Shore Launches Distance Learning Program in Response to COVID-19

On March 30, hundreds of Shore Country Day School families tuned in to Facebook to watch Head of School Clair Ward host a virtual all-school flag-raising in her living room via Facebook’s Live video feature. The event—the second Shore flag-raising of the year—celebrated the launch of Shore Online, the Beverly school’s distance learning program that officially commenced on March 31. “I’m excited for you to get back to ‘school’ with your teachers and classmates,” Ward told the Facebook audience.

Shore Online is a comprehensive daily plan for remote teaching and learning that reaches all students in Pre-K through Grade 9. Shore launched the program in response to the worldwide COVID-19 health crisis, which prompted Massachusetts and many other states around the country to close schools this spring. The distance-learning program, which runs until at least May 4, when the current state emergency school closure expires, picks up where the in-school curriculum left off earlier in March, combining asynchronous independent work with synchronous in-person sessions conducted via video-conferencing. All Shore students in Grades 1-9 were provided with Apple iPads or laptops to participate successfully in the distance learning program from home.

“Moving to an online learning model essentially means building an entirely new school,” says Clair Ward. “In addition to revisiting curriculum, educators must explore new teaching pedagogy, establish new classroom cultures, and determine new ways to monitor student growth. The fact that Shore teachers have done this in a few short weeks is nothing short of amazing. It is a testament to the passion and professionalism of our educators.” Even more impressive, no school time was lost in the transition to online learning; faculty members were able to make the switch during Shore’s March break.

The online model includes a unique mix of components for Lower and Upper School students. In the elementary grades, according to Head of Lower School Sara Knox, “Shore Online is designed to provide structure and predictability for children while also allowing flexibility so that each family can develop a schedule that works best for them.” This means that most instruction each day is delivered asynchronously, via Google Drive documents, slides, and teacher-created videos, as well as iPad apps familiar to students from their day-to-day learning at school. Students hand in their work digitally, using photos, videos, and entries in online documents. A carefully designed, daily menu of subject areas and activities helps students and families balance screen time with independent work and play. Students and teachers come together for scheduled live interactions several times each week. The purpose of these synchronous sessions, says Knox, is “to remind children of the relationships they have with their teachers, classmates, and friends, and to keep those social connections alive even in a time of distancing.”

No aspect of Shore’s program is left out of the Lower School distance learning program: time for the outdoors, physical education, art, and music are built into each day’s schedule alongside traditional subject areas such as reading, writing, math, and social studies. Teachers add humor, surprise, and a sense of wonder throughout the program by inviting “mystery readers” to share books, recording themselves doing a wacky home workout in costume, hosting a virtual dance party, and more. “In order for children to feel engaged in the work, there needs to be an element of fun,” emphasizes Knox. “It is important to us that children continue to love learning and not lose the spark that we’ve worked so hard to nurture since the beginning of the school year.”

This balanced approach to remote learning seems to be working—at least according to third grader Harry Crane, of Reading. “I have to admit, this online learning is pretty fun,” he says. Harry’s mother, Lauren, adds, “The incredible amount of hard work put into this plan is readily apparent.  We were able to segment our time into reading, writing, social studies, math, and P.E., with each activity taking about 30 minutes. We are so grateful to Shore teachers for the thoughtful way they structured the day.” Agrees Hugo Foster of South Hamilton, parent of three Shore students in Grades 1, 5, and 7, “This is a time in our lives that we will never forget, and one of the main things we will remember is the thoughtfulness, caring, and commitment of Shore in this time of uncertainty.” First grade teacher and parent of Shore third and fourth graders Mary Kinahan of Marblehead echoes, “It is impressive to see the high expectations that are set for the students. Equally as impressive is the amount of support provided by teachers during this unique time. Each day we are feeling more and more connected to the Shore community.”

In fifth grade, students who already have plenty of digital experience thanks to the Apple iPads, laptops, and other technologies they use in the classroom when Shore’s buildings are open easily made the transition to online learning. Homeroom teacher Amanda Berg has her fifth graders sharing videos and photos of “passion projects” they’re encouraged to work on at home. The students use an app called Padlet to post their updates for others to view, describing their latest baking experiment, craft project, or sports practice routine. Meanwhile, in fourth grade, teacher Stacy Tell’s students used the same app to share their feelings about online learning. While most admitted they missed seeing their friends in “real” school, many, like Reese Harrigan of Wenham, found much to love about online school, too: “I love to go on Google Slides and check out the schedule in the morning. It’s really fun to do each subject step by step. I can take school anywhere I want to.”

Even the youngest children are quickly getting up to speed with the new and unfamiliar school routine. When Pre-K teacher Beth White hosted her first live video call for her students, they had no problem with a virtual Morning Meeting. “One day’s agenda was a circle greeting,” says White, “and we all shared what we had for breakfast. Then we read the children a story aloud and sent them on a scavenger hunt around their houses for objects related to the theme of the book. They had a great time seeing their classmates and sharing what they found around their homes.” White says she’s grateful for all the training she’s received at Shore in social and emotional learning. “I’m quickly seeing all that professional development benefit not only students, but also us as teachers. Personally, I’ve had to quickly adapt to a world that will in some ways never be the same again, learning how to balance the demands of school and home life and to cope with the range of emotions I experience when I see my students virtually instead of in person.”
 
Head of Upper School Gustavo Carrera acknowledges that maintaining social connections through videoconferencing and other technologies may be even more important for students in Grades 6-9. “Over the past few weeks, parents and especially children have had cause for anxiety and concern, and the new reality of social distancing undermines the network of friends older students rely on to get through challenging times.” While Upper School faculty members are working to ensure that students will be able to go to the next step of their educational career unhindered by the emergency we are experiencing, says Carrera, “At the same time they are focused on delivering an education that pays attention to the whole child, emphasizing the human connections that will sustain students, teachers, and families.”

That attention was visible from the very first day of Shore Online, when students in Grades 6-9 came together in small advisory groups to greet their teachers and peers via video-conferencing. Says science teacher and Science Department Chair Oliver Hay, “Students clearly enjoy the social nature of chatting with each other online. At the same time, they appear ready and willing to take on the challenges of distance learning.” Shore’s advisory system—in which small groups of students meet regularly throughout the school year with a teacher to find emotional support and seek advice—continues largely unchanged in the online school model, with advisory groups meeting frequently throughout the week. Advisors and advisees joke about their day, show off their at-home study areas, and play team-building games such as “Two Truths and a Lie.” They also discuss more serious issues such as staying organized, avoiding distractions, making room for downtime, and staying connected to peers in the virtual world.

The concern for social and emotional well-being is not all that’s helped to make the transition to distance learning nearly seamless for Shore’s Upper Schoolers. An innovative hybrid schedule that combines both synchronous live instruction and asynchronous independent work has certainly had something to do with the successful switch. That much is clear in the feedback Upper School Spanish teacher Pamela Torres has received from her students about their online experiences. “They have jumped right into this adventure,” she says. “They like the independence and the freedom to finish work on their own.” One student told her, “I like being able to get everything done early so I can have the rest of the day to do anything I want.” Another wrote, “I love getting to do everything at my own pace. It’s actually fun.” 

Upper School students each receive an individualized schedule listing 40- to 60-minute work periods and live sessions for each day of the week. Notes Head of Upper School Gustavo Carrera, “We are not trying to reproduce classroom teaching or have students sit for eight hours reading and writing in front of a screen; we are trying to organize learning experiences, many if not most of which will be completed independently—that is, asynchronously.” Students and parents alike have given this approach high marks. Says Pauline Jenkins of Boxford, the parent of eighth grader Hannah, “My daughter and I particularly like the new schedule. Although Hannah has always been pretty self-directed and independent, it certainly provides an opportunity for her to further develop those skills. In addition, the schedule is significantly less time-intensive than it was when she was attending school in person, allowing opportunities for other activities that she may not have been able to do before.”

Alongside independent assigned work, live instruction is a central component of Shore’s distance learning model for Upper School students, though synchronous teacher-led sessions via video-conferencing inevitably feel different than the in-person versions. Teachers use screen-sharing to illustrate concepts in math and science, and they use a grid-like view to see all class participants during discussions of topics in English and history. They can even arrange small-group study using the “breakout” room feature of video-conferencing. “While there is a learning curve to what works well for each of us, including basics like muting audio and positioning the camera,” says history teacher Sarah Sklarsky, “in the best moments video-conferencing has felt relatively normal.” Virtual classes even have a few benefits over traditional classroom sessions. “The ‘feedback’ feature, which allows participants to give a thumbs up or a ‘clap,’ has been a nice element of the virtual classroom—a way to show agreement or appreciation to the speaker,” Sklarsky explains.

But apart from the novel look and feel, much remains familiar from Shore’s Upper School classrooms. For example, says Sklarsky, the history department is still focused on exploring ideas together and expanding critical thinking by learning collaboratively. “So,” Sklarsky says, “while video-conferencing may be the medium at the moment that allows us to hold classroom discussions, we still emphasize close reading, writing, and research, all of which we can continue independently and then come together to share and exchange.” Math teacher Kent Vienot agrees, explaining that for many the transition to online school has been nearly seamless. “My students are so used to completing and handing in work using their iPads that it’s taken very little for them to get up to speed with the new reality of distance learning.” And history teacher Pat Coyle says, “It’s still about connecting with students, building trust and rapport, and collaborating to learn and sharpen skills.” Grading and assessment of student work remain a big part of Shore’s Upper School distance learning plan, as well. “We continue to provide assignment-by-assignment feedback to students,” says Gustavo Carrera, “but because of the great uncertainty many are experiencing in their lives they will receive ‘pass’ or ‘incomplete’ marks in their courses rather than traditional letter grades.”

Academics are not all that’s on the distance learning menu for Upper Schools students. Existing clubs that allow student groups to practice knitting, cooking, American Sign Language, and more continue in online form, and choir rehearsal carries on, as well, with singers working independently on their parts on the way to a virtual concert. A lighthearted “quarantalent” show lets students and teachers show off skills such as playing an instrument, making a goal on a backyard sports court, or drawing. “Levity is important in the world in which we find ourselves,” says Gustavo Carrera. “After all, this is still middle school. And for us as educators, helping students maintain connections with each other and with their teachers is as important as reaching our academic goals.”

The supportive community of Shore faculty members has been a key factor in making the transition to online school a success. Says Pamela Torres, “My department is doing a terrific job collaborating and sharing teaching and learning materials. Though we did this before, we are all relying on each other even more now.” Oliver Hay acknowledges, “The way we are all working so well together and supporting each other right now is not surprising, but it’s essential in allowing us to pull off this new model of learning. I expect that we’ll come out of this distance learning experiment as better teachers and more connected colleagues.”

In this time of distancing, Head of Lower School Sara Knox finds herself thinking about connections, as well. “It’s a bit ironic to recognize that although we are apart, we are actually quite connected,” says Knox. “Somehow, teaching and learning from home has allowed us to share more: to see one another’s beloved pets, to hear the noise and chaos of family life in the background, to learn about specific hobbies or interests that we might not have known about or recognized before. Because of distance learning, we get to peek through the window a bit more into one another’s lives, and this reveals some really cool things about the people within our school community—things that we are just discovering now for the first time.”
 
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    • A student raised her hand during a live video class meeting.

    • Pre-K students and teachers met online.

    • Pre-K and Grade 3 students Dylan and Jack Mulrooney were busy at work.

    • Third grader Kate Kinahan participated in a video call with classmates.

    • Fifth graders posted video and photo updates for classmates using the iPad app Padlet.

    • First grader Joey Bellissimo viewed a class video.

    • Fourth grader Claire Fisher worked on her iPad.

    • A friend looked on as eighth grader Oliver Zaldastani was at work.

    • Ninth graders greeted each other during their Morning Meeting.