With four boys at home and classes cancelled due to coronavirus, Cheri Gatlin was pleased when their schools’ distance learning programs got under way.
Surprisingly, her children were glad, too.
“They appreciated getting to see their teachers,” she said. “They were glad to back doing something normal.”
To parents’ and students’ relief, schools across the Northside have their distance learning programs up and running, in some cases less than a week after schools had been closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The programs represent a return of some sort of normalcy for students, who have been on vacation since March 9, the start of spring break.
That week, as the coronavirus started making its way across the United States, school leaders decided to close schools in an attempt to limit the virus’ spread.
“We’re lucky to have a big yard, so the boys can get out and throw the ball and go for a walk, but for six people, we’ve spent quite a lot of time in the house together,” she said.
Now, some of that time is being spent on the computer, interacting in a virtual classroom.
Gatlin’s sons, Jack and Louie, are high schoolers at Jackson Preparatory School. Her younger boys, Asa and JoJo, are upper elementary students at First Presbyterian Day School (FPDS).
Prep resumed classes on March 19. The schedule includes two online classes from 8:10 to 9:55 a.m., a short break and two classes from 10:10 to 11:55 a.m.; 1:30 to 3:10 p.m. is set aside as a student work period.
“From eight to one, they’re in front of their computers interacting with teachers and students. In the afternoon, they have a lot of work,” Gatlin said. “They enjoy the online classes but are sad about sports.”
On March 6, students left for spring break, thinking they would return to class the following week. Thanks to the coronavirus, though, Northside youths have yet to return to their desks. At press time, public schools had been postponed until April 17. Prep had announced that it would be closed until April 20.
School leaders say that thanks to technology, they’re well equipped to handle the shutdown.
Jackson Academy (JA), for instance, has been issuing each student a digital device for more than a decade.
Teachers there were trained to incorporate the technology into their curriculum in a way to create new ways to engage the students in the classroom, according to Dean of Technology Eddie Wettach.
“While we never intended to use that expertise like we are being asked to now, we are well prepared,” he said. “Our infrastructure, planning, support and most importantly, our teachers are up for this challenge.”
JA’s distance learning program began Monday. The school is using several applications to reach students, including Google Meet, which will allow teachers to conduct classes online.
St. Andrew’s Episcopal School is able to transition into a distance learning format, partly because of the benefits of participating in the Malone Scholars Program.
As a Malone school, St. Andrew’s has access to an online network, where students can take classes currently not available on St. Andrew’s campus.
“This is not new to us, we’re just expanding,” said Stephanie Garriga, director of institutional development.
Tom Sheppard, St. Andrew’s head of school, said the school also received guidance from the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) and learning from overseas schools that began experiencing the pandemic earlier.
“The great part about the school community is in times like this, the sense of sharing and collaboration is widespread,” he said. “We’ve been able to learn and develop upon that which has already happened at schools in other parts of the world.”
Madison County Schools’ distance learning program was also set to kick off this week.
Last week, the district was issuing Chromebooks to students in grades three through seven and working to let families know where they could get free or discounted online services.
Technology Director Gavin Guynes estimated that 10 percent of families in the district did not have Internet at home.
The school system was letting parents know about special offers from C Spire and AT&T.
C Spire, for instance, was allowing students with C Spire wireless devices to access district websites without it going toward data plans.
AT&T was offering qualifying households unlimited Internet access for $10 a month.
Paper assignments will be made available to students with no Internet access.
St. Joseph Catholic School was the first to get its distance learning program up and running, with classes getting under way on March 18.
“That was our first official day of learning school-wide. The AP teachers began Monday,” said Principal Dena Kinsey. “AP exams are planned to happen as scheduled, so (the teachers) didn’t want to let any time go by that might leave their students unprepared.”