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Schools Adjusting During Closure

Teachers Look To Stay Connected With Students

Persell Middle School eighth graders, Ryan Anderson and Damon Senear, work together on their iPads with the Nearpod app.

Sylvia Root admitted that she’s never seen anything like it before.

“I’ve been in education for over 40 years and I’ve never seen this before and I’ve never had to deal with anything like it before,” said Root, the Dunkirk City School District’s interim superintendent, of the adjustments those in education have made due to the outbreak of COVID-19.

Those adjustments have been varied in nature. Like other districts, upon being notified that schools would be closed until April 20, Dunkirk faculty and staff worked in a short period of time to prepare educational packets for students to work on with parents at home. Teachers have then checked on their students in a variety of ways.

“The students are contacted on a regular basis by Facebook, Google Classroom, Zoom and phone calls for the students that don’t have the technology,” Root said.

But, despite many attempts, Root said staff members are still struggling to reach students.

“We’re being told we have phone numbers that don’t get us where we want to go,” she said. “I’m going to be doing a robocall and I will be working with the principals and the teachers sort of on taking attendance of people who we haven’t been able to get contact with.

Of additional concern to her and other administrators across Chautauqua County are English language learners who are unable to communicate fluently or learn effectively in English, coming primarily from non-English-speaking homes and backgrounds.

Connie Foster, Jamestown Public Schools’ world languages coordinator, has similar concerns for the 180 students — approximately 4% of the district — who are part of the English as a New Language program. The program aims to “provide both integrated and stand-alone language development support to English Language Learners of all proficiency levels.”

Foster said students are categorized as one of four different “learners,” range from newcomers who don’t have any English background to those who have a command on the English language.

Levels are determined based on their performance on the New York State English as a Second Language Achievement Test.

All students have their ENL teacher as a co-teacher in a subject-area class.

“At the elementary and middle school level, English Language Arts classes have both an English teacher and an ENL teacher,” she added. “At the high school, at the two lower levels, they have to have both. At the upper levels, they can have a co-teacher teach in another core area.”

And while the 13 staff members she oversees have done their due diligence in preparing materials for their students, Foster said they too have been struggling in making a proper connection with students since schools closed on March 16 and fears that the language barrier has been part of the reason why.

“It’s a teacher-by-teacher thing,” she said, “but, when you have an English Language Learner whose parent is not maybe proficient in English, that’s probably a scary thing.”

But still, Foster noted, teachers have been persistent about checking in with their students.

“Most of them, perhaps 80 to 90% of the students, the teachers have had contact with,” she said. “But, from the teacher standpoint, it’s a heartbreaker to not be able to connect with their students on an ongoing basis and especially when they don’t hear from them and they wonder about how they are doing. They know the families and they know kids and so they have a lot of worries and concerns over them. As do all teachers.”

Root said that beyond the educational packets, Dunkirk staff also has provided resources for English Language Learners on their website that allows students to continue to practice their English while still being instructed.

“We put that website together so that they can practice on their own,” she said. “We know that part of the strategy of teaching language is to hear it and then say it and then translate it. I think that there are some disadvantages not being in the classroom, but I think that’s true for all school-age children.”

But, problems still remain for those who do not have the proper technology.

“That’s one of our issues is that we do have students who don’t have the technology and then, in some cases, we don’t have the correct information to even call them on the phone,” Root said.

In Jamestown, middle school students were each given an iPad, while Chromebooks were also provided to high school families who do not have a device at home.

“But, if you add into that some of the poverty pieces with those who don’t have the technology or are sharing one device that the school sent home, it’s not an easy thing that we’re asking them to do,” Foster added.

Decisions also become complicated regarding planning for next year, Foster said. With both the New York state elementary and middle-level exams as well as the New York State English as a Second Language Achievement Test canceled, the road as to how to proceed regarding student placement remains unclear.

“Those questions will be asked of every student in the whole state — in the whole country, really,” Foster said. “So, we’re making the assumption that they’re still going to move on to the next grade, but that they’ll still have to meet graduation requirements. We’re making our best guesses as to what they need for next year.

“We are living day-to-day here,” Root added of Dunkirk’s approach. “We’re not grading things because that’s almost impossible. It’s just a work in progress. As time goes on we should have more information, but the state education department has not necessarily enlightened us on how we should be doing things.”

For the time being, however, both administrators noted that their staff will continue trying to make connections with students whom they have not yet been able to.

“Teachers have really been doing their best effort to get in touch,” she said. “Student resource officers and Spanish-speaking members of the Jamestown Community Learning Council have gone out to the homes or has some way been able to connect with homes when we’ve not been able to. There are so many people trying really hard to connect with these kids.”

Root meanwhile noted that any parent of a student who has not yet heard from their teacher should call 366-9300 and ask for their student’s building principal. She also said that the district is looking to add hotspots in their parking lots so that families who do not have a strong data plan at home can download materials to use at home.

“We’re working on ‘attendance,’ in the sense of us being able to have our staff, our teachers, our principals have a chance to see how our students are doing with the instructional packets that we’ve given,” she said. “Many are doing that, but we still have a few. … We’re just trying to think outside the box.”

Added Root: “This is not where we want to be. We want to be teaching our children and having them in our buildings, learning, being fed and where parents then can go to work. We would like all that, but we are living in a whole different environment where our health and safety end up coming first.”

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