Whitehall City Schools teachers ready to log back on

KEVIN CORVO
kcorvo@thisweeknews.com
Whitehall first-grade teacher Nicole Russell puts homework packets together in folders for each of her students Aug. 19 at Kae Avenue Elementary School. When class begins Monday, Aug. 31, students likely will be learning from home - though teachers have prepared their classrooms for students' eventual return, and will lead online lessons from their rooms.

Most of the 3,400 or so students in Whitehall City Schools will resume their academic year Monday, Aug. 31, but it likely won't look or feel the same for students -- or for teachers.

The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic that forced the closure of all public school districts in Ohio after March 13 has not relented.

Whitehall, like many districts, has opted to follow the recommendations of Gov. Mike DeWine and the state's four-level Public Health Advisory Alert System.

Until Franklin County is at a Level 2 on the scale, Whitehall students will continue to receive fully remote instruction, said Ty Debevoise, director of communications and marketing for the district.

As of Aug. 22, Franklin County remained at Level 3 -- which means it's recommended that districts employ remote learning, Debevoise said.

At Level 2, Whitehall would shift to a hybrid model that would allow half of the district's students to attend classes on alternating days while the other half learns from home.

Traditional classroom instruction would return should the state enter Level 1, Debevoise said.

Teachers in the district are preparing for all possible scenarios.

Brittney Bickham and Nicole Russell are first-grade teachers at Etna Road Elementary School, each starting the sixth year of their teaching careers, all at Etna Road.

"My focus is making sure my kiddos have the resources they need (and), after classes begin, to work on the visual cues for online learning," Bickham said.

Traditionally, Bickham said, the first several weeks of each school year involve establishing routines for her young students that are carried on through the year.

"But now, I'll be working to create new routines, usually visual cues," she said, such as a microphone button on the computer screen to indicate she has started teaching.

Bickham and Russell each have 19 first-grade students this year, and they were set to meet their students this week.

One parent or guardian of each student had the option to visit the school and meet their teachers with their children at an appointed time, Bickham said.

But when classes begin for students in grades 1-12 on Aug. 31 -- kindergarten begins Sept. 8 -- teachers likely will be instructing students remotely.

They will do so from their own classrooms at each of the district's five school buildings: three elementary schools, Rosemore Middle School and Whitehall-Yearling High School.

"We will have three hours of live lessons each day," Bickham said.

Optimally, Bickham said, she hopes all 19 of her students will learn at once.

"We will kind of determine the best way to do it as we go along," she said.

That could take the form of one three-hour block, or it might be broken into two or more sessions, Bickham said.

The sessions also will be recorded to allow for playback for students who do not participate in the live versions.

"Some of the live sessions might include smaller groups of students," Russell said.

Teachers will set aside 45-minute blocks for students with individualized education programs, known as IEPs, as well as those who speak English as a second language and for other students who need intervention, Bickham said.

"While we will set up parameters, we know we need to be flexible, too," Bickham said.

Whereas students have waited all summer to learn how classes will resume, teachers have spent more time than usual preparing.

The district has arranged for numerous experts to speak to teachers about socioemotional well-being, as well as the latest platforms for academic instruction, Russell said.

At Whitehall-Yearling High School, teacher Anthony Paletta was part of a task force to develop the practices the teaching staff will employ this year.

Whereas last spring seemed more urgent as the pandemic swiftly struck, teachers have had time this year to plan how they will instruct their students, said Paletta, who is beginning his fourth year as an educator.

While a level of anxiety likely still remains for some teachers, parents and students, the not-entirely-new-anymore remote-learning model is "an opportunity to learn and grow together."

"I am confident we are ready to go," said Paletta, who will teach remotely in his classroom. Paletta has four sections of U.S. history and government this year.

Paletta said the remote-learning experience in the spring, coupled with digital lessons he used even before the pandemic struck, have prepared him well to effectively continue this year.

"I think we are as prepared as we can be," Russell said. "Things can change so quickly, but we will be ready on Aug. 31, no matter what it looks like."

kcorvo@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekCorvo

Whitehall first-grade teacher Brittney Bickham creates name tags for each student in her class at Kae Avenue. Students had a chance this week to pick up classroom materials at the school before class begins.