Photo: First slide in the Belmont School District’s overview of its Phase II remote learning program.
While a sizable number of Belmont parents – in online message boards, text communications and emails – are pushing the school district to employ a more traditional teacher/students learning experience via a virtual classroom, it appears, for now, Belmont’s educators will be staying with its current remote learning plan.
That was the conclusion of a wide-ranging Town Hall-styled forum held by the Belmont School Committee via video conferencing on Tuesday, April 7.
Approximately 85 residents “attended” the session, which allowed the committee and the school district to update the rollout of Phase II of the district’s Remote Learning curriculum that began on Monday, April 5.
The key components in this teacher-led phase are creating direct learning that includes social-emotional learning, maintenance of previously learned skills and contents as well as meaningful learning opportunities as students advance the curriculum in both skills and content.
On Tuesday, the school committee heard from Belmont Superintendent John Phelan and members of the district’s central office presented a step-by-step outline of the Phase II plan while answering a harvest load of questions on how the schools have been handling the school closures and remote learning.
But what has been a bone of contention for many parents is a growing disappointment across the grade spectrum that Belmont has not implemented a remote program that centers on classroom-style learning in which teachers would spend some part of their day “in front” of their students.
“Hopefully, phase II will include some virtual classroom learning for students which will assist with curriculum instruction allow students to see each other and learn together. Some schools who are doing virtual classrooms have used a modified schedule which has been great for teachers, student and parents,” said “Patrick” at the meeting.
In addition, parents were frustrated that Belmont schools spent the initial two weeks under Phase I which focused on “enrichment” of the studies that students had learned during the school year. They point to school districts such as Natick as committing to a virtual concept of educating its students.
“My first grader has gone from approximately 30 hours per week of seeing his first-grade teacher and peers to about 40 minutes per week maximum,” said Lindsay Doherty in a note to the meeting.
“K-4 teachers should be holding morning meetings 3-5 times per week if you are actually dedicated to [Social Emotional Learning]. That’s what is being required in other districts on top of at least [four] small group online meeting per week to check-in. Twice per week is not enough for these young kids.” said Doherty.
But despite parents’ advocacy, “[w]e do not have a plan right now for substantive changes to Phase II,” said Janice Darius, assistant superintendent.
John Phelan, Belmont’s superintendent, reminded the public that Phase II – which goes beyond what the state has asked of districts in doing remote learning – has only been up and running for two days.
“I reserve the right to say, ‘let’s let the teachers do their work for the next two weeks and then let’s assess it, let’s talk about what … is going well and … what might not be going well’.”
And at least for the near term, Phelan effectively put to rest any opportunity the district will set up an interactive lecture hall even if schools remain off-limits to students for the remainder of not just the school year but 2020.
“I can’t predict what next week or what next month holds but doing a straight online virtual classroom every day across the high school, middle school and elementary schools I don’t see happening this year,” he said.
The constraints preventing the implementation of a district-wide remote classroom program lies in two areas. The first is the need to ramp up the infrastructure and technology to create an effective and seamless teaching environment. In addition to the connectivity issues, there are significant security and privacy concerns that will need to be resolved as well as equity and access for all students.
The second hindrance to virtual lectures came from the working teacher on the School Committee. Tara Donner is an elementary school teacher in Winchester who acknowledged that many parents had been hoping that teachers and students would be “meeting” on a regular basis to conduct
“On one hand, yes, I totally agree that it’s not enough facetime but there so much about our situation right now that is not right for everyone,” said Donner. She told the meeting of her own experience in the classroom with kids how “there are so many things you can do all at one time” talking to a student, passing out assignments, monitoring homework.
“You can do five things at once, that in this home environment, each one of those things takes so much more time,” she said. “I think [increased facetime] is important for the kids to be able to see and connect, but it’s not the same as teaching.”
“So doing [virtual classroom] five times a week for however long does not accomplish the same thing and I think it can cause stress for some students,” said Donner.
The district is floating the idea of a survey to receive feedback from parents on their experiences and how to improve Phase II. But that would not be sent out until the last days of April.
While the current return to school date set by Gov. Baker is May 4, Phelan said students, teachers, and parents “must be a little more nimble with how we approach to school” with the knowledge there is a possibility social distancing will be reintroduced sometime during the 2020-2021 school year.
“Our goal is to try to create a dual learning environment where were we can be flexible if we have to open school for a few months and may be closed for several days or weeks and try to keep the momentum of the learning moving forward for the entire school year