ELKHART — As schools close amid concerns about the coronavirus outbreak, local teachers and students are preparing to make the switch to remote, online learning this week.
All seven school corporations in Elkhart County announced Saturday they were canceling classes for up to four weeks, including a week of spring break.
At Elkhart Community Schools, the county’s largest school corporation, schools were in session Monday to allow students to practice eLearning activities and to collect all learning materials they need for sustained eLearning from home.
Wes Molyneaux, director of technology integration for the district, said Tuesday and Wednesday will be used as staff development days for teachers to prepare for the switch before the first official eLearning day on Thursday, which will run until April 3.
“We are providing time (Tuesday and Wednesday) for our teaching staff to collaborate on building those short-term lessons and long-term expectations and experiences for our students,” Molyneaux said. “We want our staff to be ready to not just put lessons together, but have a well-thought-out plan of identifying what are the essential skills and lessons that students can experience in a rich and meaningful way through an eLearning experience.”
During eLearning days, students will be participating in learning activities that mirror the work they would be doing in the classroom. Secondary students will use the district’s learning management system, Canvas, to communicate with their teachers, see their assignments and access resources. Elementary students will use a digital portfolio app Seesaw to complete their work.
Despite the abrupt change in schedules, Kerry Mullet, president of the Elkhart Teachers Association, said teachers are adapting to the change well and said she believes eLearning is the best method of providing students education while schools are closed.
“Closing schools is one of the best proactive steps we can take to reduce the risk of a community spread of the virus,” she said. “Since we are uncertain of how long this special measure will need to be taken, it is important that we provide structured learning opportunities to students. The use of eLearning is the best method for accomplishing that goal."
Mullet praised the technology specialists at the building and district levels for their guidance in helping staff prepare for the transition.
“ECS has an amazing group of educators known as ‘technology ambassadors’ who work in each of our buildings,” she said. “They have completed extensive training on how to integrate technology into instruction and model this style of teaching within their classrooms.”
Due to their expertise, Mullet said teachers have been putting in extra hours to help guide colleagues so everyone can be as fully prepared as possible.
“Their support helps ensure that all teachers can utilize eLearning successfully,” she said. “We also have district-level technology staff who have been going above and beyond to send out up-to-date information and resources.”
The main concern teachers have during the transition is the health and well-being of students, Mullet said.
“Once we have students settled at home with their learning materials and access to online lessons, teachers will continue to provide eLearning instruction while also working hand-in-hand with administrator and support staff to ensure that our families have their other needs met.”
According to Mullet, most students are also handling the upcoming change in routine well, which she credits to staff for their efforts in remaining calm to prevent students from any unnecessary apprehension.
“I’m also very proud of the teamwork taking place throughout the community,” she said.
On Sunday, the Elkhart Education Foundation opened its Schoolhouse Supply Store to allow teachers across the district to pick up supplies they need for students to help them get through the closures.
“So many of our students don’t have the supplies they need at home during this time so our teachers are doing everything they can to ensure students have the learning materials they need while they’re home during the school shutdowns,” said Ashley Boling Molyneaux, the foundation’s executive director. “We just wanted to leap into action, there’s a lot of talk on social media about what everyone should be doing and we decided we’re going to stop talking about it and start doing.”
In total, 250 teachers took advantage of the opportunity at the Schoolhouse.
“This has been very helpful as teachers have created take-home kits for students to use during their extended learning at home,” said Mullet.
Molyneaux estimated 10 percent to 20 percent of students at the district have no access to Wi-Fi in their homes.
To that end, the district has provided the following resources to help:
• Both Memorial and Central have Wi-Fi available outside their buildings. Internet access should be available within 300 feet of the building.
• The food sites of Beardsley, Bristol, Roosevelt and Woodland elementary schools will have outdoor Wi-Fi turned on. Over the next week, the district will be adding locations to this list.
• The City of Elkhart has public Wi-Fi.
• The district is working with the County Health Department to determine if providing limited access to public libraries, churches and some school buildings will be possible.
Additionally, Comcast has announced a handful of changes to its services to help keep people connected to the internet.
For customers currently on a standard internet plan with Comcast, data limits have been removed from plans and will allow for unlimited use of the internet for the next 60 days. Late fees will not be assessed to accounts and services will not be disconnected if customers contact the company to inform it of troubles paying their bills.
Xfinity wifi hot spots are open across the country for free. That means you can connect any Xfinity wifi hot spot without having to subscribe to the service for a fee.
Elkhart Community Schools and the other school corporations in Elkhart County are expected to resume school after spring break on April 13.
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