Deerfield school administrators are laying plans for what virtual learning will look like for students and families this fall.

The Deerfield School Board decided on July 27 to start the 2020-21 school year virtually, and to gradually phase students back into school buildings in-person.

Superintendent Michelle Jensen said at an Aug. 3 committee of the whole meeting that administrators will ease families and staff back into the school year, not setting hard expectations at least for the first week.

The district is planning on using the at least first week of school, Sept. 1-4, to reconnect parents and teachers, teach online tools and settle into a routine.

“By the time we get to starting classes…we want to feel pretty darn sure that everybody’s ready to follow a student schedule,” Jensen said. “How many days will it take us to get everybody on the same page?”

Deerfield’s plan for virtual learning right now includes the taking of regular attendance, a return to scaled grading and grade point averages, some synchronous (real time) learning and set daily schedules, the district’s back-to-school report said.

There is a lot of learning the first week, for both families and staff, Jensen said.

“There are some big learning curves,” Jensen said, and that some people may be challenged by that.

“You may need to take as much time as you need in the beginning to get people up to speed and comfortable, to have a good launch… rather than trying to rush into it,” board member Nathan Brown said.

“You really need to have a good launch at the beginning to keep it going,” Jensen agreed, because “we’re very likely going to have to go back into this,” after phasing back in person.

“ Lots of families had various experiences in the spring...I think there’s some of that fear in starting,” board member Autumn Knudtson added. “I’m glad to hear more time taken up front to get a solid foundation.”

It’s likely, Jensen said, that the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction will offer the option for districts to waive instructional minute requirements, like it did last spring. That gives Deerfield the flexibility to ease into the school year, Jensen said.

Staff are preparing to hold Ready, Set, Go conferences, in the first two weeks of the year, Jensen said.

These will be 15-minute meetings between students, families and teachers, to allow parents to share their concerns and thoughts directly with teachers, Jensen said. The elementary school started the conferences last year.

It’s likely those conferences will happen at the elementary, middle and high school levels, she added, either virtually or in-person.

Deerfield teachers and administrators, Jensen said, are also making tutorials about online resources for students and parents.

The district uses content management software like Canvas, Google Classroom and Seesaw, to organize classwork and assignments online, Jensen said.

Families and students may both need to be more familiar with those tools in September than they were last spring, Jensen said, and families may be using a different software than they had used previously. That’s why administrators plan on making time the first week of the school year to teach those tools.

“There’s some learning that really needs to take place before, all of a sudden, we start going live. It’s not as easy as just telling parents ‘okay we’re going to start, and you should know how to use Seesaw,’” Jensen said. “That’s not really the reality.”

That also applies to teachers, Jensen said, who don’t begin their contracts until Aug. 24 or 25.

Jensen said staff may need more than three and a half days of professional development to prepare for virtual learning and to check in with families.

“Typically, they’re going to get ready for in-person teaching, which they’ve been doing for many, many years,” Jensen said. “They’re planning for something completely opposite.”

Jensen said administrators are still finalizing the daily schedule students will follow while learning virtually.

They’re trying to work out how to make sure students of all ages can hold their lunch breaks at the same time, in case older students are looking after younger students. Jensen said they want breaks in the day to line up for families.

Staff are trying to figure out how to teach a full day, without having students sit in front of a screen for eight hours, Jensen also said.

“We can’t have students on a computer the length of a school day, it’s just not healthy,” Jensen said.

Knudtson asked administrators to distribute a daily schedule, and a modified calendar for September, to families sooner rather than later.

Knudtson said that parents, herself included, need to know what will be required.

“I think people are wondering...what should I plan for Sept. 1, what is that going to look like for me?” Knudtson asked.

Jensen said a survey will go out to families this week, asking them about their technology needs, their household situation and what the district should know in order to best serve students virtually.

Families will be able to request on that survey the number of school-issued Chromebooks they will need, and whether they need a wireless hotspot from the district.

Board member Sandy Fischer suggested releasing a timeline of when information will be circulated, so parents will know when more is coming.

“Everybody is working as fast as they can,” Jensen added.

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