Eagle Eye on Education: Summer feedback, planning molded virtual-education option for elementary students

Scott Emery
Guest columnist

Athletes in fast-paced sports describe as they gain on-the-field experience, the game “slows down” for them. They begin to notice patterns and anticipate situations that lead to better decisions and performance.

After nearly 30 years of working in central Ohio elementary schools, I felt my job “slow down” for me. There weren’t many situations where I didn’t have the benefit of reflecting on past experiences as a teacher, principal or district administrator in determining what action to take.

Scott Emery is director of elementary education for the New Albany-Plain Local School District.

However, I didn’t have experiences to draw upon to prepare me for the statewide school closure in March 2020 because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. It was uncharted territory in moving to a fully remote instructional model in less than a week.

As I worked through the spring 2020 school closure with the New Albany-Plain Local School District elementary administrative team, made up of three principals, four assistant principals and two special-education administrators, we determined the remote program we were offering required improvement.

In June, 2020, a survey of our elementary school parents informed us that 35% of our parents wanted the option of a fully remote program for their children for the 2020-21 school year.

Knowing that more than 900 of our elementary students could be remote learners, we immediately began gathering information.

We learned from our parents through focus groups that their biggest disappointment from spring 2020 was the lack of real-time core academic instruction.

We learned from our teachers that although teaching young children through videoconferencing was challenging, it could be done effectively.  

As our team reached out to other school districts for their remote-learning plans for elementary children, we learned that some districts were providing students access only to online curriculum providers, with intermittent access to teachers for support.

Turning over our elementary students’ educational progress to an online company was not a viable option for us. Although this model often works for older students, we believe our younger students require real time instruction in core academics from our outstanding New Albany teachers.

During the summer months as we worked to prepare our schools for reopening to in-person attendance by students, we also invested much time on designing a remote-learning program that would emphasize daily live instruction in reading, writing and arithmetic.

We selected a team of New Albany teachers to begin developing recorded lessons using our district curriculum to enhance the live instruction.

Next, we chose an outside curriculum provider to supplement what the live and recorded lessons did not cover.

In July we began selecting the teaching staff members for the New Albany Elementary Virtual Learning Program, or VLP, for short. To meet the needs of more than 900 preschool to sixth-grade students, it required 34 classroom teachers to transition to the VLP, in addition to the educators needed to meet the needs of children who require specialized services, such as speech therapy or gifted programming.

When parents recently were provided a mid-year option to change from the elementary VLP to the in-person model, 90% of the parents elected to maintain their child’s enrollment in the VLP.

Our elementary administrative team has learned a lot since March 2020.

In all candor, we hope not to have to apply what we learned in response to any future situations that would require a closing of our schools. But if it happens, we’ll be ready.

As we reflect on the past year and our progress, we hope our elementary parents feel as though they were given viable options to choose an in-person or virtual-learning environment that was both safe and provided academic growth for their children while meeting the needs of their families.

Scott Emery is director of elementary education for the New Albany-Plain Local School District.