Teaching Under Quarantine An Educator’s Guide to Virtual Transitions

As shelter-in-place and stay-at home orders continue to shutter schools across the country, many educators are taking innovative approaches to ensure a continuity of learning for their students, who are confined to home quarantines.

For the very first time, schools are jumping into a virtual setting on a mass scale, which comes with a unique set of challenges for every district, whether it is facing a lack of laptops and iPads for its students, trying to fulfill a need of free meal distribution, or considering provisions for access to reliable Wi-Fi.

For the few schools that have been modeled in a virtual setting, however, operations have been largely unaffected, thereby providing a learning opportunity for others.

Drawing from techniques used by Illinois’ first and only primarily online K-12 school, Chicago Virtual Charter School, educators should consider the following helpful tips for transitioning to an online learning model:

Make mental health therapy a budgetary priority

During uncertain times, mental health checks are paramount to ensure learning can occur in a safe and welcoming environment, even if it is a virtual one. Schools and educators should consider using applications like TalkSpace, which offers a convenient way to connect with a licensed therapist.

With kids out of school and away from their friends, it is critical to keep an eye on any signs of loneliness, anxiety or detachment. Stress brought on by concerns around the pandemic should be mitigated with open and frequent communication between parents, students and school administrators. This is especially true if your school experiences a reported case of coronavirus on-premises. You’ll want to provide your learning community with real-time updates in a format that is easily accessible, whether it’s via text, email or robo-call.

When transitioning to a fully online model, it is also important to maintain a sense of normalcy and routine by establishing weekly check-ins with your learning community. Video conferencing tools, such as Zoom, Google Classroom or WhatsApp will help your learning community feel better connected with each other.

During weekly staff calls, start your meetings on a positive note, such as an inspirational quote or list of reasons for personal gratitude. Encourage participants to start a care-call chain by calling someone on the staff or PTA directory whom they have never interacted with before and see how they are doing emotionally. The goal is to try to offer support and connect on a human level.

As part of your approach to promoting mental health wellness, it is also important to encourage students and their learning coaches to be physically active and stimulate endorphins. Since parks, beaches and playgrounds across several states have closed under government orders, maximizing the use of indoor space has become crucial to physical education. Simple exercises that involve movement up-and-down stairs, through hall walls or from one room to another will help keep students active and motivated to learn for the day.

Consider offering access to fitness applications for both teachers and students or compile a family-friendly list of exercise videos on YouTube. Remember to take frequent breaks from your screens, especially if working with younger children. A common standard is to limit online coursework to five hours per day, so students have ample time needed to do homework offline, play and interact with their families.

Ensure equal access to internet, learning tools and professional development

Even libraries are not immune against coronavirus-related closures. Prior to the pandemic, many of our students relied on their local library for free Wi-Fi and quiet learning space. To help alleviate some of the burdens that come with the associated costs for the technological transition, seek out ways to collaborate with your local service providers.

Ask families if they require financial assistance for Wi-Fi, laptops and iPads or consider creating an anonymous survey on Google Forms to take a tally and create a budget. If your school district is unable able to assist with fulfilling this need, seek out collaborations with your local charitable organizations to request assistance for donations.

Smart phones can also be used as a Wi-Fi hotspot, which will allow students to access internet at home. Start a program to identify which families and teachers are in need, and work with service providers to offer deferred payment plans, credits or vouchers, if it is within your scope.

For teaching staff, it is essential to maintain access to professional development opportunities. Offer online learning courses through “lunch-and-learn” virtual settings amongst your internal team. Leverage skills you can share with each other via monthly video conference presentations.

Provide professional development that supports specific instructional strategies in specific subjects that best serve your staff’s needs. Focus on a different subject each month and give senior staff members a platform to teach skills to the rest of the team.

In addition, you may want to consult with your local colleges and universities to request access to online courses for your staff during the shutdown.

Use data to inform decision making and long-term planning

In times of crisis, it’s always important to refer to the facts. Let data be your true north, guiding all operations and administrative duties. Schools should focus on their former growth areas and be creative in how you address them in a small group Zoom or virtual setting.

Our school uses two helpful programs, Accelerate and Edgenuity PathBlazer, which allow us to obtain real-time data on student growth. This makes a significant difference to all teachers, as the data benefits not only classroom teachers, but also special education. Our students also benefit from having our staff teachers, as well as the Accelerate and Edgenuity educators. All core subjects are reinforced by our staff teachers through “Class Connect,” which are Zoom classrooms where students discuss a unit and teachers present concepts.

For schools who are temporarily transitioning to an online model due to the COVID-19 crisis, it may be best to start setting up your curriculum in units that focus on a set number of common core standards and skills. From there, you can incorporate reading materials for K-5 students, as well as videos and online activities to practice the content presented. The goal should be to focus on growth areas and strengthen mastery of skills. Record the growth areas and compare your data reports on a weekly basis to ensure students are progressing.

For 6-12 students, learning can be a blend of videos and activities, as well as elective and dual credit college courses and credit recovery courses to help keep students on-track to graduate.  If you choose not to use an external platform, consider forming partnerships with local colleges and universities in your state to offer access to their online classes. By providing opportunities for your students in a remote setting, you are encouraging them to be hopeful, focus on the future and remain positive on their learning journey during these uncertain times.

Communicate frequently with your learning community

This point is vital to keeping your operations running smoothly and ensuring stakeholders’ unique needs are met. Find a way that works best to connect with your team on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. Start with a calendar of regular communication you can share via email, text or web conference.

Share important content from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), encouraging families to prioritize staying at home and washing their hands. A host of flyers, fact sheets and posters are available on the CDC’s website, which you can share with your community and post on your school’s social media pages.

Check in with your district leaders and ask for flyers and updates you can share with parents and faculty. This will help ensure you are the first to share information with your learning community, and they can depend on you to deliver critical information promptly.

Consider hosting and recording your board meetings via video conference and send timely invites to parents encouraging them to attend. Virtual parent-teacher meetings should also be offered with video conferencing, if your school is able to accommodate this service, as it will offer a personalized connection and reinforce engagement.

With whichever mode of communication your school chooses, it is important to remember planning frequent conversations with each stakeholder group should be a top priority. Ask how you can best serve their needs and work together to brainstorm solutions.

For example, if your school usually offers free meals to students, consider offering credits to food delivery apps, if your budget can accommodate this effort, or reach out to local restaurants or disaster relief organizations to coordinate meal kit distribution. Keep your learning community involved in decisions every step of the way.

Offer individualized learning assistance when needed

One of the biggest benefits of online learning is that it can happen anytime, anywhere 24/7. Leveraging this advantage could help serve a diverse student body and special education needs.

Two free partnerships our school uses to offer tutoring and individualized learning are with Achieve 3000 and Khan Academy. These platforms allow our students to do practice exercises, engage in instructional videos and track personalized learning plans that empower children to study at their own pace at any time of day. It also provides our staff instructors with data on student progress.

Consider what applications are the best fit for your learning community and offer access to connect online the moment a student needs support and feels inspired, whether it’s before sunrise or after sunset.

Now that you have these helpful tools for success, remember to celebrate the small milestones and encourage constant contact among all stakeholders at your school. The most helpful tip is to set a tone for calmness in all forms of communication and remain focused during this ongoing crisis. Be open to shifting your online learning plans as needed and make sure to check-in with staff, students and their learning coaches often.

Encourage students to share their home learning journeys on your school’s social media page to boost morale and come together as one community. Maybe even host a virtual pep rally. Now is the time to get creative and think outside the box.

In the end, we will all get through this together and be stronger for it.

Vikki Stokes

As an educator for more than 20 years, Vikki O. Stokes has served in a wide range of educational capacities for institutions of learning throughout the city of Chicago, guided by the principle that anything is possible. Ms. Stokes presently serves in a school improvement capacity nationwide, helping to inspire teachers, leaders and students by fostering continued hope and motivating masses to achieve excellence through dramatic results and transformation. An accomplished vocalist, Ms. Stokes has graced the stage of Madison Garden, opening for Sting and was invited to sing for the inauguration of President Clinton with the Grammy-nominated band Liquid Soul. She currently serves as interim CEO of Chicago Virtual Charter School, where she continues to inspire her learning community with music, art and her motivational spirit.