Distance learning netting positive early returns

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Superintendent of Johnston Schools Bernard DiLullo on Tuesday said he’s been pleased with the results of the district’s distance learning rollout thus far.

DiLullo said the district has used 1-to-1 learning for a while – with every student being supplied a laptop – which allowed Johnston to be “ahead of the curve” when composing a distance learning plan for Rhode Island Department of Education approval.

The positive early returns are especially helpful, as DiLullo’s interview came shortly before Gov. Gina Raimondo announced during her daily press briefing that schools would remain closed through the month of April. The governor also announced the cancellation of the Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System, or RICAS, and the SATs.

“It is hard to believe two weeks ago I announced we would be going to distance learning and we’ve only been doing it for a week,” Raimondo said. “For me it seems like much longer and for every student and parents and teachers out there it feels like much longer than one week … it’s difficult, it’s disruptive, it’s particularly difficult for the most vulnerable. Some learning is better than no learning. I’m not throwing in the towel.”

Raimondo echoed DiLullo’s statement at a larger level, expressing satisfaction with the statewide distance learning approach. She said that she and RIDE Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green have spoken to every superintendent, and attendance rates are reported as higher than anticipated.

She said that if April goes as smoothly as the past week did, keeping the schools closed through May could be in the cards as well.

“It’s not vacation, school is still happening,” Raimondo said. “You’re going to do it at home. If you are saying why don’t I do it for longer, that answer is because I am taking an incremental approach to this whole crisis. The crisis is changing incredibly rapidly. We’re going up the curve really fast. We’ll take it 30 days at a time … for now I am confident based on every piece of information that I have, that we’ve got it in us to do this for the next month.”

DiLullo said there have been few challenges at the district level, but internet access remains an issue.

“We continue to work on that,” he said. “I heard today that Verizon is providing hotspots via smartphone without charge so families will have access to the Internet via a hotspot, and Cox Communications is responding to low-income families with low-rate internet services.”

DiLullo also lauded Raimondo’s approach to distance learning, saying it is “commendable” that she is going on a month-by-month basis rather than canceling the entire school year at once. He said his teachers are adapting well to the new style.

“It’s obviously a new way to deliver instruction,” he said. “Our teachers have been in contact with our students using the Google Classroom suite. Then some of them are using Zoom features as well, where they can interact with students face-to-face. Students are glad to see their teachers. They’re able to see them in real time. Some teachers are recording their lessons so students can go back to them at home while they’re doing work on their own.”

He added that the full maintenance staff is ensuring buildings stay up to cleanliness standards every day. DiLullo said he hopes Johnston students will follow the governor’s directive to stay home and avoid gatherings of more than five people, because “our lives will get back to normal” more quickly.

He said the administration wants to see how April progresses before making decisions on junior and senior proms, as well as graduation.

“They wait a long time to go to those, so even if we had to postpone them, we will do some form of ceremony at a later date,” DiLullo said.

Meghan J. Martelli, advancement and enrollment coordinator at St. Philip School in Greenville, said the school started preparing its plan when Raimondo made the closures official on March 13. Since the institution serves students from 3 years old to eighth grade, the approach is a bit of a blend.

Martelli said that third through eighth grade is supplied Chromebooks for 1-to-1 learning, while 3-year-olds through second graders are assigned packet work.

“They were all organized,” Martelli said. “We did two weeks out so each teacher came away with two weeks worth of work for their students. The younger grades were separated by day, every day, the teachers can connect with students through video and the teachers get to see the students’ faces.”

Saint Philip is a week ahead in distance learning, and Martelli applauded Pastor Francis C. Santilli and Principal Cynthia L. Senenko for their stewardship as the school and its families embark into uncharted territory.

“The support and encouragement from families has been overwhelming, it’s a lot,” Martelli said. “I do all the social media for the school and everybody’s got work stations set up and schedules set up. We were just continuing to roll out new things. Teachers have been brainstorming, just different ways to enhance the whole experience at home and keep the kids connected to the teachers and each other.”

Martelli said a spiritual and social events calendar has been established as well, allowing teachers and students to interact outside of the classroom. She said, for example, that kindergarten teachers could set up virtual snack time.

She, like DiLullo, praised Raimondo’s steady approach.

“The people I’ve spoken with were impressed with how the governor is handling it,” Martelli said. “A lot of schools are shutting it down, canceling school the rest of the year. Nobody wants to do that here. Her mentality of, ‘Let’s try it and see how it works,’ we’re all on board with that. Our families are, too.”

Raimondo, in an effort to add “some fun” to the stay-at-home order, also recently kicked off the April Reading Challenge. She is calling on every Rhode Islander to read every day next month, and there will be systems in place for those who cannot afford or obtain books. She said donations are pouring in for books and magazines, and libraries may even offer drive-thru services.

Raimondo also thanked students, educators and administrators several times, and offered support to parents having to juggle everyday life with kids learning from home.

“You are innovating, you’re working hard, you’re making me proud of you,” Raimondo said. “And to the students, I know this isn’t easy, it kind of stinks not to be able to go to school and see your friends … to the parents, it’s brutal to have to juggle everything and be with your kids at home but it’s the best we can do right now, and the good news this is going well and this isn’t forever. Hang in there little longer, and we’re going to get to the other side of this and one day soon we’ll be back to normal.”

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