Area school districts have been engaging students through remote learning opportunities since mid-March due to the coronavirus but as of Monday, they began rolling out official guidelines with help from the state.

In a letter to families March 30, Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeff Riley made it clear that remote learning cannot replicate what students experience during a typical school day.

He recommended “that schools support students to engage in meaningful and productive learning for approximately half the length of a regular school day.”

For the most part, these opportunities should reinforce skills that students have already been taught. Riley said while teachers and students might be interested in remote learning, they must make sure such opportunities are accessible to all.

Riley also emphasized project-based learning, rather than having students stare at a screen for most of the day.

The Pentucket Regional School District, for example, has been promoting its #prsdwellbeingchallenge on social media to encourage healthy habits while in quarantine. Students and staff have been posting photo updates of how they are exercising or otherwise maintaining a healthy lifestyle despite being isolated.

Pentucket’s full remote learning plan can be found at https://prsd.org/apps/news.

At Rupert A. Nock Middle School in Newburyport, sixth-graders have been using FlipGrid to make videos for their teachers to show how they have been keeping busy while at home. The school has been sharing these videos on social media with #nockadvantage.

“I think it is important for us to see how our young people are rising to the challenges of this crisis and continuing to be curious, to help each other, and to stay healthy,” Principal Lisa Furlong wrote in an email. “They are resilient and innovative!”

The transition to remote learning has not been a simple one and school officials continue to address issues as they come up. Across the board, area superintendents have emphasized the health and well-being of students and families first. For each grade level, the guidelines for remote learning will be different.

At Newburyport High School, teachers have been using Google Classroom, as well as videoconferencing apps such as Google Meet and Zoom.

In an email, math teacher Mark Littlefield shared his thoughts on the transition, saying, “Online education is not as exciting as people think it is. It is one thing for students to turn in assignments and have it graded. It is entirely different when you want to provide feedback with students in an engaging way.”

He went on to explain how time consuming it can be to adequately provide feedback in this new format. Instead of having students in one place for each class, he is fielding questions individually by email and over multiple devices and platforms.

“If one could see my new school office at home, one wouldn’t believe it,” he said. “I have a desktop computer, a laptop computer, a Chromebook, an Elmo projector, an iPad and a graphing calculator at the ready. On top of it, I have a table full of class notes, handouts, textbooks, etc.”

“The number of hours logged on a computer is quite intense in order to push students to not only do the assignments, but to also follow up with them to strive to make corrections and truly understand the content,” Littlefield said. “It is much smoother in a classroom where you can bounce back and forth between students. Nothing can beat the dynamics of a classroom. Students bring energy to the class and to me. The bottom line for me is I MISS MY STUDENTS.”

In another email, social studies teacher Brandon Sturma said students are still adjusting to the concept of remote learning, adding “They are quite used to us setting their day and very suddenly they’ve been tossed the ball with no prep on how to operate.

“I think that is something we all need to keep in mind — it’s easy to say that these are ‘unprecedented’ times, but to actually step back and look at the larger context is important — it’s not just Newburyport High School, it’s a truly global scale event that is and will continue to reshape our lives and routines for the foreseeable future,” he continued. “We need to understand that we cannot duplicate what we do in school and be willing to let it go.”

Sturma recognized that “there’s going to be a major gap in all students’ skill and content levels going into next year,” but the district is not alone in addressing that issue.

“When you’re looking at the scope of economic, political and personal disruption, and truly contextualizing that, maybe it’s OK that we give students and ourselves a break and be generous on what’s expected.”

Last week, the Triton Regional School District launched Triton Stays Connected, a website outlining various policies and guidelines to refer to during school closures due to COVID-19. Superintendent Brian Forget said the district has lent out 250 Chromebooks over the past few weeks and he expects to distribute more as the district implements its new remote learning plan.

More information about Triton’s plan can be found at https://sites.google.com/tritonschools.org/trsd/home.

Amesbury Public Schools also released its remote learning plan. For details, go to https://schools.amesburyma.gov.

Staff reporter Heather Alterisio can be reached via email at halterisio@newburyportnews.com or by phone at 978-961-3149. Follow her on Twitter @HeathAlt.

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