Armed with laptops, the children at the Facente home in Warwick were up early Monday morning, 7 a.m., to begin their first day of distance learning.
“There are a lot of distractions at home – iPads, cell phones, video games, staring into space,” said Bill Facente, father of sixth- and ninth-graders in the Warwick Public Schools. “I wanted them to have structure, so that’s why I told them to get up early and at 8 a.m. you start your work.”
Students, teachers and parents across the state are adapting to the new reality of school from home after Gov. Gina Raimondo closed state public schools on March 13 and mandated a transition to distance learning to try and stem the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The state moved up the typical April vacation for all public schools to the week of March 16 to allow teachers and school administrators across the state to prepare remote learning plans. Schools across the state re-opened for remote learning on March 23.
In Warwick, public middle and high school students were asked to log-on and complete assignments on the Google Classrooms online platform. Some teachers also used a teleconferencing feature, Google Hangouts, to meet and talk with their students in real-time, as if in class.
“Virtual learning is no replacement or substitute for one-on-one in-class instruction,” said Darlene Netcoh, the president of the Warwick Teachers Union and an English teacher at Toll Gate High School. “Everybody recognizes that, but it’s going to take everyone working together to make this work.”
Netcoh said that teachers had different levels of understanding of the Google Classrooms online learning platform, but that school administrators were working to make sure more professional development was available.
A distance learning plan put together by school administrators last week and sent to the state was approved by the Warwick School Committee as well as the Warwick Teachers Union. The plan asks that teachers plan for two lessons each week and stay in close communication with students and parents. The plan asks students to get physical copies of assignments from teachers if they don’t have internet access. The district supplies Chromebooks to students across the district.
Still, even with familiarity with the online program being used, students and teachers are struggling to adapt.
“Right now I’m teaching freshmen, and we’ve been using Google Classroom all year, and yet I got so many questions,” said Michele Landrie, the science department chairperson at Toll Gate High School. “The students are quite resistant to this change and I think it’s because the teachers aren’t in front of them to give them better directions.”
Landrie, who’s teaching a physical sciences class to freshmen, said that trying to teach science remotely posed it’s own set of challenges. All three levels of science in the Warwick high school system are laboratory classes, and with students unable to meet physically, teachers have to revert to online simulations instead.
Warwick has already invested money into Gizmos and StemScopes, online math and science simulation tools that replicate common experiments. Landrie said that she’d use them now to try and replicate labs for her students.
“You can’t replace face-to-face interaction, you can’t even simulate it,” said Landrie. “You can do your best to mimic it in an online forum, but especially in science where it’s so hands-on, it’s difficult to get that same experience in a virtual environment.”
Still, Landrie was optimistic that after the technical challenges are out of the way, students will better adjust to the new reality.
“I think this is growing pains,” she said. “Once students are resolved to the fact that this is how it’s going to be for a while, I think they’ll adjust.”
From a parent’s perspective, Facente said that communication with the schools and his children’s teachers had been good, and that his kids were able to log on and complete their assignments quickly.
“Call me back in three of four days and I may not be as optimistic, but for now I have no problems,” he said. Facente, who is the Warwick director of community development, is doing some work from home as well as periodically in the office. His wife, Ramona, is a Warwick crossing guard, so the children are not left entirely to their own devices.
“Everybody needs to be patient and work together,” Netcoh said. “Teachers want to teach and they want kids to learn, so any way that can happen is good. This is not the best, but we’re going to make the best out of this situation.”