Schools and libraries in Lebanon County are doing what they can to keep students engaged and learning during the statewide shutdown to curtail the spread of COVID-19.
In the county’s six public school districts, superintendents are coordinating efforts to keep educational channels open during the coronavirus shutdown.
In a letter co-signed by all six superintendents, educators agreed this is an unusual situation for schools.
“We recognize that this is an extraordinary time posing a variety of challenges for our students and their families in our communities,” the letter says. “No doubt this is a time of uncertainty for all of us as we have become part of an ever-changing global health situation leaving us with many unanswered questions.
“As we continue to navigate the days ahead, we are committed to keeping the lines of communication open with our families. To that end, each district will continue to provide updates to our families through our communication networks, websites and social media outlets. This will include information regarding the vital distribution of meals for our students which we know must continue for our families.”
“We’re trying to be consistent across the county,” ELCO Superintendent Julia Vicente said in a telephone interview.
Last week, Vicente said, officials across district lines were discussing how best to handle things as the governor’s two-week shutdown, originally scheduled to end on March 30, appeared likely to be extended further.
Gov. Tom Wolf on Monday, March 23, announced that schools would remain closed at least through the first week of April.
“There have been many questions about virtual or alternative learning opportunities for the students in all of our districts during this closure,” the superintendents said in the joint statement. “Please know that each school district is providing virtual professional development this week for all of our teachers.”
The state Department of Education shared a possible timeline with superintendents that would reopen schools to faculty and staff on April 7 to prepare for students to return on April 9, the letter said. That timeline, of course, may change if the shutdown continues longer.
“We will provide additional updates as they become available,” the superintendents said. “Please know that each school district in Lebanon County, its leadership and staff, are committed to continue to serve our students and our families in every way that is possible.”
The letter is signed by Vicente and fellow superintendents Cheryl Potteiger (Annville-Cleona), Philip Domencic (Cornwall-Lebanon), Arthur Abrom (Lebanon), Gary Messinger (Northern Lebanon) and Bernie Kepler (Palmyra).
In a letter to families posted on the Lebanon School District website, the district said it was sharing resources and “we hope you will take this opportunity to give your children learning activities that will reduce their boredom, satisfy their desire to continue learning, and increase their academic skills.”
“Please note,” the letter added, “at this time, that all learning activities are optional and students will not be graded on any work completed.”
Meanwhile, teachers have been receiving new training in distance learning techniques, Vicente said.
“Each one of us is confident in the ability of our teachers to engage our students through a variety of academic learning opportunities as well as connect with them to support their social and emotional growth during the school closure,” she said.
She noted this is the first time local schools have coordinated distance learning on this scale. Part of the planning process, Vicente said, is finding options for students who don’t have devices or access to the internet at home.
Questions about specifics of the at-home learning program, Domencic said in an email, “are probably better answered next week or the following.”
“For all of us,” Vicente added, “this week is about professional learning and getting geared up and ready for next week.”
Next week, she said, teachers will be reengaging with their students, and she anticipates each district will have more information about “the incredible things that our teachers will make happen … during a time which has resulted in much upheaval.”
Deb Waters, principal at Lebanon Catholic School, said faculty members were meeting to discuss preparations for a possible shutdown when Gov. Tom Wolf announced the measure to prevent exposure to COVID-19.
“We were ready for this,” she said Wednesday. “We could see what was happening.”
The school, as part of the Harrisburg Diocese, had already gotten state approval to use five “flexible instruction” days in the event school was closed. They’d planned to use them for snow days, Waters said, but they put them to use last Monday.
“Our first priority was to make sure our families were safe,” she said. “Two, we wanted to continue with education. It’s not just review, we’re presenting new material. And three, we wanted to maintain our prayer and community.”
Flexible instruction days allow schools to offer distance learning, keeping students and teachers in touch while working from home. Schools must get an OK from the state for the program, which includes providing education to all students including those in special education programs. Schools also have to be able to monitor attendance to be sure all students are participating.
“Teachers are expected to be available by email from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.,” Waters explained. “We’re being flexible with the students with regards to what their timelines are. A lot of them are home with brothers and sisters, a lot of them have to share electronic devices.”
Students receive assignments for each of their classes, she said.
Lebanon Catholic is a pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade school, “so we have a lot of different people doing a lot of different things,” Waters said.
“The teachers didn’t skip a beat,” she added. “They were ready to go.”
Since the shutdown began, she said, teachers have been sending home powerpoint lessons and videos, using platforms such as YouTube and Google Classroom to make their assignments accessible.
“Teachers are communicating with parents and students what the day’s activities are — sometimes the night before, sometimes the morning of — and students are participating in those activities,” Waters said.
“My teachers are probably working twice as hard as they did before,” she added. “They’re transferring those lessons that they would have done in the classroom and trying to figure out how to deliver those at home. They are trying to do new learning, new material, and they’re presenting that on videos, through Google Classroom. They sent students home with textbooks and workbooks, and they’re available for questions and answers throughout the day.
“This is all new for our students, too. They’re not used to being online learners. We’re all learning new technology, sharing technology, and getting comfortable with the various platforms.”
It’s also important to maintain a sense of the Lebanon Catholic community, she said.
“We began bright and early Monday morning with a morning prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance and morning announcements,” she said. “We’re live-streaming every morning from my house via Facebook Live. … It’s been a great connection with our alumni and with the parents, as well as the students.”
The school has also been asking students to participate in daily challenges to foster that sense of community, Waters said. A lot of it involves sharing photographs — pictures from St. Patrick’s Day, of their workspace at home, of their recess, of their homeschool teachers (their parents).
“Our parents have been awesome,” she said. “They have been so grateful that we have been able to continue the education process, and that we have work for the students to do so they are occupied during the day. They are also grateful for maintaining that sense of community. It’s giving structure to their days.
“Obviously there’s some frustration about the technology, particularly if you have four kids and only one computer and one iPad at home.”
Some teachers are sending postcards to their students or talking to them on FaceTime, she said – all ways to keep in contact.
And now that the shutdown has been extended into April, Waters said, teachers “are learning new platforms so they can deliver their education more consistently.”
When schools do reopen, she said, “I think there’s going to be a giant celebration. I know that teachers want to get back in their classrooms. Our students want to see their teachers’ faces. We are a family, so high-fives and hugs in the hallway — that’s part of who we are.
“For our teachers, they’re going to have a lot of work to do, assessing the work that got done while we were away.”
The school is doing its best to ensure that seniors are able to graduate on time and younger students are able to advance to their next grade level next year, she said.
“We are looking at the curriculum to determine what is critical,” Waters said. “Although the assessments … might look a little different.”
“We will cross that bridge when we come to it,” she added. “We’re hoping we’ll be back in classrooms before the end of the year, but if we’re not we will continue to do what we’re doing.”
Michelle Hawk, director of Lebanon Community Library and district administrator of Lebanon County Libraries, noted library workers have been recording storytime sessions and posting them on Facebook so children can still enjoy the experience of hearing books read aloud.
“We’ve been, and will continue to share educational links on our Facebook page,” she said. “So many vendors and organizations have made their content available for free online – it’s been wonderful to see everyone come together during this time, and we’re sharing as much of it as we can.”
The library has also made several new purchases for its eLibrary and is planning to buy more, Hawk said.
“Library patrons can borrow ebooks and eaudiobooks for all ages,” she said. “We also tweaked the login so that current library patrons don’t need their PIN to login, and are able to login even if they have fines or if their accounts are expired. … We’re working on setting up online registration for library cards, so community members can access all of our electronic resources, even if they don’t already have a card.”
Support for the eLibrary is available at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Additional online resources, such as the POWER Library and TumbleBooks, which contains children’s picture books, graphic novels and music, as well as books for teens and adults, can be found at lebanon.lclibs.org/online-resources.
“In the weeks to come, I’m sure we’ll come up with more ways to serve remotely,” Hawk said. “This week was quite a scramble to ensure some continuity of services, while also being distracted by the pandemic. … I’ve long said that the library isn’t just about books, it’s about information, in whatever form that comes. This situation gives us a chance to highlight all of those different forms.
“We miss having the community in our libraries, because that’s a huge part of what the library is as well, but I know that once we get through this, that will return.”
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