GREENFIELD — For students and staff at Mt. Comfort Elementary School, Thursday morning was anything but ordinary.
A flurry of IT support staff shuttled from classroom to classroom, troubleshooting technology issues as teachers ran students through a trial of the virtual lessons they’ll be expected to complete from home should snow days cancel traditional classes this winter.
Mt. Vernon School Corp. recently received approval from the Indiana Department of Education to join its virtual-learning program, in which students log on to school-issued computers from home to complete assignments during days classes are canceled.
To prepare students and teachers for the process, all three elementary schools in the district completed a trial run of the lessons they’ll be expected to complete during snow days, simulating as many details of working from home as possible — even the pajamas.
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Educators hope a test-drive will make for smoother school days when teachers won’t be at the ready should students encounter problems with their computers. And this week gave the IT staff plenty of practice, as students received error messages, couldn’t connect and had trouble accessing assignments. But that was the point, staff members say — to troubleshoot the issues ahead of time.
Mt. Vernon joins Southern Hancock School Corp. as the only districts in the county to offer the program, which is available to school systems that issue take-home computers to all students.
Officials from Southern Hancock, which was approved for the program last year, say the virtual lessons students completed during all three days of its weather-related cancellations went well and spared staff and students from making up that time later in the year. Elsewhere in the county, districts without the option of letting children work from home had to alter their calendars, shortening springs breaks or delaying their graduation days, to make up the missed time in the classroom.
In Carla Renforth’s fifth-grade classroom at Mt. Comfort Elementary Thursday morning, students sat silently in their pajamas, communicating any issues they encountered through an online forum. Flagging down a teacher won’t be an option when students work from home, so it’s important for young learners to know the proper steps for getting help, educators said.
When 10-year-old Dawson Wagner raised his hand, Renforth asked, “Did you send me a comment?”
“I tried to, but it says there’s an issue,” Dawson replied.
And Dawson wasn’t the only one encountering the issues. Most students struggled to connect to the school’s wireless internet through their iPads, preventing many from accessing their lessons.
Although the morning was riddled with network malfunctions, Greg Rollo, technology director for the district, said that was an expectation.
“We knew there would be a few glitches here and there, but it’s really designed to help students and teachers figure out a way to navigate these issues when they happen at home,” Rollo said. “I want to be able to address these problems now, versus when they’re at home.”
Corrissa Nieto, a 10-year-old student in Renforth’s class, said she likes the prospect of not having any days to make up later in the year. She said she’s confident with a little help from her twin sister, who’s also a Mt. Comfort fifth-grader, she’ll be able to complete virtual lessons without any trouble.
“I think, sometimes, it’ll be me helping her, and sometimes, it’ll be her helping me,” Corrissa said. “We’re both pretty good with technology, but it just depends what we need to do.”
For students without siblings to help with questions, parents likely will act as a line of support, Renforth said.
Sara Evans, the mother of a third-grader at Mt. Comfort Elementary, said she was skeptical about the program initially, but school officials have since cleared up some of her concerns by assuring her support staff will be available to help guide parents through issues that arise on snow days.
If the district does utilize virtual-learning days this winter, technology staff will set up call lines at the administration center to field questions from parents and students who are troubleshooting technology issues, Rollo said.
Teachers will make themselves available to students throughout the day and will be able to take attendance through an online forum, Rollo said.
If students don’t have a reliable Internet connection at home, Renforth said, teachers will send them home with printed materials to complete and return to class the next day.
The key to the virtual lessons, Renforth said, is that teachers remain engaged with students throughout the day by messaging back and forth and making sure the homework doesn’t become a meaningless assignment.
“It’s not just busy work,” Renforth said. “All the lessons will be tied to something we’re doing in class so that they build upon something we did the previous day.”
That might mean teachers have to act fast once classes are canceled to generate meaningful lessons, Renforth said — but that’s not all that unusual for educators who are used to going with the flow.
“We do a lot of improvising as it is,” she said.
As a parent, Evans hopes the e-learning program will keep students engaged in their coursework even when school is canceled.
“I think it’ll definitely be less disruptive to their learning and the progress they’re making in class than the alternative,” she said.
At Fortville and McCordsville elementary schools, Mt. Vernon’s two other primary buildings, the morning ran smoothly, with few technological hiccups, Superintendent Shane Robbins said.
“As we expected, there were some snags here and there,” Robbins said. “But from everything I heard, the students were really engaged, and we’re definitely heading in the right direction. From here, I feel like students and teachers will feel a lot more confident with the process.”