Southridge Elementary students connect their school’s “Kindness Club” online. (NCSD, Facebook)
CASPER, Wyo. – Natrona County schools are closed until at least April 5. As discussed at a Natrona County School District Board of Trustees work meeting Wednesday, March 25, students are likely to be home beyond that date.
NCSD Associate Superintendent of Curriculum & Instructions Walt Wilcox acknowledged that this will be a challenging time for the district and for teachers.
If the closures “were to continue over the next nine weeks,” Wilcox said, efforts must be made to streamline how education is delivered to students.
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“We know it will put a burden on the teachers,” he said. “It will be a shift. It will be a challenge. “
But Wilcox said teachers are already making some of the necessary shifts, and it’s been since schools first closed on March 16.
Manor Heights founding student Sydney writes a letter to her grandmother living in an assistive device. (NCSD, Facebook)
“I feel confident that our teachers are up to the task and willing to step up,” he said.
Providing tuition to students online will be a “shift in delivery and learning style that we have never seen before,” Wilcox said. He explained that staff across the district are working on how to provide core content areas that incorporate other key educational areas, such as physical education, in a “streamlined,” effective way accessible to students.
While student participation in learning opportunities currently offered through NCSD schools is voluntary, teachers and schools use various tools to reach students, according to principals at both Park Elementary School and Evansville Elementary School (links are to these schools’ Facebook pages) .
A park student’s letter to Principal Emily Catellier. (NCSD, Facebook)
Both schools use video features on Facebook to connect with students.
For example, Park Principal Emily Catellier has provided daily announcements, which have included daily challenges, for students.
“We make lemons of lemons,” Catellier told Oil City on Tuesday.
Principal Emily Catellier signals that students should pose during a groundbreaking ceremony at Park Elementary School. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)
“When we first got the wind of this whole thing, it kind of forced us to reflect on what’s really important,” she added.
Catellier, along with other NCSD officials, including trustees, have emphasized that their primary concerns are the health and safety of students and staff.
Teachers lack their students and work hard to find unique ways to connect and help let their students know that their teachers are out there and care about them.
“We really like relationships,” Catellier said.
She says teachers around the district are trying to be innovative in their approach, adding that teachers “have taken some creative liberties in how to reach them.”
But the innovation also has a purpose that during this transition was to “look for the small opportunities to create a sense of normalcy throughout the day.”
It has included teachers who read books out loud to students over video:
(Park Elementary School, Facebook)
Catellier adds that food services throughout the district have been an important piece of this component. She says it includes both the district’s meal service available through 15 schools, but also the Wyoming Food for Thought Project bag program. “We have quite a few” Park students who receive food bags through this program, Catellier says.
But while schools are in expanded closure, Catellier says park staff have also picked up and delivered meals to students.
In terms of providing instructional instruction, teachers do a number of things.
“It runs kind of gamut,” Catellier says. “Our overall goal now is that students maintain the learning they have done so far this year.”
“We have not moved to any new learning right now.”
Some teachers are Park uses Google classrooms or other tools to hold class meeting sessions. As Park is a dual language immersion program school, the school finds ways “to continue teaching the Spanish language as a review.”
The district as a whole is working to find out if students have access to the Internet as well as what kind of devices they have access to.
The Natrona County Public Library has provided about 5,000 books to homebound students. (NCSD, Facebook)
It was something, St. Anthony’s School Tri-parish Catholic School (SAS) in Casper, serving a much smaller student than NCSD’s approx. 13,000 students, were able to address during the first week of school closures.
St. Anthony’s School has 259 students, according to principal Cyndy Novotny.
St. Anthony’s School tends to follow NCSD school closures decisions for things like snow days, and followed the district’s first COVID-19 closure time from March 16 through April 5. However, SAS is in other ways at the forefront of providing education online.
At the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year, St. Anthony’s School named a “Microsoft Showcase School,” one of only dozens in the country and the only one in Wyoming.
When school closures were decided, teachers at SAS began developing their lessons online, according to Novotny.
“Forward and upward and forward,” she says of the educational delivery that takes place through the school.
“I hear good reports so far,” Novotny says of teachers adapting to the new situation.
St. Anthony’s School has also used Facebook to celebrate student work. This is an 8th grade, Caden, showing off his completed “Passion Project.” (SAS, Facebook)
Teachers met Monday, March 16, the first day of closure, to begin coordinating. Parents were called to the school on Tuesday, where the school implemented certain social distancing and health precautions, to retrieve everything children may have had at the school they would need at home.
Families were also asked if they needed electronic equipment. Those who needed devices had them checked out to them through the school, ensuring that students would all have access to the learning opportunities the school could be able to.
“I think Spectrum offers some temporary free connections,” Novotny added.
She says the school was able to help get some families connected to ISPs.
While the school has been able to ensure that students have access to the school’s teaching resources, the amount of direct interaction between teachers and students looks different.
Novotny says teachers facilitate lessons for approx. 2-2.5 hours a day, though not only worksheets, but designed lessons that engage students and deliver new content.
“Not all children obviously participate in this,” said SAS technology teacher Tim Galles. “Some kids don’t want it.”
But he says that at least all parents have been informed of the opportunities and that he believes the majority of students interact with their teachers and the resources provided to at least some degree.
Gale and Technology Director Nick Dresang learned from the school closures at a golf simulation facility. They are the only “Microsoft Innovative Educator Experts” in the state.
The two began discussing what they could do to help teachers plan and adapt to the new teaching situation.
Galles says he has been working with teachers throughout the year on how to integrate different technology capabilities into the classroom, so somehow expanding this role is helping teachers adapt to providing distance education.
While the school has had access to a variety of technology options, even before the closures, Galles points out that some teachers are “a little uncomfortable doing things by themselves.”
He and Dresang’s role has been to help develop a “plan that would be manageable for everyone and not overwhelm us.” Galles says teachers are responding well to the need to provide instruction online.
“We have few teachers who are just rock stars when it comes down to it,” he says. “We’ve interacted with the teachers who have the questions … providing a technical support type role.”
Galles says he created some tutorials for teachers and “a small resource center” that shows them different things they can do with the different technologies available to them.
He also checked directly with smaller groups of teachers on group calls. The school may facilitate meeting with larger groups of teachers through Microsoft Teams, which allows group video meetings online.
“You can have up to 250 people in one meeting if you want,” says Galles. “It runs pretty smoothly and flawlessly.”
Teams are also used with higher-level teachers and students.
At the primary grade level, Kindergarten through second grade, Galles says the teachers are drawing on Flipgrid, a Microsoft technology he describes as “a video-response-type platform.”
He says the tools with Flipgrid provide a great deal of teacher flexibility. It may include video, but it does not have to be of people’s faces. The technology allows children to draw or write text.
He says students could interact with a mouse, but that most are more likely to use touch-screen devices.
“In many of the younger classes, because (teachers) have some comfort with the classroom,” Galles begins, “they have been able to use (technology) and respond accordingly.”
“The teacher can make some video-recorded directions.”
It can mean doing a short math lesson for preschoolers to make them learn and practice counting. Galles says teachers can also attach Youtube videos that students can watch and reflect on.
The SAS kindergarten teacher has used this to attach videos of people reading stories or opinion guidance videos.
Galles is a “co-pilot” of the school’s Flipgrid network and is able to go in and look at everything teachers create. He says teachers are working to avoid relying on spreadsheet-style lessons, since “after a certain amount of time, it won’t work that much.”
The more interactive technology options give the kids something to respond to.
“Most qualities actually use Flipgrid to some degree,” says Galles.
Microsoft Teams, a platform similar to Google Hangouts or Classroom, has been an important higher-level tool in SAS.
“They are already using teams in their class,” says Galles. “It’s like using it in a different way with a twist.”
Galles says the “cool part about teams” is the ability to easily assign things to students and share files.
“You can also meet externally with a call,” says Galles.
NCSD has been distributing food to children under 18 at 15 locations across the district. (NCSD, Facebook)
It allows teachers to hold class sessions and discussions more akin to meeting in a physical classroom. The meetings can also be recorded so that students who miss class can be guided to these recordings and catch up with them.
Teachers have used the technology to facilitate both smaller and larger group discussions.
While SAS is able to deliver new content, Galles says that review is also part of what the school is doing. This has been the case especially in the early period of school closures as the school fully implements their teaching methods.
Galles says the first week has been “almost like a soft opening for a restaurant type.”
Everyone gets on well with the system. But as teachers and students adjust to the new situation, Galles says he has seen teachers add more layers in the second week since school closed.
While figuring out what schools provide to children is something that SAS has been relatively well-positioned to approach, Galles adds that students’ well-being socially and emotionally is also critical.
Teachers have realized that the video settings can provide “kind of a nice little safe space for kids to have.” Getting to a teacher lets the kids know they’re still out there and “assures them everything is going to be fine.”
“We’re still here and we’re here for you,” says Galles.
It’s something you want to hear from teachers and administrators, regardless of the school.
Evansville principal Wayne Tuttle says teachers who want students to know that “we have them in our minds and we care about them.”
His school, too, is adjusting.
“The response from our staff has been incredible,” Tuttle says. “We have provided a number of resources on our school Facebook page.”
“We have set up a learning hub. Kindergarten just had a review, a counting thing. “
Older class steps are aimed at video resources and all students are encouraged to read.
“It’s never a bad thing to encourage students to read,” Tuttle says.
There is content for each class step focusing on enrichment and review of concepts that students have been introduced to.
Teachers think about “what are some of the things you can do to keep your brain stimulated and focused,” Tuttle says.
It includes unique things like Evansville teachers creating obstacle courses and challenging students with parental permission to do the same at their yards.
A screenshot from an obstacle course challenge video created by an Evansville teacher. (Evansville Elementary School, Facebook)
Distance learning may have some surprising ways to integrate physical training to help deliver other content areas. Unlike in a classroom, a student has access to space in their home and yard where they can perform instructions given by teachers.
The unique opportunities for physical education are something that Wilcox said at the NCSD Board of Trustees ’work session, the district notices and takes into account while continuing planning.
“This week we’ve kind of created a virtual spirit day,” Tuttle says.
It was something Evansville staff saw at another NCSD school
“Employees saw it and thought this was a good idea,” Tuttle adds.
It has included declaring a pajamas day or a favorite color day, “things to keep kids engaged.” Tuttle says teachers have also asked students to write letters or postcards to people in aid facilities.
Others hold online Google Hangout sessions so students can touch base with each other and their teachers.
Tuttle says support for his staff has been a key priority and that they are asked every day about what support they need.
“We realize it’s a challenging time,” Tuttle says.
The school’s social worker volunteered to give a listening ear to any teacher in need of support of any kind.
With Evansville, a site providing meals for children under 18, Tuttle says it has included a lot of Evansville’s own student population in addition to children from other parts of the county.
Being a food serving location also allows the school to help distribute Wyoming Food for Thought Project food bags, he adds.
As the district continues to adapt to the situation, Tuttle says the teachers are ready for the call.
“They are good at seeing where the kids are and helping them get ahead in their learning,” Tuttle says. “Every school does everything it can to support our students.”
“Teachers care immensely. We are in this together. “
Nevertheless, it is now more than ever important for parents to be actively involved in their children’s education. Tuttle points out that parents are in the best place to measure their children’s needs.
Catellier shares some advice she gives teachers.
“On the personnel side of things, my mantra has been with them: it’s time to get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” she says.
“Our best hope when all this is said and done,” she continues. We are more compassionate, we are more skilled. “
Teachers will do what they can, against state and district guidelines, and “it’s up to the parents’ discretion at this point on how they want to integrate it.”
If the district remains closed after April 5, at the work meeting, curator Clark Jensen said he is concerned about how the new teaching situation might affect students who were already struggling at school.
“I think our struggling students are already having a hard time,” he said, adding that it was another thing in his brain to help children cross the line to study.
Wilcox said the district is looking at the need to possibly provide additional support services in summer school, which is a time when the district provides opportunities to help struggling students catch up with them.
Jensen acknowledged that the task the district faces in switching to providing education online is huge.
“I can’t imagine what it takes to mobilize this,” Jensen said. “This is not a small shift.”
Trustee Dave Applegate said he felt it was important for the district to manage expectations, considering that online education will be a challenge.
“I just want to encourage the staff to think about it,” he said. “If we have to move to this online platform …. (Should) we be pretty honest to the community about what we can’t deliver.”
He said if parents expect the district to be able to do things that they simply cannot, it could “create frustration.”
“We just have to be transparent as possible,” Applegate said.
Wilcox said the district is finding ways to provide core content in math, science or language arts. Other content areas will not be ignored, but he said he expects to see things like social studies, health, arts and music layered with focus content areas, “embedded in the various activities.”
NCSD Associate Superintendent of Human Resources Verba Echols said at the work meeting that all NCSD employees are working on meaningful work and that everyone is being paid.
She said the district will continue to work to hire staff needed for the next school year, and will continue to celebrate teachers who will retire.
“People show grace, people show flexibility,” Echols said of the NCSD staff’s commitment to hard times.
After hearing updates from Wilcox and Echols, NCSD Board Vice President Dana Howie said she was impressed with the amount of work everyone is doing.
“I’m kind of overwhelmed by all the work already done by everyone,” she said. “I’m just amazed at how you all work with such grace.”
Trustees thanked the public for their patience as the district works to address their challenges.
“We are working hard to identify the next steps,” said Chairman Rita Walsh. “We thank you for your patience and understanding. It is difficult and new for everyone. Keeping students and staff safe is our top priority. Thank you to all our staff. “