Editor's Note: The following are answers given through email by Auburn City Schools Superintendent Cristen Herring, who provides reflections on dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic and looks toward to the future.
Auburn Villager: Overall, how do you think the transition to virtual learning went for Auburn City Schools? What have you heard from teachers, parents and students about the experience?
Cristen Herring: Being fortunate to live in a community in which parents and families already communicated easily with schools and teachers, Auburn City Schools quickly created ways to connect with our students remotely. For students in grades 7-12, the Schoology platform (a learning management system already in use) proved most effective and efficient. For elementary students, Seesaw was effective for some. Recorded lessons, virtual meetings, and paper learning packets are examples of the diverse opportunities provided to students in their time away from the classroom. For many, the independence and self-directed style of learning was successful, but for others the separation from the structure of school was certainly an obstacle.
AV. What were the biggest challenges to shifting mid-semester from in-school instruction to remote learning?
CH: With the transition to distance learning occurring during the ACS Spring Break, all arrangements, collaborative efforts, and details were organized in virtual meetings. Recreating the delivery of instruction was a challenge, but teachers worked together in grade level groups and departments to assist each other in the transition. Assessing the availability of internet and student access to devices was a first step, and working out an alternate plan for students who did not have the technological resources became a priority. Much credit is given to the principals of our schools for their leadership during the design and implementation of distance learning during our time of separation.
AV: What lessons from the experience of shifting to remote learning can you apply in the future if that format has to be instituted again at some point during the pandemic?
CH: In an educational environment provided in schools, academic rigor is often considered our priority. In the circumstances surrounding the Covid-19 closure, educators quickly realized that the social, emotional, and basic needs of students needed attention and support. Providing opportunities for students to see each other on screen, share experiences of the pandemic from their perspective, or receive support through counseling or coaching was equally important to our time dedicated to course specific standards. While education, instruction, and academic achievement are high priorities in our institution, we were reminded that the well-being of our students and families continues to be most important.
AV: What concerns, if any, do you have about students' academic progress while learning virtually? What steps were taken to assure that students did not fall behind?
CH: A strength of the Auburn City Schools distance learning plan was the focus on student engagement rather than a traditional measurement of academic attainment. The course material was important, but connecting students to teachers and peers was our priority. There will be a need for some remediation as we return to school and perhaps the need to re-teach some of the priority standards missed this spring, but the combined resilience of our children and the creativity of our teachers will help to overcome this hurdle.
AV: With the pandemic expected to last at least another year, what contingency plans are being put into place for the next academic year? Is remote learning for an entire academic year even feasible and what approach is the school system considering to maintain social distancing guidelines if in-school instruction resumes in the fall?
CH: Auburn City Schools works closely with state and community leaders, surrounding school systems, and The Alabama State Department of Education. Guidance on the 2020-2021 school year is forthcoming and it is our hope that students and teachers will return to school.
AV: How might the school system deal with a student whose parents did not feel comfortable sending their children to campus for in-school instruction if it resumes in the fall? What are the challenges and possible approaches the school system might take to reinforce social distancing in schools, especially for younger children who might not fully understand the scope of the pandemic or the need to social distance?
CH: As included in the Auburn City Schools’ Statements of Belief, we believe that all people have the right to be and feel safe. Every effort will be made to consider and protect the students, staff, and faculty of our system. Regulations from the Alabama Department of Public Health will be implemented to the highest possible level. With each of our schools having a registered nurse on campus, we feel confident that the communication between medical professionals and our school team will be accurate. Guidelines provided by the Governor’s Office, Public Health Department, the State Department of Education, The Alabama High School Athletic Association, as well as other governing agencies will be strictly followed.
AV: How did the school system deal with students who live in homes that do not have access to high-speed Internet or even computers? How did ACS approach teaching students with specials needs?
CH: Learning packets, instructional materials prepared each week in our schools, were mailed to the home of each student who did not have access to online opportunities and to students who preferred paper materials. Many students had textbooks at home which served as a learning resource. A Distance Learning Plan was developed for each student receiving Special Education services. Speech therapy sessions and small group or individual support were provided through video or telephone calls but the modifications made during the Covid-19 closure were as unique to each student as the services they receive when school is in session. Special Education teachers and support personnel made a tremendous effort to stay in touch with students and provide individualized accommodations.
AV: Is there anything else you think is important for parents to know as it pertains to Auburn City Schools future plans during the pandemic?
CH: A comprehensive list of employees, parents, community stakeholders and volunteers to thank will be an impossible task. It would be my wish to send a personal note of thanks to every person, every parent, every grandparent, every neighbor, every teacher who helped a student during the time our schools have been closed.
The support of community agencies, foundations, churches, and groups who rallied to support our students is an inspirational element of our community, one that makes Auburn a very special place to live.