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‘This time it is continued learning’

District makes quick pivot to remote instruction

Sparta –  What a difference from last spring. 

“Then nobody was prepared. Everyone was trying to figure ways to keep kids’ brains engaged, hopefully with something school related,” said office secretary Tina Harmson. “This time it is continued learning.”

Midday Nov. 17, administrators decided to close all district schools to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The decision followed the Nov. 15  emergency order from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, which mandated all high schools end in-person classes and pivot to remote learning through Dec. 8.  Earlier that week, the district had closed the high school due to COVID-19 positive cases.

Within hours of the K-8 announcement, parents received detailed schedules for virtual school expectations. 

“While we are bummed that we are not face to face with our students, it has been smooth so far,” said Sparta Middle School Principal Brad Wood.

“We wanted to provide the very best education that we could to our students if they needed to continue at home,” he said. “Our staff did a great 12 weeks of in-person education with added dialogue — laser focused on what was in front of us.” 

A major goal while in person was to make sure students were familiar with the tools and resources they would need if they had to go virtual. Every staff member at SMS, including classroom and special education teachers, social workers, counselors and office personnel, made it a priority.

Brad Wood, Sparta Middle School principal, said the transition to remote learning has been smooth

No Delays Here

As soon as they knew they were going remote, teachers began recording lessons and setting aside time for virtual classroom discussions. Students were prepared.

“Students had been reminded about checking email every day and had been advised of ways that they could continue their work digitally, said middle school counselor Karyll Russell.

Office staff was ready for students who had technical difficulties with their assigned devices. “We troubleshoot problems with damaged Chromebooks and issue hotspots for families without the Internet,” said office secretary Lauren Farr. Approximately 15-20 hotspots have been issued through the middle school office; only one per family is necessary, since it can provide enough bandwidth for everyone to use it.

Even physical education classes are continuing. SMS has been using an online fitness program, Plat4M,  which can be continued anywhere even in a living room, said health and physical education teacher Lauren Fron.

Keeping Tabs on Mental Health

Social and emotional well-being is key for students to learn well, said Wood.  Kent School Services Network staff and school counselors explored ways to encourage virtual connections with students, he said. A new protocol of submitting notes and regular virtual check-ins was already in place. “This especially is important if a student is struggling or showing a need for extra support.”

Russell was as surprised as the students when she found out the middle school would be closing. “When change happens, we know it can be anxiety producing,” she said. “A big piece of what we were preparing students for was ways to reduce anxiety, especially around another transition. We think we have prepared the kids as well.”

Some practical issues were also on Russell’s mind. Counselors and teachers discussed how they would help connect families without the Internet and what they might do if Schoology wouldn’t function. “The time we had every day face to face has been a gift,” said Russell, “but we knew what we had to do and are convinced we’ve prepared to do everything.” 

Physical education and health teacher Lauren Fron records her daily lesson from an empty classroom

Meeting All Students’ Needs

The special education team began Day One programming necessary accommodations for virtual learning for their students, said Wood. “We know that virtual support looks different for each family,” he said.

“We made the most of having time with the kids,” said teacher Ellen Nichols, incorporating virtual learning use in the class so they would know what to do if they were absent.”

Nichols said she tried to keep everything simple, not requiring too much at a time. “Some children are home trying to do it by themselves as parents have to multi-task, so we try to have them go to one place and click to see what they need to do.” 

She uses the school Remind app to say “Good morning” and have each student look at the agenda to get started for the day’s learning. “A couple already asked me for a Google Meet up,” she said at about 11 a.m. Nov. 19, the first day of remote learning. “They have learned that just like in a live class with a teacher, they can ask questions.”

The district plans to continue, all hands on deck, stepping up and meeting needs. “Our food service staff has been hard at work making sure those needs are met as well,” said Wood. “And we are looking for an innovative way to use space here at school for students who might benefit from being here for one reason or another.”

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Janice Holst
Janice Holst
Janice Holst is a reporter covering Kent City and Sparta. She has been both a teacher and a journalist. A former MLive reporter, she wrote features and covered local government and schools for Advance Newspapers for nearly two decades. She also was a recipe columnist and wrote features for Mature Life Style and occasional entertainment pieces for On The Town magazines. She lives in Sparta Township and enjoys spending some of her retirement hours writing the stories of the northern Kent County school districts. Read Janice's full bio or email Janice.

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