Students across the Kingston City School District officially began remote learning on Thursday, March 26, with what school officials are calling the “first phase” as teachers and administrators fine tune the means of communication and adapt in-class curriculum for home learning, and students and families get acclimated to the various resources available to them. All schools in the district have been closed since Friday, March 13 in an effort to minimize the spread of the global coronavirus pandemic through the region.
In a telephone interview on Wednesday, Superintendent Paul Padalino said that the focus for the first week will be mostly about getting used to remote learning.
“It’s really a lot of self-directed stuff for kids to keep them from regressing, practice work and skills that they’ve already worked on,” said Padalino. “Starting on the 2nd [of April] is when our expectation is the teachers will be ready [for remote learning].”
Padalino said teachers will ultimately decide the best method of connecting with their students, and they’ve spent the past week further familiarizing themselves with Microsoft TEAMS, a web-conferencing tool.
“They can create teams for their classes, they can instruct live online,” Padalino said. “They can do video chats if they want to with up to 30 kids. We want to give them the leeway to do what they think is best. They know their students, and they know the best way they can interact with them.”
Padalino said that digital educational resources like Microsoft TEAMS and Clever should already be familiar to many students in the district, and the KCSD website has other resources to help learners and families cope with the possibility of entering a second phase or extended remote learning until it’s deemed safe to reenter actual classrooms again. The district website has a “students” tab, which offers a range of grade levels and subject areas with numerous resources for learning. School officials encouraged all students and families to spend the next week perusing these resources in case a more focused remote learning phase is undertaken.
In mid-March, Governor Andrew Cuomo officially ordered all schools across the state closed through Wednesday, April 1. And while that date has not been updated as of press time, it’s likely the closure will soon be extended, perhaps erasing all that remains of the 2019-20 school year. In the KCSD, the first phase of learning will run through April 1.
“By that date, we will know if we will be returning to school or beginning Phase 2 of home education which will utilize the technology we have in place even more and students will be taught and given assignments through the website, Microsoft TEAMS and their KCSD email,” said Padalino in a letter posted to the district website on Tuesday, March 24. “Some of your students’ teachers have already given out assignments that could be due in the next few days, so please make sure your students sign into their email, Clever and/or TEAMS to ensure they are receiving all of their assignments to date.”
The Chromebook situation
The district is also making available Chromebook laptops for students in the district who might not have home access to a device that would allow them to take advantage of distance learning over the internet. The KCSD has just under 7,000 students, and Padalino said the district is prepared to loan as many as 1,500 of the devices for families who might not be able to access remote learning without them. How many they’ll ultimately give out is still unclear, Padalino said, because of some confusion over a survey of parents last week.
“Some people took the survey more than once,” said Padalino adding that on Tuesday the district distributed around 250 Chromebooks, and that the pickup point was a bit busier on Wednesday. But it’s still unlikely they’ll give out as many as they’re prepared for.
“I think there was some confusion with parents thinking that the only way to access remote learning was through Chromebooks, which is not the case,” Padalino said. “Our platforms can be accessed through cell phones with a tablet. If a kid has an Xbox they can connect that way too. Once we got that information out, a lot of parents who took a survey realize they didn’t need a Chromebook and they could use many different things that they already have in the house.”
Padalino cautioned that there will likely be growing pains in the early stages of remote learning.
“This is going to be a little bit of an experiment, finding out exactly the best way to do this,” he said. “We’re going to step on a couple of landmines, there’s no doubt about that. But you know what? We’re going to learn and we’re going to move forward and teachers are going to work together to make sure that every one of our students has an opportunity to learn.”
Food at GW
On Wednesday, Padalino said that based on community feedback, the district had added a third pickup point for breakfasts and lunches, with George Washington Elementary joining John F. Kennedy Elementary and J. Watson Bailey Middle School. Curbside pickup is available Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m.
“Meal delivery is going well,” Padalino said. “We’re doing about 200 meals a day, and I think we’re going to see an increase at George Washington.”
While school officials across the state await official word about whether schools will reopen next week, Padalino said the district is making plans to extend remote learning into May, and perhaps beyond. A shift in marking periods is also in the works, switching from four to three, with the last beginning April 2 and running through the end of the 2019-20 school year. That change would have to be approved by the school board.
The superintendent said that the district will continue preparing for a number of different scenarios. “Right now the governor says we go back April 1st and that’s what I know,” Padalino said. “What I think and what I’m preparing for is that we’re not going back till May 1. And we have a contingency for what if we don’t go back at all this school year. If it is May 1 we’re going to have a little bit of a learning curve, and I think we’ll get better at it. And if we have to keep doing it this way we will. We have the infrastructure, we have the technology, or teachers are getting the training. If we have to do it, we’ll do it.”