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BOE Discusses New Distance Learning Plan



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The Board of Education was briefed on the school district’s recent transition to “distance learning” at its special meeting on March 19.

COVID-19 and its ramifications came up in multiple ways at the meeting, first in how the meeting was organized.

“This is an unusual meeting format and it is due to the unusual circumstances,” Board of Education Chair Michelle Embree Ku said near the meeting’s start.

She was seated in the center of the tables set up for board meetings in the Council Chambers at Newtown Municipal Center. Board members and district staff in attendance for the meeting did their best to sit with multiple chairs between them, as was evident from watching the meeting through a live stream service on the town’s website, www.newtown-ct.gov. Four board members “attended” the meeting through the use of video conferencing.

The meeting was recorded for residents to watch later on the town’s website and a phone-in option for residents to listen to the meeting’s audio live was also offered.

Ku said the meeting was being conducted that way to allow access to the public while keeping everyone safe.

Superintendent of Schools Dr Lorrie Rodrigue and Assistant Superintendent of Schools Anne Uberti then shared updates with board members about the district’s distance learning plan, which for older grades, according to discussion at the meeting, utilizes Google Classroom to allow teachers to oversee assignments for students while schools are closed and everyone is expected to be home, practicing social distancing. To make sure all students have access to the internet, the district offered devices and set up internet “hotspots.”

Just the day before, on Wednesday, March 18, the Newtown Alternative Learning Plan began. Dr Rodrigue announced the district earned approval from the state for the plan to go ahead and a state waiver allows the work completed at home each day to be counted as school days.

At the March 19 meeting, Dr Rodrigue stressed the waiver is not intended to allow districts to end the school year earlier. (A related story on the board’s related discussion on whether to use the district’s planned April break as school days was published in the March 27 print edition of The Newtown Bee.)

Dr Rodrigue thanked district staff and leadership, particularly Uberti, for putting in effort to create the Newtown Alternative Learning Plan “well in advance” of expecting to need it. Doing so, she observed, allowed staff time to put the plan together with integrity and confidence that students would be prepared for school closures.

Many districts across the state were not prepared to transition to distance learning, said Dr Rodrigue, adding that some districts have reached out to Newtown to learn about its plan. After the area experienced prolonged power outages two years ago, Dr Rodrigue said she felt strongly about implementing an option for students should schools close for a prolonged time period again. The Newtown Alternative Learning Plan is now “keeping their minds occupied. It is keeping kids engaged,” she said.

“It’s the right thing to do, but it is not easy,” Dr Rodrigue said. “And people have to be patient. We are building the plane, in some cases, as we are flying it...We do feel more than prepared, and we are in ongoing communication with our students and families.”

Uberti explained the start of the Newtown Alternative Learning Plan included transitioning from a supplemental phase to “true online learning.” That shift has different challenges at different grade levels. She highlighted that the Google Classroom program is being used for most grade levels, training for staff is being offered and is planned, and the district is trying to offer assistance for parents on how to use Google Classroom.

Board of Education Chair Michelle Embree Ku observed that changes have happened “at lightspeed” in the last couple of weeks while thanking Dr Rodrigue for “seeing what was ahead” when others did not.

While Ku said “these are not ideal circumstances,” she said the plan will “help bridge the gap” until teachers can yet again see their students “face to face.”

Discussion at the meeting included the uncertainty of when tests like the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and SAT can be offered. Newtown High School Principal Dr Kimberly Longobucco sent a message to school parents on March 24 to announce the Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE) had shared that all standardized testing, including the SAT, will be canceled for the 2019-20 school year.

“The CSDE is aware that many students use the school based SAT for college placement,” Dr Longobucco wrote in the message. “The CSDE is working closely with the College Board to offer all interested juniors the opportunity to take the SAT on a weekend administration at no cost. I will share more details about that process as soon as they become available.”

Other topics at the meeting included continued planning and assessment of how course work will count for individual students as determined by teachers, and whether special education students are being supported through the plan, which Dr Rodrigue said they are through efforts by special education teachers, case managers, and district staff.

All families know, as well, that we are doing the best we can,” Dr Rodrigue said. She added later, “I know that special education is working very hard to find strategies to meet those same needs in a virtual environment.”

Dr Rodrigue also reported that the food service program to support local families is underway. It also began on March 18. Food is being provided and distributed through Whitsons Culinary Group, the district’s food service provider.

As previously reported in The Newtown Bee, families are asked to fill out an online survey to share how much food is needed. The “strictest precautionary measures” are being taken, according to Dr Rodrigue, and food is being distributed at three school buildings for families to drive by and pick up the food.

“I have not heard one negative thing about that, at least the first couple of days seems to be going really well,” Dr Rodrigue told the board at its meeting.

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