Schools race to transition from classroom to online learning

With school closed indefinitely in effort to stem Covid-19 spread, district reinvents the way it teaches students

An electronic sign outside of Saukville Elementary School that usually flashes important events no reflects the reality that schools are closed indefinitely. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

Teachers in the Port Washington-Saukville School District, like those across the state and parts of the nation, worked quickly this week to replace now-shuttered classrooms with virtual learning strategies that will allow them to continue teaching the more than 2,600 district students sent home in an effort to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

Administrators announced Friday, March 13, that public schools in Ozaukee County and the Milwaukee North Shore suburbs would close beginning Monday, March 16, and reopen at the earliest on Tuesday, April 14.

A short time later, Gov. Tony Evers directed the Wisconsin Department of Health Services to order all schools in the state to close from Wednesday, March 18, until April 6, but on Tuesday he said the state-ordered shutdown is indefinite.

Port Washington-Saukville School Supt. Michael Weber said last week that schools in Ozaukee County and the North Shore area decided on the four-week shutdown because most of them are on spring break from March 23 through March 27 and resuming classes on April 14 would give any students who travel during the break two weeks to quarantine themselves before returning to schools. But the response to the Covid-19 pandemic is evolving rapidly and administrators said they are now preparing for an indefinite shutdown.

But even if the shutdown is prolonged, school districts may not be required to extend the school year. Weber said Tuesday it appears likely that the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction will waive the hours of instruction requirements for districts that apply and qualify for exemptions.

“It won’t be a blank check,” he said. “Districts will have to provide evidence of and information about what they are doing to engage students in instruction during this time.

“Everything continues to evolve, but it does appear as of today that if your waiver is accepted, you will not have to extend your school year.”

The end of the school year, however, was far from the minds of Port Washington-Saukville School District staff members  who spent the first part of this week preparing for what administrators called the new normal.

By mid-Monday morning, the district’s food service had prepared enough food — sandwiches, chips, fruits, vegetables and milk — to provide lunches to the more than 100 students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches and had placed orders. A drive-up site was set up outside the high school where parents and students can pick up a week’s worth of lunches at a time, and Food Service Director Clark Blachly said volunteers were available to drop food off at the homes of students who could not get to the high school. Weber said the food service will continue through the shutdown.

But for most district employees, Monday and Tuesday of this week were spent devising virtual teaching plans the likes of which have never been implemented on a district-wide scale. 

Port-Saukville students in third through 12th grades are issued district laptop computers and are used to communicating electronically with teachers and submitting homework online, but never before have teachers had only electronic contact with their students.

“I’m very concerned with students being home for who knows how long and us maintaining contact with them,” Thomas Jefferson Middle School Principal Steve Sukawaty said. 

The high school and middle school will take daily attendance electronically. At the district’s three elementary schools, teachers will communicate daily with students and parents.

“All of our principals have put together a way to take virtual attendance and make sure we’re not missing anyone,” Weber said. “It’s very unlikely any students are going to fall through the cracks.”

If students don’t respond, administrators will find out why, Port Washington High School Principal Eric Burke said. 

“We’ll track these kids down and find out what’s going on,” he said. “Maybe there will be a good reason they’re not responding, like they don’t have internet access at home. And the reality is that some kids may think they just don’t have to participate and do the work, but these aren’t snow days. This is going to class in a different way.”

For students who don’t have access to high-speed internet at home, schools will provide them with printed materials that can be picked up and dropped off at schools.

Online teaching will range from emailed instructions in its simplest form to recorded video lectures and live, interactive video conferencing using a host of primarily Google applications in its most advanced iteration depending on the class, administrators said.

“We can do a lot of great things with the teachers and technology we have, and while we’re going to do as much as possible, there are some classroom experiences you just can’t do online,” Burke said. “For instance, you can’t do a fetal pig dissection online.

“The fact is that teachers have so much content to deliver that now they’re going to have to make choices about what content is the most meaningful. It’s a really tough situation, and we have no idea how long it will last.”

Sukawaty said the sophistication of the middle school online instruction will depend in part on teachers and students.

“This kind of caught us off guard,” he said. “It really depends on our teachers’ comfort level with technology and our students’ ability to use it.”

All teachers will have regular virtual office hours during when they will be available to provide individual help for students, whether it’s via email, phone or some form of online chat program.

Schools will try to help establish a routine through regular contact and daily lesson plans.

Sukawaty said that’s particularly important for middle school students who are old enough to appreciate the seriousness of a pandemic but perhaps lack the emotional maturity to deal with it and their rapidly changing world.

“I hope our plan provides them some semblance of normalcy,” he said. 

At elementary schools, a virtual learning plan is in place for third and fourth-graders, while younger students will be taught using a mix of resources including hard-copy materials that can be picked up and dropped off at schools, Dunwiddie Elementary Principal Joanna Bannon said.

“The day will start with an 8:30 a.m. greeting that will talk about the focus of the day and provide some activities,” she said. 

As it is at other schools, daily contact with students is critical, and for younger children it falls on parents to communicate regularly with teachers, Bannon said.

“It might be something as simple as a parent sending us a photo and email that says, ‘Here’s a great snapshot of my son or daughter doing his or her reading work for the day,’” she said.

Virtual classes officially began Wednesday, March 18, although by Monday night some teachers had already sent video messages and assignments to students.

During the school shutdown, students aren’t the only ones working from home. Teachers, who are equipped to work from outside their classrooms, have essentially been sent home, although they will have access to schools to pick up materials and receive any technology support they need, administrators said.

“We’ve asked teachers to gather all the information and materials they need to operate off site and are encouraging them to work from home,” Weber said. 

Schools will be staffed by secretaries from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily to answer phone calls, but access to the building will generally be limited to front vestibules where parents and students can pick up and drop off materials.

The district office will remain open.

Weber said the virtual learning plan the district has in place is designed to provide meaningful instruction and support and, depending on the duration of the shutdown, could be modified to offer electronic variations of some of the events students would otherwise miss.

“Our goal is to make sure we keep our students engaged, not only for the purposes of learning but for psychological support as well,” he said. “And we want to continue to recognize students for the good work that they do and make their learning experiences as meaningful as possible within the recommendations of the CDC and public health department.

“School events are meaningful parts of students’ lives, it’s just that our lives are all of a sudden quite different.”


Click Here to Send a Letter to the Editor

Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494


User login