Facing the challenge: education during the pandemic

By Tricia Degraff

 

We had no idea what 2020 had in store for us. There was talk about a new virus called COVID-19 in late February and early March, but by mid-March, schools closed seemingly overnight and it was clear that our world had changed.


The following dates show how rapidly the educational landscape changed. Schools were closing and we had to figure out how to reach and educate all of our students.


  • March 12: Mayor Lucas declared that people could not gather in groups of more than 1,000. 
  • March 13: We held our last day of “normal” school at the Academy for Integrated Arts. After the students boarded the bus, we held our last in-person staff meeting.
  • March 16: The mayor issued a mandate that schools close in order to curb the potential transmission of the coronavirus (COVID-19). 
  • April 9:  Governor Parsons issued an order that schools would be closed for the remainder of the year. Schools would engage in distance learning for the rest of the year. 

The primary questions our school grappled with centered on how to best provide learning experiences that addressed both the academic and non-academic needs of our students. Almost immediately, we identified four priorities to guide our remote learning decision making. 

  • Continued Learning: Both academic learning and social-emotional supports are important for students during this time. 
  • Consistency: During a time of upheaval and uncertainty, creating a predictable schedule and consistent experiences and expectations will best serve the social-emotional wellbeing of our students, families, and staff.
  • Simplicity: There will be enough change in everyone’s lives, keeping things simple allows for any remote learning to be as manageable and sustainable as possible. 
  • Connection: Children benefit from regular contact with people they know and are in a relationship with. Positive interactions with others influence our social-emotional wellbeing, therefore connection with others is critical to the mental health of our students, families, and staff. Supporting the social-emotional health of our school community, now and in the future, is essential to minimize the lasting effects during a time of upheaval and build resilience.

With the big picture goals of continued learning, consistency, simplicity, and connection, our efforts centered around ensuring access to technology, creating offline opportunities for creating and making (which is central to our arts-integrated curriculum), and providing social-emotional supports to families and family engagement.

 

1. Ensuring Access to Technology. We prioritized access to technology for each of our families. We determined that technology, rather than paper-based learning, was our best option for connecting with all students and also, while also providing quick feedback loops on student learning. Thankfully, we had enough Chromebooks and iPads to distribute one device per family. We also secured a small grant from School Smart Kansas City to provide hotspots to families in need of internet access. 

2. Creating offline opportunities for students to make and create. Because arts integration is central to AFIA’s academic and social-emotional curriculum, we set out to design learning tasks without compromising our vision and mission. We strove to use technology platforms for learning experiences, while also developing learning experiences to promote creativity and ‘making’ offline. We were committed to ensuring that arts integration was used as a vehicle for deeper learning. We were also fortunate that some of our supportive community members provided funding and volunteered their time to assemble art and supply kits for each of our students.  
 
The creativity of our teachers, students, and families shined through a different and difficult time. Below are a few examples of the arts-integrated learning experiences that occurred during remote learning: 

  • In Mr. Turner’s third grade class, students wrote and illustrated books. Some students recorded themselves reading them. Enjoy this story by Mariah.
  • In Ms. Doerr’s first grade class, students created collages from items in nature. This followed a plant project that took place during in-person learning. 
  • Ms. Clark and Ms. Davis’s pre-kindergarten/kindergarten students were in the midst of a project about firefighters when we transitioned to remote learning. The teachers arranged for a firefighter to visit their classroom through Google Meet.
  • Here are some examples our art teacher, Ms. Dorothy, shared in a recent blog entry titled “The Art of Remote Learning.”  

3. Providing Social-Emotional Supports and Family Engagement

In our school community, we emphasize the importance of social-emotional learning. We knew it was more important than ever to continue this focus during remote learning. Teachers included daily learning tasks related to social-emotional learning, as well as the core academic areas. Each classroom had a daily class meeting via Google Meet so children could connect with one another and their teachers. To help us engage with families, we sent out regular communications and sought feedback from families regarding their needs via surveys, phone calls, and focus groups. We began distribution of food boxes each Wednesday that include 10 meals per week for each child between the ages of 1 and 18; this program is funded through the federal meal programs. Our school social worker and other staff members delivered food, technology, and art supplies to families who did not have access to transportation. Our leadership and operations team met regularly to review participation data and engage in problem-solving when we noted that a student or family was not engaging in remote learning at a high level. However, we did encounter difficulties in ensuring that everyone participated every day and continually worked to identify barriers and proactively problem-solve to ensure all children participated at high levels.


While we believe in-person learning is the best way to engage in hands-on, arts-integrated learning, we were grateful for the ability to continue the learning process through the use of technology and online platforms. We maintained our connection to our students and families through daily online meetings in each classroom and school work assigned via learning platforms, such as Seesaw, Google Classroom, and iReady. We are currently holding a small summer school to pilot specific ways to introduce new content via remote learning and are grateful for the creative and hard work of our teachers, students, and families. We’ve learned a lot since March 13, 2020, and know that we will continue to do so on this unprecedented learning journey.