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Virtually brand new: Schools team up to offer option for all-online instruction

Virtually brand new: Schools team up to offer option for all-online instruction

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Sue Williams is adjusting to a new grade this year and an entirely new way of teaching.

Williams was a prekindergarten teacher at Glens Falls and now has shifted to teaching kindergarten for 24 students who are opting to attend school exclusively online.

She and the students are learning as they go in this new environment. She said students seem more outgoing and there has been a lot of participation.

“It’s going good. It’s definitely a new frontier, but I think everyone is learning it and we’re making progress. I think the kids are enjoying it actually,” she said.

Some teachers and students are opting to teach and learn exclusively online — whether it be for health and safety reasons or the fact that they feel it is more conducive environment. It is a bit of a learning curve as students and teachers adjust.

Glens Falls, South Glens Falls and Abraham Wing School have teamed up to offer a virtual school to give parents an option for all-online instruction.

The Glens Falls City School District has about 360 students in kindergarten through 12th grade who are taking classes exclusively online, according to spokeswoman Skye Heritage. A little less than half of those students are in the K-5 virtual school. That represents about 17% of the South Glens Falls student body for those grades.

Jerilyn Stellato, principal of the virtual school, said it made the most sense to have a teacher dedicated 100% to the online students.

Williams said she was recruited for the position after the prekindergarten program was eliminated because of budget cuts. She has over 20 years of early child education experience.

“I’m learning as I go. I was not a very technologically advanced person,” she said.

Williams said the first step was making sure they and their children were familiar with the logistics of how this was going to work including learning how to use the computer microphone and sign into the Google Classroom platform. She has her laptop hooked up to be a big television monitor so she can easily see the children.

Building relationships

Williams said the first couple of weeks of the school year were less about academic lessons and more about establishing connections, which are especially important in this virtual environment.

“We’re really just trying to build up relationships with the kids and the families, having them feel comfortable with us,” she said.

Her students are split into two groups of 12 for the morning and afternoon. The students are meeting with her virtually in small groups to do lessons. It takes a little longer on a videoconference for the students to raise their hand, turn their microphone on an give their answer.

Students are spending about 45 minutes with her on the computer doing a lesson. The goal is to work up to about 2 1/2 hours. But there are time for breaks, so they can get away from a screen.

“We still encourage them to go outside and play because that’s important too,” she said.

They are practicing their numbers and counting. She reads books and they have singalongs.

In addition, she has something called “choice boards,” which are a list of activities that students can do on their own with their families, such as looking to see what is in their cupboard or taking out a piece of cereal for each letter in their name.

Kaitlyn Quick, who is teaching fifth grade online at South Glens Falls, said the teachers of the virtual students are trying to follow the same curriculum that they are using in the traditional brick-and-mortar classrooms. They are also creating new opportunities for students to collaborate.

“It allows for even more of the learning at your own pace,” she said.

Virtual lessons using the Google Meet videoconferencing platform are interspersed with times students log off and complete independent work, according to Quick. Two groups of students trade off between being in front of the teacher and being on their own.

She will sometimes assign a smaller group of four students a task, such as completing a math problem, and those students will brainstorm ideas.

“They like that they can have small groups and collaborate with their peers,” she said.

Students have commented on how they like the format. They like not having as many distractions as they would in an in-person classroom, according to Quick.

“They love that they can log off a meeting, quietly have a space to get their work done, and jump back on a (Google) Meet if they need help,” she said.

Parents are happy so far with the way things are going, according to Stellato.

“They’re really impressed with how hard they’re working to get to know the students. They’re trying to make school engaging and fun,” she said.

Technical challenges

There have been some hurdles in the early going, according to Williams.

“Screens freeze and you can’t see the kids. There’s some background noise and sometimes a little bit to many distractions,” she said.

Most families have set aside a separate area of the home for the students, but sometimes there are things going in the background. Most of the time it has not been too bad, she said.

Other issues including getting dropped from the videoconference connection, according to Quick. She said the biggest issue is getting to know the students in a virtual setting.

Reasons for going online

Quick said she was not afraid of tackling online learning. She loves learning about the new platforms. She also has a compromised immune system after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018.

Another reason parents are opting for virtual school is for consistency, according to Stellato. If districts have to go all-online because of an uptick in virus outbreaks, these students will already be used to it.

Kris Nusskern, of Queensbury, has said she believes she made the right choice for her two children — seventh grader Bear and first grader Ammie. She also has another first grader who stays with her during the day.

Nusskern said she did not feel that the students were going to excel at school with the changes required by the pandemic.

“The kids have to be 6 feet apart. The interaction is not what they would have in the school environment that they’re used to,” she said. “We just felt that they were going to be more comfortable here, where they can do activities together. They can sit on the floor and read. We can go outside.”

Nusskern said she was not faulting the school, which she said has been doing the best it can under extraordinary circumstances.

The other first grader arrives just before 9 a.m. They have a little time in which they chat with each other. She reads a story and then puts up their schedule for the day, Nusskern said.

They do some of the assignments before they have the first Google Meet at about 10:15 a.m., which is for phonics, writing and reading. The lesson is an hour and 15 minutes.

“It is a challenge for them to sit for that amount of time,” she said.

The teacher incorporates a break of a minute or so a few times during the lesson for the children to stretch, according to Nusskern. They take turns using a yoga ball.

After lunch, they have a bit of play time. Then some short online meetings with various subjects, such as music, art, physical education and library.

Nusskern said one of the challenges is for parents to avoid looking over their children’s shoulder and trying to correct their work, such as saying where they need to put a capital letter.

“By my doing that, the teacher doesn’t see what they were able to do independently,” he said.

Her seventh grader, Bear, is more independent, according to Nusskern, and does not need much supervision.

More free time, flexibility

Bear Nusskern said he likes taking the classes online. One advantage is since he does not have to change rooms to get to the next class, he can use that time for an extended break.

“One of the bad things is I don’t get to see my friends every day,” he said.

Kris Nusskern said there have been a few technical glitches, such as the Google Meet platform crashing. But they just roll with the punches.

Brian Fosco, of Queensbury, said his family decided to opt for exclusively online learning for his 11th grader Ryan and seventh grader Julia. Ryan likes to be around his grandmother, who he helps out.

“My wife felt more comfortable having them both home, especially after seeing what’s been happening at the schools,” he said.

The family has not had too many issues — technological or otherwise.

“That was no change for them as far as switching to all remote, because they’ve been doing it since last spring,” he said.

His son is dually enrolled at SUNY Adirondack, so he takes classes in the morning starting at 8 a.m.

“He’s basically on his Chromebook until a little after 2 o’clock each day because that’s when his high school classes end,” he said.

Ryan Fosco said he likes learning online.

“I’ve had extra time on my hands. I’m getting some things done quicker,” he said.

He misses the social interaction, though.

“I don’t get to hang out with my friends,” he said.

Still, Brian Fosco is hoping that all-online learning will be a temporary situation.

“We’re hoping to get them back in school by the end of January when that quarter ends,” he said.

“It’s definitely a new frontier.” — Sue Williams, virtual kindergarten teacher

Reach Michael Goot at 518-742-3320 or mgoot@poststar.com and follow his blog poststar.com/blogs/michael_goot/.

"It's definitely a new frontier."

— Sue Williams, virtual kindergarten teacher

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