Merrimack Valley Life

Behind the district’s pivot to Distance Learning

Inside Salem Schools


 

 

Friday, March 13 was the last day Salem students saw the inside of their classrooms. By Monday, schools would be closed. Three days later, students – kindergartners and high school seniors alike – logged into a new reality called Distance Learning.

“Those days were a blur,” recalled Maura Palmer, assistant superintendent of Salem schools. “We asked our teachers, our administrators and our IT Department to turn on a dime and transition to an online learning environment.”

The concept of taking classes online has been around for some time, but is typically reserved for college students or profession­als looking to advance their careers. The few online programs offered by the district to students are run by a third-party virtual learning academy. The district now needed to organize and facilitate online classes for more than 3,500 students.

“This wouldn’t have been possible if the building blocks were not already in place,” Palmer said. “Our strategic planning in the areas of curriculum development and technology integration allowed us to draw upon districtwide practices and procedures already in place.”

Soule Principal Angela Markley holds a virtual staff meeting with teachers early in the Distance Learning experience. Both teachers and students are learning to adapt to the new reality of working and learning from home. Courtesy photo

Soule Principal Angela Markley holds a virtual staff meeting with teachers early in the Distance Learning experience. Both teachers and students are learning to adapt to the new reality of working and learning from home. Courtesy photo

Unlike many school districts, Salem’s Information Technology Department is fully integrated in the learning process, Palmer added.

“It’s a real advantage to have IT pro­fessionals that understand the classroom as well as the technology,” she said.

“Our role is two-fold,” explained David Hasbany, director of Information Technol­ogy and the district’s chief information officer. “We first have to make sure the technology works – computers, networks, servers – all the ‘stuff.’ But at the end of the day, we’re here to add value to the educa­tional experience.”

For many years, Hasbany has been working with the department’s technology integrators and instructional leaders to in­fuse technology into district operations as well as the learning environment.

“When we introduce an application, an online service, or even a new device for students, we have to ask the question – how does this benefit learning?” he said.

One strategic goal in the technology area includes what Hasbany calls “extending the classroom.” Through the district’s adoption of Google Apps for Education, teacher web­sites and an array of online applications, students have gained experience accessing learning materials at any time, from any place.

When Gov. Chris Sununu ordered all New Hampshire schools to close March 16, this ability to extend the classroom was quickly put to the test.

Select district personnel gathered over the weekend to finalize plans they had been working on, but hoped never to deploy. The “mechanics” of a distance learning environ­ment needed to be defined. Students would need computers, families would need inter­net access, teachers would need training on new tools, and classroom websites would need to be created, modified or expanded. At the same time, curriculum leaders and administrators were working to determine how to maintain a high level of instruction with everyone working and learning from home.

Teachers arrived Monday morning to quiet hallways and empty classrooms at Salem High School. Uncertainty and mis­givings were quickly set aside as two days of intensive training followed on the tools and the teaching process to come.

“We knew this was going to be a work- in-progress,” Palmer said, looking back to the Distance Learning launch. “We all learned a lot that week, and we’re continu­ing to refine teaching methods and best practices.”

Distance Learning may be the new “nor­mal,” but the district acknowledges that there are inequities in the system and many students, parents, and teachers will struggle in this environment.

“We remain committed to providing the highest quality learning environment along with the required student support ser­vices throughout this period,” Palmer noted. “That said, we look forward to coming back together as soon as it’s feasible.”

FOOD FOR EVERY CHILD

The Salem School District is providing free meals for every Salem child 18 years old or younger – regardless of school affilia­tion. School food service employees create meals that can be picked up at select Salem schools or delivered to bus stops. Meals are provided Mondays and Wednes­days – Monday’s orders include 2 meals per child; Wednesday’s orders include 3 meals per child. Order deadline is 7am on the de­livery day. The form reopens at 2pm for the next-delivery-day meal orders. Here’s the website: sau57.org/covid19/meals.

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