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Distance Learning Days a go in Marblehead

School Committee approves pilot program that would make snow days teachable moments

The School Department is starting the new year with a new attitude toward snow days since the School Committee voted to pilot a Distance Learning Days program.

The program is designed for students to complete school work at home if school is canceled due to snow or other emergencies. Veterans Middle School Principal Matt Fox, who spearheaded the project, said his committee looked at five key areas in relation to distance learning: access to assignments, due dates, how best to support students, teacher office hours and how to handle technical challenges.

Fox said they decided it was best to let teachers, teams, and departments determine the most age-appropriate process for delivering assignments.

Superintendent Maryann Perry told the School Committee during its Dec. 5 meeting that material on the elementary level was all ready to roll out pending approval.

The goal is to provide students with “a grade-appropriate, active learning experience and/or additional practice material that’s already been taught,” Fox explained. The snow day lessons wouldn’t contain any new material.

The committee recommended assignments be due one week from the return to school and the anticipated length of assignments depends on the grade levels. High School students would spend an estimated 25 minutes per class on assignments while middle schoolers would spend 20, Village School students 15 and elementary level students 10 minutes per class and every class would be included. According to the plan, if students had art or gym scheduled on the snow day, there would be an appropriate activity for those classes as well.

“The total on our level, you’d be looking at about an hour and a half,” said Bell School Principal Donna Zaeske.

In terms of support, all students will have access to teachers via digital office hours and in person once school resumed. Zaeske said inclusion teachers will be more flexible and available to work with students via Google docs and will offer graphic organizer/assignment planners on Google Classroom to help them better organize assignments and use taught strategies to help them complete assignments.

“This is a pilot,” she added. “If we find we have to make modifications based on feedback, we’ll do that.”

Village School Principal Amanda Murphy said grades four through six would look a little different because her students are older and would include a mixture of online and paper assignments so they would be available to everyone.

Fox said office hours will be staggered at each school and teachers by and large decided amongst themselves how they would play out. It is arranged, however, so that students will have access to at least two teachers all day, he added.

Fox said they are also still reaching out to parents whose children don’t have online access and will face technical challenges. On the plus side, gaining this knowledge gives Fox and other school officials a great opportunity to talk to families about low-cost Internet access and the availability of low-cost devices they might not otherwise be aware of, Fox noted.

If there is a loss of power, “we have a system in place for that, too,” Fox said. If students lose power, the day will be treated as an absence, but not a recorded absence, “that’s very important,” he said.

Perry was quick to note that a lot of work had gone into putting the Distance Learning Days program together, including working out an agreement with the teacher’s union. The contract essentially states that all school personnel will work on those days either providing support to students or they will do professional development at home, she said.

The committee voted 5-0 to pilot the program that will roll out on the second snow day of the year, which means if there is only one snow day this year, the program would be shelved until next winter.

School Committee Chairman Meredith Tedford thanked everyone for their hard work.

“It’s something we’ve been talking about for many years,” she said. “It’s sort of exciting, a new initiative … I think a couple of years ago we wouldn’t have had it together enough to do this. I’m really interested to see how it goes.”


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