Westbrook High School English teacher Bridget Joyce delivers a digital lesson to students about the characters in “Romeo and Juliet.” Courtesy screenshot

WESTBROOK — Westbrook teachers say flexibility and hard work is the key with distance learning, but the unprecedented change in instruction this spring was not without its challenges.

School officials, who don’t yet know whether distance learning will continue in September, now are looking at how to improve distance learning attendance and how to gauge the impact distance learning will have on students’ academic performance when they start school again in the fall.

Westbrook school buildings closed because of the coronavirus pandemic March 16. By April 8, the district announced that distance learning would remain in place for the remainder of the school year. Teachers quickly pivoted and set to work helping students adjust to their new school reality.

Some students “fell off the radar” and did not participate as expected. After the April school break, attendance dropped to about 75%, compared to 90% attendance during the same time last year, according to Superintendent Peter Lancia. Solving that problem will be the focus of conversations taking place over the summer, he said.

There was also a technology learning curve for younger students, according to educators interviewed for this article, but overall, teachers said, they are proud of the work they and their students accomplished.

The school year wrapped up last week and school officials are looking at a number of scenarios for the fall while awaiting word from the state on when or if students will be able to return to their schools.

“We have a model where we return, a model of continued distance learning and a hybrid model, but we really have no specifics put together yet,” Lancia said.

Instruction varied

Distance learning in Westbrook took various forms. Some teachers played educational games with students or posted YouTube videos to engage with them. Other hosted regular class-like webinars and focused on traditional classwork. But all had to adapt to new schedules or even no schedules.

Joel Lesinksi, who teaches students who are newly learning English at the high school, said he focused on skill maintenance rather than teaching new skills. 

“It’s hard to build new skills with this (distance) model, but we’ve learned how to use it better,” Lesinski said.

Teachers went over assignments during online sessions, but they also used that time to stay connected with their students.

“I help them with assignments but the majority is spent talking through their emotions,” said freshmen English teacher Bridget Joyce. “Sometimes I can go an hour (outside of class time) with a student talking.”

High school Co-principal Patrick Colgan said high school students weren’t expected to turn in their work at specific times. The older students made their own schedules and turned in their work throughout the week.

“We have students who will turn their work in late at night or all of it at once over the weekend. Many of them are working full time while school is off, which blows my mind. They are supporting their family or taking care of their siblings while their parents work,” Colgan said.

‘Radio silence’

Flexibility is key to distance learning’s success, teachers said, but it doesn’t eliminate all the challenges.

“Students who fall off the radar, that’s definitely an issue,” Colgan said. “We provide, as a brick and mortar building, a structure for you. At home, providing that structure for yourself, that’s challenging for teens.

The administrators have gone to houses to make sure those students are safe. I (had) about two or three kids who’ve had complete radio silence since the switch,” Lesinski said.

Congin Elementary Principal Jennifer Mull-Brooks said about 95% of her students attended distance classes weekly.

“I have a kindergartner with parents who are essential workers. This child has an older high school level sibling. They told us they were essential in the medical profession and the oldest child is the primary care giver for the elementary child,” Mull-Brooks said. “Basically, they said school may not happen in their household. To us, do your best, do what you can.

Lancia said he does not have attendance records broken down from school to school.

“We will need to work on more accountable attendance measures if we are not back in person in the fall,” he said. “To address that we are looking back at our model and trying to decide whether a synchronous model of teaching and classes will address that.

“Talking to (other superintendents) that is something we are all facing.”

The schools are also working on ways to measure how much students have learned over the past few months and that will be formally assessed in the fall, Lancia said.

Other issues

There also have been other challenges, especially for English Language Learner students.

We find ways, and the more we work online we learn ways to make it accessible,” Lesinksi said. “There’s a way to share my screen which I can have a translator app, but it’s not as easy as doing it face to face. If someone were to take 20 minutes with something, online it may take an hour due to a misunderstanding and we have to restart. That’s challenging.”

Students in special education programs lacked one-on-one connections with their teachers, some parents said.

“My elementary school child is on the (autism) spectrum and doesn’t get those services that she got and worries about not being able to connect with her teacher if she doesn’t go back in the fall,” parent Nycki Bennett said. “At the same time, I think they’ve done really well, as it’s so new to everybody. They pivoted so quickly, I was impressed.”

Lancia said summer programs for special needs students are being worked on.

Summertime digital “completion courses” for all other students have already been developed. Like traditional summer school classes, the courses aim to bridge any gaps students need to fill before moving on to the next grade. Some teachers will also host their own summer learning programs.

Students will keep their computer equipment over the summer.

All student laptops were distributed at the beginning of distance learning. Administrator and teachers delivered Wi-Fi hotspots to students without internet access. Students without laptops, like elementary students, received the district’s extra computers or iPads, and in some cases are using equipment loaned by the state.

 “We are fortunate, we don’t have any tech deficiencies in our household but it seems the school did a good job getting tech out to those who need it,” Elizabeth Richards said, parent of a middle schooler and high schooler. She said “the schools did a great job of engaging.”

Congin first grade teacher Christina Salamone said before she and her colleagues could begin teaching their young students, they first had to get them comfortable doing schoolwork on computers. That “took a few weeks to smooth out,” she said.

Distanced learning also has its silver linings, teachers said.

“A struggle for a kid taking a new language is sometimes taking that risk, like trying something new and being afraid of doing it wrong, ” Lesinski said. “But because their teachers aren’t always available, I see some kids taking more risks, trying to work on a whole assignment. In the class they’d ask me to check their work each step. It’s good to see this independence.”

Salamone said she has developed better relationships with her students’ parents. 

“I know more of what’s going on at home and there is a bigger level of trust and communication between the parents and myself,” she said.

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