Heather Ward, Brock Jones, Bowen Jones

Green Valley teacher Heather Ward meets virtually with third-grader Brock Jones as he also video chats with his brother, Bowen Jones.

With only one week to prepare, educators in Watauga County Schools hit the ground running to provide “remote learning” to students beginning March 23.

“I feel like I’m sprinting a marathon,” said Cynthia Townsend, a teacher at Cove Creek School. “Watauga County rose to the occasion. We have done the best that we can for students and we will continue to do that going forward.”

Gov. Roy Cooper announced an executive order closing public schools for students for at least two weeks beginning March 16 in an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19. Nine days after the first order, Cooper announced that schools were to be closed for in-person instruction until May 15.

“Everyone stopped everything in their tracks,” said Heather Ward — a third-grade teacher at Green Valley. “The things that were super important and on our to-do list on Friday, we pushed that away because we realized that our children and their wellbeing was the most important thing. Every professional in my building has the same goal in mind — we have to take care of our kids.”

Teachers prepared for remote learning the week of March 16-20 by gathering resources and materials for students and communicating with families. Originally teachers planned materials for the initial two weeks that the schools would be closed, but Ward said many teachers’ intuitions told them the closure would be longer.

“It was really hard emotionally to think about being away from my students that long,” Ward said. “It’s a really heavy feeling knowing that you’re not going to see your children until May.”

Parents had the opportunity during the same week to visit schools to pick up their students’ belongings and to check out a laptop computer. Laptops were available for checkout for any students in grades 3-7 as students in grades 8-12 should already have school-issued laptops, according to WCS.

The county’s nine schools began their first day of remote learning on March 23. On that day, WCS Chief Academic Officer Tamara Stamey said school officials were still working to calculate how many of their students were without internet access at home.

Townsend teaches math to 31 sixth-graders and language arts to 33 seventh-graders. All of her students are able to have access to internet, she said.

Of her 14 students, Ward said only one does not have internet access. She added that the day after the first closure announcement, the school system’s technology department staff set up wifi hot spots in the windows of the classrooms closest to the parking lot at Green Valley. Families without internet access at home are able to come to the school's parking lot and access internet while there, she said.

Stamey said teachers are expected to provide the equivalent of about three hours' worth of instruction — with assignments and activities — each day for students to access.

WCS encouraged students to also make time for exercise, keep a regular sleep schedule and take time for breaks during the school day at home. Townsend said just as students have regularly scheduled breaks throughout the day at school, students should take time to do other activities — like go outside or play with a pet — to avoid feeling burnt out. Stamey advised that families should try to keep students on a regular, consistent routine to the extent that is possible.

For students without internet access at home, teachers were able to provide paper packets and materials to families when they arrived at the schools to pick up belongings.

Families can access a student’s assignment for each school by teacher by visiting www.wataugaschools.org/remotelearning. After selecting the “for parents and students” option on the webpage, families can access these assignments by selecting the menu at the top left corner of the screen.

Students can also access NCedCloud to connect to learning platforms such as Canvas, iReady and Letterland for their assignments. Townsend said she’ll be able to use Canvas to upload videos, assignments and quizzes for her students to use.

Ward said when a student finds her assignments through the remote learning webpage, the assignment can stay on the computer screen without internet access. Parents can choose to stay in the Green Valley parking lot to access the internet if the student needs to watch a teacher’s video in real time or perform any digital communication, Ward added.

“A lot of them are working at home and doing all of the assignments that they can, and then uploading and sharing that document when they have wifi or accessing those digital resources (when they have internet),” Ward said.

Instruction for each teacher will look different. For example, Stamey said a physical education teacher may post games, activities, yoga or exercises that students can do at home. Art teachers may help lead activities with minimal preparation that students and parents can do together.

Ward started her first day of remote learning by incorporating a practice she conducts in the classroom — just digitally. Her class typically starts the day with a “morning meeting” by sitting together on the classroom carpet to discuss their feelings, questions they have and the agenda for the day.

On March 23, Ward used a tool called Google Hangout to video chat with her students to allow them time to express if they were feeling nervous or anxious about the recent changes. She said it promoted the feeling of “family” even though the class couldn’t be physically together. The class then talked about a book they are reading together and other assignments they would be doing.

Teachers are available from 8 a.m. to noon each day for students or parents to ask questions via email or other channels. Some teachers are able to offer one-on-one tutoring to students with the help of Zoom or other video chat methods.

Townsend said she has one student she will be tutoring one-on-one each school day at a designated time. As a 30-year veteran teacher, she said she’s thankful to be able to have the technology to conduct remote teaching more efficiently.

Townsend recalled a time in 1978 when she was a fifth-grader at Valle Crucis, and school had to be closed for 35 days due to snow. Her mom was a teacher at the time. Townsend said homework assignments had to be given via the radio, or parents could pick up work packets from teachers at the schools.

Now, Townsend has a school work station at home in her living room. She said she’ll spend the school day by planning her class meetings, reviewing materials students will be doing for the week and ensuring she’s set clear instructions for students to follow.

All three women expressed that they don’t want parents to feel overwhelmed by having their children learning from home. As a mom of school-age children as well as being a teacher, Ward said a parent can feel pressured to take on educational responsibilities to help their children.

“Sometimes I need to encourage parents that I am still the teacher. I am still responsible for that,” Ward said. “They shouldn’t feel that it’s their sole responsibility and their sole job. They need to provide for their children and it’s my job to provide the education.”

While teachers and staff are continuing to support families, Ward wanted to remind teachers that they still have the support of their colleagues even though they are now working in separate spaces. She said it may be easy for an educator to feel like an “island” during this time, and a person may feel like they are alone in this situation.

“It’s hard when you’re physically by yourself in your house to remember that you have those colleagues still, even though they’re not physically beside of you,” Ward said. “You have to remind yourself that we’re not expected to do this alone; you have support from your administration and other teachers.”

According to the U.S. Department of Education, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced on March 20 that students impacted by school closures due to COVID-19 can bypass standardized testing for the 2019-2020 school year. The department stated that states can apply for a waiver that would provide relief from federally mandated testing requirements for the school year.

Stamey said that WCS Director of Accountability and School Improvement Wayne Eberle would soon be having discussions with people at the state level about the situation, and school officials may have answers about 2019-20 standardized testing by the end of the week.

For more information on how Watauga County Schools is responding to COVID-19, visit www.wataugaschools.org/coronavirus.

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