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Online Learning Curve: Lessons from COVID demanded a focused approach to teacher training

Lessons learned this spring from the COVID-19 shutdown prompted a more focused approach to teacher training in the lead-up to schools reopening this fall.

School boards across Cumberland County approved modified calendars in the summer that front-loaded professional development days to right before the start of the current academic year.

Almost eight months ago, schools across Pennsylvania had to scramble to develop virtual learning programs to allow for some form of continuity of education to finish out 2019-20.

The quick pivot from in-person to virtual learning made it hard for districts to provide the same level of academic rigor and student accountability.

Normally, lesson plans follow a sequence that build upon a progression of days, said Robyn Euker, director of curriculum and instruction for Big Spring School District. “What happened in the spring was students were given activities on Mondays to work on throughout the week.”

Coursework for students enrolled in the Carlisle Area School District amounted to a simple checklist of activities and attendance was not kept in the traditional way.

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Instead, Carlisle tracked the engagement level of students, said Michael Gogoj, director of curriculum and instruction. “We were focused on just getting school back up and running.”

This approach was necessary. “Everyone was going through a traumatic event,” Euker said, referring to the sudden outbreak of the pandemic. Back then, the priority for school districts was to look out for the emotional well-being of students and families.

“You have to remember, relationships are key in getting to know students and in creating a safe learning environment,” Euker said. “It was one thing to pivot two-thirds of the way through the school year when you already know the students and the families. But starting the school year that way is very different when half the students are here and half of them are online.”

Euker

Back in the spring, school districts dealt with equity issues tied to technology. Not every household had a reliable device or internet connection to make virtual learning accessible to all.

“Our parents and staff members were not in a position to go full bore,” said David Christopher, superintendent of the Cumberland Valley School District. Like Big Spring, the emphasis at CV was on taking care of students in the early days of a pandemic when academic rigor was not as important as relationship building.

In a way, the timing of the crisis helped school districts. Normally, part of the spring is taken up by state testing that includes preparing students for the exams, Christopher said. Instead, school districts used that time to begin the groundwork to reopen schools this fall.

Drawing lessons from the spring, educators developed instructional delivery models that range from fully virtual to fully in-person with hybrid options that combine elements of both. The idea behind the continuum was to provide flexibility in response to the infection pattern of the virus.

Online Learning Curve: Districts address emotional wear-and-tear of COVID-19, virtual learning

“This is a really challenging year for everybody,” said Michael Gogoj, director of curriculum and instruction for the Carlisle Area School District. “Our students are struggling with this new educational world. Our teachers are working really hard to learn and manage new systems. Our families are working hard to step in as their child’s teacher and to take on entirely new roles in the educational process."

“Our students and staff did a really good job quickly adapting to new routines in the spring, but we knew we had to make some changes,” Gogoj said.

Like many districts, Carlisle used learning management systems as a supplement to classroom instruction, said Stephanie Douglas, director of digital learning and technology. Before the crisis, Seesaw and Schoology played a relatively minor role in elementary and secondary education within the district.

Last spring, Carlisle teachers made greater use of the two platforms as the principal method to post the checklists of activities and to maintain communications with students and families.

“It was a huge learning curve for teachers, students and parents,” Douglas said. “It took some time to get used to it. It required a lot of adjusting and some troubleshooting along the way.”

The companies that provide Seesaw and Schoology have been working hard since the spring to improve their systems in response to the increased demand from districts, she said.

Part of the focus of professional development was on technology training along with a discussion of best practices for every grade level and academic department, Gogoj said. The goal over the summer was to move away from weekly checklists toward more academic rigor and stronger accountability in the fall.

“We have gone back to traditional attendance and traditional grading and assessment procedures,” Gogoj said. “We learned we had to have more consistency in our courses across the district. Students needed to see and hear from their teachers more, if not in person, then through videos.”

“We spent a lot of time to help teachers create instructional videos,” Douglas said. “We created best practices for teachers to follow when they create assignments [using the platforms].”

In the process of professional development, Carlisle teachers have developed their own workshops and courses to share with colleagues.

Since the spring, local district officials said they have addressed issues of equity by distributing devices and hotspots to families that have technology and access issues.

In Big Spring, school administrators teamed up with instructional coaches to help teachers identify the critical content areas to focus on for the launch of livestream lessons direct from each classroom, Euker said.

A key component of this training was how to prepare lessons for students watching from home while keeping engaged those students attending in-person classes under the hybrid model, she said.

Photos: Mechanicsburg Area School District distributes loaner computer devices to students

Photos: Mechanicsburg Area School District distributes loaner computer devices to students

Education
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Online Learning Curve: Administrators weigh outbreaks in schools, community as they make decisions to close schools
  • 5 min to read

A school district administrator is asking Carlisle area residents to limit their social gatherings this Thanksgiving to just the immediate family.

“I know that’s difficult right now going into the holiday season,” Superintendent Christina Spielbauer said during a school board meeting Thursday. “We have to work together as a community to try to mitigate the spread of this virus.”

This past Sunday, Spielbauer ordered all Carlisle district school buildings closed through Nov. 30 due to the recent spike in COVID-19 cases across Cumberland County.

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Since then, Cumberland Valley, Mechanicsburg and South Middleton school districts have also announced building closures for the days leading up to the Thanksgiving break. These decisions are being driven by a growing number of cases in the county and breakouts in each district.

With each building closure, more students are studying remotely at home.

“We understand the short-term closure has many impacts on families and our teaching staff,” Spielbauer said. “Right now, it’s community spread. It’s not considered school spread but, if we can’t get it under control in our community, it will become school spread and we will have a larger challenge on our hands.”

Spielbauer

Spielbauer called on residents to buckle down and focus on mitigation so that Carlisle schools can reopen to in-person instruction on Dec. 1, which is the current schedule.

“Make sure we are wearing our masks above the nose, not below the nose,” Spielbauer said. “Make sure we are washing our hands frequently or use a hand sanitizer. Maintain social distance. We really need to limit our gathering size.”

As of Thursday, Carlisle officials reported 30 positive cases of COVID-19 in the district, though not all of them are active. Before the closure began, the district had about 140 students and staff in quarantine due to exposure to a positive case at home, Spielbauer said. The goal of closing buildings for two weeks is to reduce the number of cases, she said.

Many factors

Like Carlisle, South Middleton School District set Dec. 1 as the goal for students to return to in-person instruction at all buildings. But in a letter to families Wednesday, Superintendent Matthew Strine outlined another scenario.

“My plan is to go remote for the three days prior to the Thanksgiving break,” Strine told parents. “However, this time in remote learning may extend longer if conditions in Cumberland County do not improve. You should be prepared for the possibility that remote learning will extend into December (maybe longer). Your planning should include work areas within your home as well as possible child care options.”

The letter mentioned how the incidence rate for COVID cases in the county went from 77.6 per 100,000 people reported for the week of Nov. 9 to 185.3 per 100,000 reported on Wednesday.

Joseph Cress, The Sentinel 

Strine

During a virtual board meeting Monday, Strine read aloud emails from local parents asking for details on the process administrators use to determine when a building closure is warranted.

“County numbers are a factor, but not the only factor,” Strine said. “I really look inside our school district.”

The analysis takes into account cases involving not only students, but also adults who have to quarantine due to close contact with COVID-positive students, he said.

As of Monday, South Middleton officials said they had 12 active COVID cases at different points in a continuum. Some cases were identified over two weeks ago, while others were more recent, Strine said. Of the 12 cases, nine involved students enrolled at Boiling Springs High School. Those nine cases forced the quarantine of four administrators, three teachers, four secretaries and a technology staff member.

“My biggest fear is I will not have enough adults to efficiently and effectively run our system,” Strine said “That is a determining factor. It’s not because people don’t want to come to work. It’s because the rules are you quarantine for 14 days.”

“A lot goes into every decision,” he said. “None of it is taken lightly. Numerous people are involved in this.” Part of the challenge is balancing out the negative and positive effects of moving to remote learning versus the negative and positive effects of staying in-person.

On Monday, Strine participated in a virtual meeting attended by state Department of Education officials and school district superintendents from Cumberland and Perry counties. The purpose of the call was to address the rising number of COVID-19 cases in both counties.

Education Department officials advised the superintendents that it was up to each school district to decide whether to move students from in-person to remote instruction. Their recommendation was to seriously consider the move should the counties experience a second straight week of substantial spread. Strine brought this up when he addressed the emails from parents.

Online Learning Curve: Districts address emotional wear-and-tear of COVID-19, virtual learning

“This is a really challenging year for everybody,” said Michael Gogoj, director of curriculum and instruction for the Carlisle Area School District. “Our students are struggling with this new educational world. Our teachers are working really hard to learn and manage new systems. Our families are working hard to step in as their child’s teacher and to take on entirely new roles in the educational process."

While districts can follow a set of general state guidelines, school administrators have to be mindful of the particular needs and conditions within their own district, Strine said. “It’s very difficult to come up with an absolute.”

Districts have different student populations who attend a different number of schools with a different number of classrooms and building layouts. On top of that, state guidelines have been in flux in terms of social distancing within classrooms and the protocols of when and where students need to wear masks.

“We are working with a changing target,” Strine said.

Transition shelved

As of Friday, Big Spring School District still operated in a hybrid model that allows for a blend of in-person and remote instruction. During a meeting Wednesday, Superintendent Richard Fry said the situation with COVID-19 is extremely fluid and could change overnight.

“Right now, our case numbers do not necessitate a move to Tier One, but the district is ready,” Fry said. Tier One is the fully remote option. One area of concern is the growing incidence rate and how the spread elsewhere could impact the communities served by Big Spring.

Michael Bupp, The Sentinel 

Fry

“It’s disturbing on our end as we watch that data increase,” Fry said.

Statistics show that 8% of Cumberland County cases involve school-aged children, he said. Eighty percent of the 8% are secondary students attending middle or high schools.

“Twenty-three percent of the positives are driven by specific outbreaks,” Fry said. “Contact tracers can trace the case back to a specific outbreak involving three or more people. Seventy-seven percent are the result of community spread. That’s an inability to trace. That makes the district more hesitant when we don’t know where it’s coming from.”

Since late September, Big Spring has been working on a proposal to transition elementary school students from a Tier Two to a Tier Three model of instruction starting in early December.

Tier Two involves two days of in-person instruction and three days of remote learning. Tier Three would involve in-person instruction Monday through Thursday. The recent uptick in COVID-19 cases has forced Big Spring to shelve that transition.

From day one, it was important for Big Spring to open the school year in Tier Two because that model was regarded as the one that could keep the district open in the long-term, Fry said. “We’ve accomplished that goal but it is becoming more worrisome day-by-day.”

Fry used three key dates to illustrate the steady increase in the incidence and positivity rates of COVID-19 cases within Cumberland County.

On March 13, when the state started to collect data, the average seven-day incidence rate was three per 100,000 while the positivity rate was 4.7%, he said. By Sept. 28, when Big Spring started work on its proposal, the incidence rate had climbed to 16 per 100,000 with a positivity rate of 3.7%. Back then, the case numbers looked encouraging and the target date of Dec. 1 to initiate the transition seemed feasible.

Six weeks later, on Nov. 14, the incidence rate had climbed to 79.1 per 100,000 with a 9.2% positivity rate.

Photos: South Middleton School District computer distribution

Photos: South Middleton School District computer distribution
Associated Press 

In this Nov. 5, 2020, file photo, custodial workers clean a classroom at Richard A. Simpson Elementary School in Arnold, Mo. 

Sentinel file  

Pictured is the entrance to Carlisle High School.


Coronavirus
Cumberland County reports 84 new COVID-19 cases, 7 deaths

The state Department of Health reported Friday that Cumberland County saw 84 cases of COVID-19 and seven new deaths associated with the disease.

The number of deaths ties the highest single-day total for the county, which also recorded seven deaths on May 5. The county has reported 15 deaths in the last three days, the most COVID-19 deaths its has reported in a three-day period.

The number of patients hospitalized in the county with COVID-19 rose by four Friday with 58 patients listed on the Health Department dashboard.

Friday’s report snaps of run of three straight days with more than 100 new cases reported in the county. It is, however, the 17th straight day the county’s 14-day per-capita rate has increased, which sits at a new high of 502.03 cases per 100,000 people. The 7-day average is 102.57.

Judging by just the number of negative tests (390) and confirmed positive tests (75) reported Friday, the county saw about 16% of its tests come back positive.

The 17055 ZIP code (Upper Allen Township) reported the most cases of any in the county this week with 132. The township is home to Messiah Lifeways and Messiah College.

The 17013 ZIP code (Carlisle) reported 113 new cases this week. That ZIP code is home to Claremont Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.

Messiah Lifeways in Upper Allen Township and Claremont Nursing and Rehabilitation Center near Carlisle have both reported multiple resident deaths this week as they deal with virus breakouts.

The 17257 ZIP code (Shippensburg) had 87 new cases this week. That is home to Shippensburg University.

Shippensburg University said on its website that it has had 190 reported positive COVID-19 student cases and 8 reported positive COVID-19 staff/faculty cases since the start of the semester as of Thursday. The university said it has 92 active student cases and six active staff/faculty cases.

Three counties in the southcentral region reported more than 100 cases Friday with Blair County topping the region with 233, the eighth highest total in the state. York County reported 150 cases and Dauphin County 123. Mifflin, Franklin and Blair counties each reported four deaths.

Across the state, there were 108 deaths Friday attributed to COVID-19. The department reported 6,808 additional positives. The Health Department report said there are 2,952 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the state. Of that number, 659 patients are in the intensive care unit. Most of those hospitalized are ages 65 or older, and most of the deaths have occurred in patients 65 or older.

Claremont death

Claremont Nursing and Rehabilitation Center reported one resident died due to the COVID-19 virus, Cumberland County officials said in a news release Friday.

The county-run facility had reported three deaths related to COVID-19 on Tuesday.

As of the latest universal testing results, one additional employee and five residents have tested positive for COVID-19 at the facility. The facility has 49 residents and 16 employees who have tested positive since weekly testing resumed on Nov. 5.

County officials said that since the pandemic began in February, four residents have died, 51 residents and 28 staffers have tested positive for the virus. All visitation has ceased, with the exception of end of life.

Messiah Lifeways in Upper Allen Township reported no new deaths Friday on its website as it deals with a COVID-19 breakout in its skilled nursing facility.

The facility, which is receiving help from the Pennsylvania National Guard this week, has reported 14 deaths to date and has 74 active cases for residents and 50 active cases for staff members, according to its website.


Education
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Big Spring Schools
Rise in COVID cases across county forces Big Spring to shelve Tier Three transition plan for elementary schools

Big Spring School District has shelved a proposal to transition elementary school students to classroom instruction four days a week.

The recent uptick in COVID-19 cases across Cumberland County has made it impractical for the district to move the students from a Tier Two to a Tier Three model of instruction starting in early December, Superintendent Richard Fry said Wednesday during a virtual town hall meeting.

On the week Fry briefed Big Spring families on the status of the proposal, nearby school districts closed their buildings through the end of November and have switched over to fully remote instruction.

For now, Big Spring will continue to operate its buildings under the Tier Two hybrid model where all grade levels attend school two days a week for in-person instruction and stay at home three days a week for remote instruction.

The proposal that was under review would have moved elementary students to Tier Three so that they could attend school in person Monday through Thursday. Under that scenario, the students would not attend school on Friday because that’s the day set aside for custodial staff to do a thorough cleaning of district buildings and for teachers to prepare lesson plans for classroom and livestream instruction.

School districts countywide are monitoring data on the infection rate of COVID-19 in their communities. Every district developed a plan over the summer to provide a range of instruction from fully in-person to fully remote with hybrid options in between.

If conditions warrant it, Big Spring is ready to transition to Tier One, the fully remote model, in one or more of its buildings, Fry said Wednesday. In terms of academic rigor, Tier One would be an improvement over what was offered in the spring when the outbreak of the pandemic forced the closure of schools statewide and districts to pivot suddenly to online instruction, he said.

The process

On Sept. 28, Big Spring launched the process to prepare its elementary schools for the possible transition to Tier Three as early as Dec. 1. Back then, data showed a lower incidence of community spread and positivity. This made the target date look promising.

However, conditions have worsened in recent weeks to the point where Cumberland County is seeing its highest number of new cases per day and its highest percent positivity. That rise in cases prompted Big Spring officials to rethink the timeline and shelve the Tier Three transition plan, at least for now.

Though a setback, the target date of Dec. 1 provided incentive for Big Spring administrators and faculty members to prepare the groundwork needed to switch to Tier Three within six to 10 days of a decision being made to go with the transition, Fry said. “It was a great line in the sand. It really forced us to get the work done. We’ve accomplished a tremendous amount since Sept. 28. We promised [families] we would examine our ability to move to Tier Three. We are ready to move forward when the data presents itself in a manner that allows us to do that.”

Specifically, transition team members adjusted bus routes, modified school schedules and updated the district strategy on how to socially distance elementary school students in Tier Three.

“We are ready to go with Plexiglass dividers in classrooms,” Fry said Wednesday. The district has worked out a schedule of rolling arrival and dismissal times to spread out elementary students so they don’t gather in large groups at points of access and egress, he said.

“I am hopeful we can get three or four months in Tier Three for our students this [school] year,” Fry said. “But we can’t hurry it along and risk the health and safety of students and staff. Nothing is more important to us than bringing all of our kids back. Our teachers want nothing more than that. But we also have to balance the health, safety and wellness of all involved.”

Thought Exchange In the leadup to Wednesday’s meeting, the district hosted an online survey through the Thought Exchange platform to gather public input on what excites and concerns Big Spring families about the proposal to move elementary students to in-person instruction Monday through Thursday. Thought Exchange allows the district to field questions to certain groups or to the Big Spring community as a whole. Participants in the process can anonymously submit as many thoughts and ideas as they desire and they can rate the thoughts of others. The more the public participates, the more the input is read and evaluated until the most valued thoughts emerge, providing insight for district leaders to consider as they deliberate policy. Assistant Superintendent Kevin Roberts reviewed the Thought Exchange results during Wednesday’s meeting. According to him, there were 121 participants evenly spread among the district’s three elementary school buildings — Mount Rock, Newville and Oak Flat. The thoughts that drew the strongest response were: “Cases are worse than ever. If you were going to go back full time, you should have done it from the beginning when it was less.” “I am afraid that the trajectory to open is not in line with the increasing case rates across the country and Cumberland County.” “While I would love for my children to be back face to face with their teachers, I think it is unwise at this time to send students back full-time.” “Getting my child’s education back on track would be great. However, his health is more important.” Thought Exchange also provided data on the common ground between participants who didn’t think early December was the right time to move to Tier Three and participants who knew the risks but wanted students back in school full-time.(tncms-asset)bfbe8984-d359-11ea-93f9-00163ec2aa77[4](/tncms-asset) “The consensus on both sides was continuity,” Roberts said. “If we start back full face-to-face, the concern is it will shut down quickly as cases go up. The second area of consensus is social distancing. If we are to move into full face-to-face, they were very interested and concerned about the amount of distancing that we [the district] can provide.” The last area of consensus was whether there was enough evidence to support the effectiveness of face shields for source control. The survey mentioned that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention do not recommend the use of face shields as a substitute for masks. In his remarks, Fry outlined the road ahead. “It’s just a situation where we’re not able to keep families happy,” the superintendent said. “We’re going to do our best on a daily basis to deliver within the protocols and within the data we receive daily.” To view a recording of the virtual town meeting, visit the district website at www.bigspringsd.org/ and scroll down the homepage to “District News.” From there, clink on the link to “Elementary Tier 3 Virtual Town Hall Meeting Recording.” >Photos: Big Spring hosts

graduating seniors car parade June 5

Photos: Big Spring hosts graduating seniors car parade Friday

Northern’s Spencer Siverling, right, blocks Mars Area’s Nabil Lahlou from getting the to ball during the first half in the PIAA Class 3A Championship game Friday at Hersheypark Stadium.