Concerns for public health as the number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus known as COVID-19 has increased have created an unprecedented situation in most industries.
Operations at Gwinnett County Public Schools, which enrolls some 179,000 students and more than 23,000 employees figured to be extremely disrupted by school closures, which were made official on Thursday afternoon. The district announced it will shift to digital learning starting Monday and continuing through March 20.
The instruction piece of the unprecedented transition may actually be the least jarring part for GCPS teachers and students. Since the 2017-18 school year, the district has instituted four digital learning dates due to inclement weather. Four Gwinnett schools — GSMST, Dacula High School, Coleman Middle School and Paul Duke STEM High School — pre-schedule digital learning days.
For the school district as a whole, the five days of digital learning are more days than the district has had in the past two years combined, but the process is at least familiar to all GCPS students and teachers.
“We learned a lot through the process of having our first digital learning days,” Associate Superintendent of Curriculum and Instructional Support Jonathan Patterson said. “And the things that we learned was the assignments were often too long and that students had to share devices.”
There will be some inevitable challenges, Patterson said. The first is access. GCPS students that don’t have access to technology to log onto eClass will be given the opportunity to make up work they missed.
Attendance for previous digital learning days has been between 81% and 89%. Teachers are asked to monitor for students that seem to have trouble accessing eClass to be reported to school administrators, who would work to provide makeup materials or perhaps a textbook. Teachers were asked to survey students prior to Friday’s student/teacher holiday to account for students with limited or no access to technology.
Patterson said the district office has also communicated with its partner that provides its digital learning tool, Desire 2 Learn, regarding its own infrastructure. The platform is used by school districts and colleges across the country and there a concerns that as traffic builds up, the tool will meet the demand for access.
“We do anticipate some challenges with access or periods slow connection,” Patterson said. “It will require some patience.”
Teachers and students were asked this week to practice uploading assignments for students to access. GCPS asked teachers to be prepared prior to winter break in the event there may be a digital learning day when school is back in January.
“The challenge is with staff members feeling comfortable with the tool,” Patterson said. “But we have structures in place as well.”
Teachers will load assignments into the Learning Management System that is commonly called eClass. Students log into the portal to download and submit assignments. Directors in the office of curriculum and instruction have worked to build sample lessons for all teachers. They’ve even been getting creative to integrate digital lessons for some of the career, technical education courses that don’t necessarily lend themselves well to digital learning.
If something holds back a week of digital learning in Gwinnett, it’s not going to be the preparedness of teachers or students.
“We couldn’t do this without our teachers and the work they’ve done to prepare for this,” Patterson said. “They and our principals have shown tremendous leadership preparing for digital learning days.”