Update on Distance Learning in Sarasota County

Interview with Dr. Stephen Covert, Pine View School Principal

In this period of uncertainty, classrooms remain silent while bedrooms and dining tables become our new learning nooks. With distance learning being their current circumstance, students look ahead to the fall and a return of normalcy, whatever that may look like. We had the chance to catch up with Pine View School’s Principal, Stephen Covert, on how things are going and what will be in store for graduates.

Thank you, Mr. Covert, for sharing your insight. You, along with countless other educators are showing students and families how to persevere in the face of adversity. Some lessons are more aptly learned “on the job,” and as Dr. Covert explains, local students and teachers are seizing this at-home opportunity to strike creativity and extend empathy and kindness to others.

Plans in place

Suncoast Post: Florida is used to having emergency preparedness plans in place for schools but dealing with COVID-19 is an entirely unique situation. Can you describe what plans may have been in place for natural emergencies and how those have been adapted to suit the needs of Sarasota County students? What was the timeline and turnaround involved with finding suitable platforms for the students to use, providing instruction to the teachers and planning for at least the duration of online distance learning?

Stephen Covert: The district’s ICAN plan is truly a remarkable creation over a very short period of time, involving instructional resource personnel and leaders from the district to give a framework, guidance, and set expectations for our students, families, and teachers in an unprecedented time. There is no manual or playbook for how to handle a worldwide pandemic like this, so kudos to the ICAN team at the district and Dr. Laura Kingsley for her leadership and guidance in getting this done in such a quick time frame.

Chris Renouf and Steve Cantees, executive directors of elementary and secondary education and their instructional directors worked with principals to get it to teachers, and the instructional specialists and resource personnel at the district provided training on incredibly short notice. Each principal worked with her or his faculty and staff to focus our efforts on connections, relationships, and support for our students and families- the mantra has been from day 1, “grace before grades!” We have focused our energies on routines, appropriate instructional expectations, and ensuring contact and connections with our communities of students. Kudos to our teachers who are absolutely magnificent!

Help for families

We all understand that families are going through so much right now, and we want them to know that the teachers and schools are there for them- including school counselors, therapists, school social workers, and school psychologists for assistance. We even have our Sarasota Schools Police Department to make welfare checks for students if we do not hear from them. It truly has been a testament to the resourcefulness and dedication of all the educational professionals in Sarasota County that continuity in operations and instruction has continued. Our facilities department, construction, food nutrition services, aides, bus drivers, and custodians have all chipped in and pulled together to make sure the needs of our community are being met.

Creative teachers

Teacher of the Year finalists 2019-2020

SP: How have you seen the students and teachers adapt? Can you cite some examples of the sheer ingenuity some of these educators are coming up with to remain engaged with their students in creative and fun ways?

SC: I have had the privilege of “Zoom”ing in with teachers, reading to students, observing lessons, and hosting virtual faculty meetings and meetings with students, and it is a remarkable transformation in how we do business. There is no substitute for the magic of having students physically present in a class with a highly-qualified teacher in the presence of highly-rigorous expectations and content, but this virtual learning ICAN plan can be thought of, metaphorically, as a lifeboat; not a cruise ship!

There are no panaceas and certainly distance learning fits into this category- we have seen situations where it simply does not meet the learning needs of the student, and we have made adjustments. There are also students and content which pair well in this environment, and that is wonderful. In the virtual environment, so much of the responsibility and actual learning falls on the student and parents- who, in this pandemic, are struggling with being out of work, not having a background in various subject areas, and at the high school and advanced levels, may not be able to support their students on their own.

Using learning management systems

Teachers have utilized various learning platforms (i.e., learning management systems like Blackboard or Canvas) and technologies such as Zoom, Microsoft TEAMS, or google voice phone chats. They have been creative to structure “office hours” so there is a predictable time each week when students know they can reach their teacher for questions, and I have seen our teachers extend their natural creativity into this environment, as well.

Teachers have created assignments which cause students to think about themselves and the world around them, become critical thinkers of the complex health issues facing the world, and it has forced them to think outside the traditional “box” of classroom instruction. Kudos to our teachers and students for being flexible and creative and willing to think differently about learning.

Guidance for missing activities

SP: What guidance can you provide to seniors and other students who are distraught at missing proms, year-end activities and graduations?

SC: We are working diligently on creating an in-person graduation ceremony on July 19 and a seniors celebration for July 17th with more details to follow.

We conducted a poll of our seniors because we highly value their voice, and they expressed a strong desire to have an in-person ceremony at some point when it is safe. There is a wonderful group of parents at Pine View, PVA, who are also planning activities to honor and celebrate our seniors, as well. We will be planning virtual celebrations for our 5th and 8th grade students and will likely conduct those via Zoom or live stream.

Recently, two teams of students placed 1st and 5th in the United States in a Math competition (Mathworks MegaMath Competition) and two Pine View students qualified to compete in the world Chemistry Olympiad, so the achievements continue even though students are not physically in the classrooms!

Photos courtesy of Sarasota County Schools Facebook page.

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2020-05-05