist anymore, but even in the few weeks since it began, the process of maintaining a virtual learning environment has evolved, and is proving to be a learning experience for adults, too.

“We’ve had to shift overnight how we’re providing education,” said South Portland School Superintendent Ken Kunin.

South Portland Superintendent Ken Kunin. FILE

That shift has involved clearing some technological hurdles, but an era of modern, portable, internet-capable technology has been a huge help. Kunin said when the schools closed, school-issued tablets went home with all students who needed them in grades 6-12. As many as 140 devices were also sent home to elementary students.

Scarborough School Superintendent Sandy Prince said his district sent 1,300 laptops home when his schools closed.

Keeping those devices connected can be a challenge. Not every family can afford internet access. Kunin said the district is working with Spectrum, GWI and other  service providers, which, he said, are offering special discounted packages. Prince said school buildings, such as the high school, are equipped with wireless internet and parents can, if all else fails, park outside with a wireless device to get online.

“We’re doing the best we can now and it’ll only get better as the weeks go on,” Prince said.

The schools worked to equip kids the old-fashioned way as well. Kunin said bags of paper, pencils, crayons and other supplies went home with the kids, and just before the schools closed, Kunin said the district encouraged kids to take library books home.

Officials from the Cape Elizabeth School Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment about how they’ve adapted before The Forecaster’s deadline.

Day by Day

Students are using various online tools to keep in touch, including Google Classroom and Google Hangouts. It is not, however, as simple as turning on a video chat instead of sitting in a classroom. Prince said school days do not actually consist of six or more hours of direct instruction. Instead, he and Kunin said, schooling consists of periodic one-on-one interaction and a great deal of written classwork. Many interactions include online forums, where students communicate in written posts with their teachers and each other.

“It’s not replacing your Algebra 2 class entirely,” Kunin said.

For South Portland School Board Chairman Matthew Perkins, who has two children, his family’s day begins with a morning message posted by his kids’ teachers at Dyer Elementary and Memorial Middle School. From there, it works a lot like a homeschooling environment, with assignments and instructions to the kids to be carried out during the day.

“There’s a lot of video sharing going on, which is cool,” he said.

Liz Tully, of South Portland, has three children who also attend Dyer Elementary. In an email to The Forecaster, she said she is able to work from home most of the time for now, but her husband is a detective with the Portland Police Department, so he still goes to work. Tully praised the school’s teachers, who have not only had to adapt their lessons to a virtual environment, but also to the idea that working all the time at home now can be hectic for their students.

“They are doing an amazing job keeping the kids engaged while offering choices and understanding that all children and families cannot always complete tasks given,” she said.

Tully said she tries to fill the day with educational activities as well. Her 10-year-old, she said, is responding well to the experience, embracing laptop-based learning, while Tully has sometimes had to coax her other kids with Girl Scout cookies.

Overall, Tully said she and her husband are trying to keep the family’s spirits up, despite the sometimes grim situation they are in.

“As parents, we are working to keep a positive attitude for our children and helping them to find things to be grateful for with this experience,” she said.

Long-term impact still unclear

Kunin and Prince said they could not yet answer whether, despite the successful adaptations of the learning process, the school closures would adversely impact the students’ progress overall.

“We do think there will be a gap that will be created as a result of this,” Kunin said.

Students identified as having special needs, Kunin said, are a particular challenge, one that varies from child to child. Such students in his district, he said, are getting revised teaching plans. Prince said special education teachers, by definition, work to adapt to the needs of their students, and he is confident that innovation will continue.

“Those special education teachers, that’s what they’re trained to do,” he said.

As to assessments, Kunin said if the gap remains once the schools reopen, younger students will have an easier time catching up. Summer school always exists as a possibility, but neither Kunin nor Prince were committed to that yet.

“It’s hard to speculate. We’ve never had to go through this before,” Prince said.

Sean Murphy: 780-9094

Email: [email protected]

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