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Cayman schools have responded to disasters in the past. Emergencies like hurricanes and fires are events administrators know to prepare for. But a global pandemic is a challenge like no other.
“This is a totally different thing,” said Jeremy Moore, director of Cayman International School. “Shutting down for one day because of a landfill fire is very different than shutting down for many weeks.”
The school launched its remote-learning scheme on Wednesday, 18 March, just two days after the government closed all educational institutions until at least 27 April in response to coronavirus.
While Moore said the school had hoped for more time to prepare, he applauded teachers, saying they were stepping up to the challenge.
“We had been talking about it, making preparations for several weeks, but it’s a huge challenge to take your entire school and move it from in person, on campus, to an online environment,” Moore said.
“So, we had a couple of days together where we collaborated intensely and really trialled a lot of things and put together a pretty solid programme.”
The school’s online Home Learning Program uses digital tools like Google Classroom and Google Meets to facilitate group-learning time.
For secondary students, Moore said many of these programmes are already familiar.
“Our whole secondary school is built through Google Classroom,” he said.
“So, it’s much less of a learning curve for all of our secondary students from grade 6 all the way through grade 12.”
For elementary students, the switch to distance learning has required more of a transition. Younger students are learning to use platforms like Seesaw for videos and activities, and Clever for content-specific lessons.
“Our teachers are making videos, which the kids love. That is just fantastic because they still get to see their teachers. And the teachers will even have a birthday sing-along for students,” he said.
For CIS second grade teacher Amanda Brown, remote teaching has required new ways of thinking and approaching student needs.
Her students start the morning by logging into the home-learning website where they find a greeting video from their homeroom teacher, the day’s lessons, activities and assignments. Learning incorporates a combination of group, online lessons, as well as independent, offline activities, to allow students to disconnect.
“As teachers, we’re trying our best to create meaningful, engaging opportunities for children that utilise a combination of both online and offline activities, trying our best to limit screen time for children and ourselves,” Brown said.
“Teachers are able to help students and parents navigate the day virtually by email, messages, and even phone calls. It’s been a learning journey for all of us, but we are making the most of this challenging crisis.”
Teaching teams meet virtually as well. Administrators, teachers, counsellors and support staff come together through Google Meets several times a week.
At Cayman Prep and High School, classes are hosted through Microsoft Teams, and assignments are facilitated through a virtual learning website, explained high school science teacher Rebecca Wall. Students log in and can then work on assignments at their own pace, using email for feedback and guidance.
“Obviously, this is very new for both students and teachers, so as a school, we are reflecting on the feedback we are receiving from both parents and students, and making adjustments as necessary,” she said.
Wall has been trying to plan experiments that students can practise at home to encourage hands-on learning and investigative work.
“Our students have been coping so well with this dramatic change to their normal lives. My younger students have been sending me some amazing videos of the science investigations they’ve carried out at home,” Wall said.
“The older students are becoming increasingly adept at navigating their way around the Microsoft Teams site and exploring its various features.”
At Hope Academy, teachers are using a combination of Google Meets and Microsoft Teams, depending on classroom familiarity and comfort with each platform, explained teacher Craig Lang.
“We follow our regular class schedule and work virtually with our students in every class. For our younger students, our teachers are in daily correspondence with our students’ parents, facilitating home learning and providing lessons and practice work for each subject. Our online lessons are similar to the classroom lesson structure,” Lang said.
So far, he said, most students have been positive about the changes, although many miss their friends and the face-to-face interaction.
“Students and teachers alike miss the social component to education, where so much of what we do thrives on the energy in the classroom. The lightbulb moments are harder to see online, but there is still a lot of laughter and enjoyment. Online courses are much more independent, which works well for some and less so for others,” Lang said.
The challenges created by the online format have highlighted the importance of collaboration. To make the process work, schools and families have had to strengthen support structures. Parents have had to step in and fill roles often carried out by teachers. For younger students, especially, Moore said, parents play an important part in successful home learning.
“Elementary and early childhood students rely on facilitation and guidance from their parents to some extent. So, parents have had a huge challenge,” Moore said.
“For our nursery students, our teachers are doing sing-alongs and read-alouds and music lessons, and a lot of it is via video. And a lot of it obviously requires parents to be by their side as part of the process.”
Managing family and student stress
The extra support required has made many parents more appreciative of the work teachers do, Moore said.
But educators, as well, have had to become more aware of the stressors students are facing at home. Older students are facing uncertainty about college attendance next year, for example, as many standardised year-end exams, such as the IB, SAT and GCSE, are interrupted.
Younger students, on the other hand, are having difficulty processing everything that has happened, said Brown, who works with elementary students at CIS.
“Our school counsellors have been incredibly supportive by providing materials and lessons to the children and making phone calls to families who need support,” Brown said.
“Some families are facing family crises as well – whether it be a family member abroad who is in the hospital or the family not all together yet, so we’re trying to remind everyone that their first priority is staying well as a family.”
To support struggling students, CIS science teacher Bill LaMonte suggested checking in with young people individually to hear their feedback and concerns. He said many have actually felt more freedom in their learning, but they are also feeling the effect of social isolation.
“There are inevitably students who struggle to create structures and schedules of learning for themselves. Many of these students were identified prior to the roll-out of the distance-learning programme and then monitored daily,” he said.
“Teachers created grade level WhatsApp groups so that teachers could share any problems that arose or solutions that may work. Students who struggled the most were given one-on-one guidance support via conference call, and their parents were contacted to discuss alternate strategies.”
Responding to the mental health needs of students will be an ongoing process, as the situation continues to evolve. For now, he said, student groups like Protect Our Future and the Youth Ambassador Programme, which is under the Alex Panton Foundation, are finding ways to support each other remotely. Through online youth panels, currently in the works, he said students hope to address each other’s questions about anxiety and the effects of social distancing.
Support measures for public education outlined
Minister of Education Juliana O’Connor-Connolly addressed the public on Friday, 20 March, to explain measures being taken to respond to public-education needs.
Digital tools, like Zoom, Everest and WhatsApp, are being used to connect teachers and students in government schools.
The free version of Zoom allows 40-minute sessions and up to 100 participants, so that teachers can provide regular lessons, the minister said.
A survey had been sent out to parents to assess their access to technology, she added. By Friday, she reported 1,600 responses had been received.
“Each school has provided educational instruction through a combination of channels, including paper-based learning packages, a daily timetable and access to online platforms,” the minister said.
Digital tools being utilised include Raz Kids, EDU365 Everest, Study Ladders, Purple Mash, Oxford Owl, Epic and PowerMath.
To ensure students receive their regular school meals, the minister said a voucher and daily lunch programme is being supported by Kiwanis and Feed Our Future.
“All primary school cafeteria providers are on board. Feed Our Future will pay cafeteria operators directly using existing protocols,” a government press release stated, adding that the organisation will purchase vouchers from Foster’s and deliver those to schools, and will also collect Kiwanis vouchers.
Parents were encouraged to provide their children quiet, distraction-free workplaces so that students can focus on their learning.
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