‘Distance Learning’ is getting it done
No one will dispute the fact this has been a most unique school year. Beginning with the West Nile Virus mosquito infestation in the late summer and fall, the year has been interrupted by the Wuhan Virus to the point, Gov. Ned Lamont has determined to keep schools closed until the end of May.
That decision has made Superintendent of Schools Neil C. Cavallaro and his staff implement new procedures, born of necessity, that may have impacts on education in decades to come. But right now, Cavallaro and his staff must determine the best way to get to the end of the school year, which is scheduled to be completed in mid-June.
Despite the two-month transition to “distance learning” as allowed by the state Board of Education, the schools chief is hopeful the year can end in a more traditional manner for the good of the staff and students.
“I am hopeful that school will be back in session, even it’s just for three weeks, he said. “I believe it’s important for our staff and students to have closure on this school year.
He said he wasn’t going to make any determination solo, that all decisions would be based on guidelines set in Hartford.
“Our district will follow the guidelines set forth by the State of Connecticut and its Department of Education. We will also continue to work closely with the City of West Haven as well as the surrounding communities before making any decision for either returning to school or canceling for the remainder of the year.”
He took time to review how the “distance learning” component is going. Under the program, lessons are given on-line, with students expected to take part as if they were in a school building. Those who don’t have computers at home, or are limited in access still can get lessons and have contact with teachers on questions and testing.
“Right now our distance learning program is going about as well as can be expected. Our teachers have done a terrific job of reaching out to students and holding them accountable for daily attendance and turning in work,” he said. “We have to be flexible, because we understand many families simply don’t have a computer device for every member of the family.”
As far as whether a student has achieved the proficiency expected in order to pass a subject, that has been the topic of some discussion.
“The State Department of Education has recommended that districts strongly consider using the pass/fail option. They’ve been working with the colleges and universities to see how they would react. Given the circumstances, all are receptive. While I believe it’s a viable option, many of our students continue to work extremely hard and should be recognized for their efforts, especially at the high school level,” he said.
Cavallaro then explained the mechanics of the program.
“Distance learning is no different than attending school. In order to receive credit, you must attend (sign in) regularly and submit quality work. Those who do will earn credit. Finally, as for final exams, our district has been looking at different ways to show that students have mastered a course and deserve credit,” he said.
As far as final exams toward final grades, flexibility is the order of the day.
“Teachers can still give traditional tests as a final, but they can also have students do a research project, and even distance presentations. Our teachers continue to be very creative when it comes to reaching students and getting the most out of them,” he said.
One of the problems facing Cavallaro and schools around the country are things such as year-ending activities, including graduation. That has been a major topic of discussion, and no final decisions have been made, he said.
“Right now, as I’ve said previously, we will be following the guidelines that come from the State of Connecticut and the Department of Education. While I don’t foresee our traditional graduation ceremony taking place, we are thinking about different ways to honor our seniors for their accomplishments. One thing that will happen in the coming days is that I, the administrative team from the high school, and class advisers will be meeting with senior class officers. I believe it’s important for them to weigh in on any decision prior to one being made. One possibility is holding some type of ceremony in the fall. Another may be, conducting several small ones later in the summer. Again, much will be determined as we navigate the plan to return to normalcy,” he said.
Already there are discussions nationwide about the new school year in the fall. The pandemic has school administrators wondering about what to do in September. Cavallaro is maintaining a cautious optimism.
“Let’s hope that we can return to school in the fall if even for a short period of time. This will give teachers the opportunity to get to know their students. It will also give our social workers, counselors, and other professionals a chance to discuss what’s happened over the last months, and see how students are feeling. If we have to go to a distance learning plan in the fall, we will be in a much better position to offer students a tried and tested program that we’ll improve on, he said.
The city is also anticipating a way of getting computers to students who may not have one at home.
“We will also be able to provide those students without a Chromebook or laptop, a device that will keep them more engaged in distance learning. We anticipate receiving 1,600 laptops from the State of Connecticut for high school students. We have recently received a $50,000 gift from Yale University to purchase devices, and the West Haven Rotary Club has worked extremely hard to secure devices for students that need them.”
Finally, Cavallaro said the pandemic has not hampered construction of the new West Haven High School, which remains on schedule with a few tweaks.
“The high school project is moving along and remains on schedule. It is still expected to be completed by the fall of 2020. In order to operate in a safe manner, the building committee has agreed to allow the construction workers to work in two shifts. That allows for social distancing. The site continues to receive deep cleaning regularly, and Gilbane Construction Company has posted signs reminding workers to be safe and follow proper precautions.
The pandemic has helped move up some timetables.
“As a result of the school being closed, we will begin a few weeks early, the abatement and demolition of the old auditorium. That work will take some time, and was scheduled to start prior to this year ending. The good news is that it will be completed by the early fall when, hopefully, the new school year is starting up, and it’s a very busy campus,” he said.
As a parting note, Cavallaro wanted to extend his thanks to the entire department for working under the virus restrictions.
“I want to take the opportunity to thank our entire staff. Our teachers have done great work in trying times. Support staff, clerical help, and administrators have reached out to families to find out what their needs are. Our maintenance staff have kept the buildings clean and done the little things to ensure that if and when we return to school, everyone can do so in a safe environment. I also want to thank all of our families, who’ve worked with us on something that we’ve never even contemplated up until a few weeks ago. They’ve done everything in their powers to keep their children engaged and learning. It’s been a total community effort,” he said.