By Jarret Liotta
Getting the youngest students back into school first for live learning could become the priority if even a partial opening becomes possible in the fall.
Tonight, Anthony Buono, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, presented results of a districtwide survey to the Board of Education (BOE) on how last spring’s distance-learning experience was viewed by parents, teachers and students.
More than 2,000 families responded to the survey, which Buono said was geared toward getting feedback on how to improve distance learning, as it will likely be at least partially necessary in the fall.
There were also 1,425 students in grades 4 through 12 that shared their opinions in the survey, as well as 210 Westport teachers.
“Those students are going to need more experiences,” Buono said of kindergarten, first and second grades.
“If there’s any way possible, that’s a cohort that we need to figure out how we can get them back to school and they can have face-to-face instruction,” he said.
Results showed that while the greater number of students and staff were at least comfortable with distance learning, still large numbers of students and staff were not, including 25% of all students surveyed.
“You get a large participation in surveys when people want change,” board member Vik Muktavaram said.
He pointed out the 25% of students across grade levels that said they were less than comfortable with distance learning and said, likewise, they may need to be prioritized for in-person learning if the option presents itself.
Overall, parents expressed a desire in the survey for more live teacher-taught sessions online, also advocating for more small-group direct instruction by teachers.
Parents also spoke to centralizing assignments and schedules into one virtual location that they could more-readily access, with middle and high school parents putting in plugs for grading practices and accountable attendance.
“They also wanted to hear more directly from teachers,” Buono said, noting that while Staples High School (SHS) in particular strives to promote independence for students, virtual learning has prompted parents to seek more direct involvement.
Students expressed a desire for more live instruction as well, with elementary students requesting more access to teachers throughout the day for help.
Middle and high school students also wanted to see a better-centralized location for assignments and expectations, allowing them to better plan their week.
Buono said that while many SHS students felt the workload increased during distance learning, revising the schedule to alternating days of class periods did a lot to assuage those concerns in the later part of the spring.
While the majority of teachers reported feeling “very comfortable” or “comfortable” with distance learning overall, 39% of elementary teachers, 32% of middle school teachers, and 26% of SHS teachers reported otherwise.
Teachers expressed difficulties with engaging students at the middle school and high school levels, where there was also a call for “discipline-specific strategies” needed to deliver the curriculum.
Buono said this had significant implications for professional development.
“We have teachers that have really identified areas where they need to grow,” he said, including help with progress assessment of students, time management, and general ease with the technology.
“Even though we provided this on an ongoing basis,” Buono said, “this is very different and very new to a lot of our teachers, so I think it’s very natural that they would request (this).”
He said it might be prudent for the BOE to revisit the school calendar and consider top-loading more staff development time at the beginning of next year.
Kindergarten and grade one, BOE member Karen Kleine said, “are the toughest cohorts to teach with distance learning.”
“I’m very pleased with this survey because it’s very consistent among the schools and it’s exactly what I would have predicted,” she said.
“Online pedagogy is developmentally inappropriate,” said resident Elizabeth Williams in an email public comment, speaking specifically to grades K-3.
She asked if the district would consider adding more teachers to facilitate smaller group instruction, as well as “reallocating the sizable assets at its disposal” to meet the unique needs of this time.
Buono said district experience with distance learning through the spring also gave it an opportunity to experiment with different virtual programs and software — much of which it was allowed to field test for free.
“There’s just so many out there and there’s more coming … but teachers really need to learn them,” he said, referencing further need for professional development. “They need time to get to know those products.”
BOE member Jeannie Smith pointed out that, while it remains ideal for the school to be held in-person, distance learning may have introduced the district to new means and methods that could better suit some students.
“I just don’t want to lose any pieces of this experience that could actually benefit us going forward,” she said, noting that some students may have a better chance to thrive through more self-directed learning outside of the classroom.
“I’ve been thinking about personalized learning — how powerful it can be and how important it is,” he said.
He noted that while Westport hasn’t done any assessments of how the closure impacted student achievement overall, some districts in the region found what he called surprising results that some students have maintained good progress.
“They found that their students made equivalent progress as they had in previous years,” he said.
“Of course they’re not 100% sure of what happened at home and if they were getting support,” he said, but noted it was something Westport needed to examine more closely.