The start of classes on Aug. 24 marked a milestone for Knox County Schools, as the district launched a virtual learning program for more than 18,000 students across the county.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, KCS gave families two options for learning during the fall semester: in-person, on-campus instruction with enhanced health and safety protections, or a robust virtual program that will closely align with the rigor of a traditional classroom.
Each school will have a virtual learning program, while the district has also expanded its QuEST program to cover courses that are not available in schools.
In recent weeks principals and teachers across the district have been getting ready. Megan O’Dell, principal at Brickey-McCloud Elementary, said one of the biggest challenges has been making sure that students and teachers feel included no matter which type of instruction they’re receiving.
Even a simple tradition like the morning announcements has to be structured in a way that’s accessible for everyone, and O’Dell said it’s a little like running two schools in one. “Everything we do we have to think about ‘How are we including our in-person and our virtual students?’” she said.
At Vine Middle School, approximately half of the school’s students signed up for the virtual learning program, and principal Desiree Jones said it was a daunting task to align student and teacher schedules to accommodate that shift.
Jones said Vine’s tagline for this school year is “Focused and Flexible,” adding that she has been reminding her staff that “you’re amazing.”
“They know how to connect with kids, they know how to establish those relationships,” Jones said. “And we just need to be cognizant that even though it is a brand-new format and platform, that we still know how to teach. … It’s just giving yourself the grace and the space to bring that to the forefront of your mind.”
A school day in the virtual program will look a little different at each school, but all students can expect to use Microsoft Teams for live instruction and class meetings, along with Canvas as a digital backpack for assignments.
Some instruction will happen in real time, while other lessons will be available for students to pursue as their schedule permits. Virtual students will also have time away from their Chromebooks for activities including reading, lunch and exercise.
Debbie Sayers, principal at Bearden High School, said one of the most important things students can do to prepare for virtual instruction is to create a comfortable learning space where they can focus: “So whether that’s inside, whether that’s outside, a place where they can be engaged – and lying down on the couch is probably not a good idea.”
In one sense, the virtual program will also be an opportunity for teachers to demonstrate life lessons that they have worked to instill in their students.
Sayers said Bearden has tried to emphasize the importance of letting teachers experiment with new strategies. If they work, she said, teachers can share them, and if they don’t work, they can either tweak the experiment and try again, or just move on to a new strategy.
“That’s the same kind of thing we want to see in our kids,” she said, “that willingness to try and know that it’s okay to fail, as long as we learn something from it and then move on.”
And while COVID-19 has been a tremendous challenge, the chance to embrace virtual learning could be a positive in some ways.
As the district provides Chromebooks to every K-12 student through its new 1:1 initiative, there will be more opportunities for all students to utilize online instruction, including on days when school buildings are closed for inclement weather or illness.
O’Dell, of Brickey-McCloud, said teachers in the virtual learning program are “paving the path” and will be a great resource for other teachers as the district utilizes online instruction in the future. “They’re getting to test out things ahead of time where they’re going to be the leaders of this virtual path and can help their teammates and their colleagues along the way who have questions,” she said.
And in some cases, students may enjoy the chance to learn online. Jones, of Vine Middle, said virtual learning will help put some of her students on a trajectory for even more success.
“Some students will take this and run to higher heights with it.”
Josh Flory is a multi-media specialist with Knox County Schools and writes this blog, Hall Pass, for the KCS website.