Close to 4,000 laptops were checked out to White River School District students days before Gov. Jay Inslee announced schools would close through April. Photo courtesy Brenda Sexton

Close to 4,000 laptops were checked out to White River School District students days before Gov. Jay Inslee announced schools would close through April. Photo courtesy Brenda Sexton

‘Losing one-third of the school year is unacceptable’

The White River School District was quick to tackle distance learning during the COVID-19 outbreak.

By Brenda Sexton, Sexton Communications, for the White River School District

Within days of Gov. Jay Inslee’s announcement to shutter schools to combat a growing rise in coronavirus, the White River School District went into action with a plan it created two weeks before the closure. In accordance with social distancing norms and stay-at-home edicts, it’s been business as “almost” usual for the past three weeks.

“I was blown away by how quickly our district switched over to distance learning,” said Amy Molen, who has three elementary students at home.

It was a herculean effort using volunteer firefighters, high school students and community members for the 4,000-student district to send every student in grades 2-12 home with a Chromebook and charging cord before doors closed March 13. Director of Digital Learning Services Lori Curtis said it’s taken a little more work to get 200 hotspots of internet service to those in need, but it’s happening. At the same time, district leaders turned its hot lunch program into a “to go” plan, switched bus drivers into food delivery providers and helped childcare staff make room for more kids.

“They truly have taken the idea of ‘we’re all in this together’ and ‘we got this’ to a new level,” parent Cindy Clark said.

Superintendent Janel Keating Hambly said there was no hesitation and called it a “pivotal moment” for White River students and families when the district office made the decision that learning would continue, and move to a distance learning model.

“Potentially losing one-third of the school year is unacceptable. We were equipped to make this happen, thanks to the generous support of our taxpayers. I didn’t wait for the state to enlighten us about what’s best for our White River students,” Keating Hambly admitted. “With passion and purpose, I took personal responsibility to direct the work that needed to happen with our administrative team and team leaders. Their response: ‘We’ve got this Janel.’”

THE NEW NORMAL–DISTANCE LEARNING

With a weekend wedged between the last day of “normal” school and the launch of distance learning the following Wednesday, teachers were working with students through online services or assignment packages. Special-needs students were working through similar means based on their individual educational plans.

“I want you to know I have never been more proud to be a part of WRSD in the past 20 years as I am today,” WRHS English educator Karen Fugate shared in an email to the superintendent after the first day. “My students all know what to expect from every teacher–we have a very structured plan, we have (a) Zoom meeting set up at least weekly, communication for AP students is up to date, students have the ability to be successful and so do we!”

Teachers have a variety of tools to interact with or engage students that include live webinars, web-based learning tools, e-books, screencasts, live lessons, along with tools that allow teachers to chat with other teachers and with families.

“The schools and staff have been very proactive in communicating what to expect and what our children are responsible for,” Clark said through email. “The teachers have set up ways to reach them and have been responsive to their questions. The kids have also been able to collaborate with other students for classwork as well, which I think is helping reduce the feelings of isolation.”

It’s more than reading and math. The middle school encouraged a Spirit Week and let kids share photos. Recognition programs continue for attendance and academic strides. Counselors are checking in with students and reaching out to those experiencing anxiety or stress. Para-educators are offering additional support to students.

“Our para-educators have created a plan to continue small group and one-on-one supports for our academically struggling students. The work they are doing to ensure that students don’t fall behind is incredible,” Keating Hambly said. “I couldn’t be prouder of what every one of our White River staff are doing to live our mission statement – ensure high levels of learning for all students preparing them for success beyond high school.”

A CLEAR VISION AND GOALS

“The school district had an organized, efficient plan ready to go as soon as the school closure announcement happened,” said Clark, who has two children currently enrolled.

It’s hard to imagine any school in the nation had a pandemic plan. In White River, it wasn’t so much a plan, but a clear vision, goal and a commitment to continue its high standard for student learning with a distance-learning format.

For the past 12 years, the White River School Board has been working to pass tech levies, funding training and providing time and support for Professional Learning Communities to keep teachers, staff and administrators engaged daily focused on learning.

“Now, it’s our time to give moral support as the district staff and teachers do the work of educating our kids online,” Board President Denise Vogel said.

“Having devices and hotspots will only get you so far,” Keating Hambly said. “It was coupled with ongoing staff technology training, and our district culture that served as the fuel to launch and sustain this new learning environment. Our staff does their work as a Professional Learning Community. That’s the work each team moved online. Each team knows what essential standard needs to be taught and learned in the next unit of instruction. Weekly team collaboration continues.”

First-grade teacher and White River Education Association President Kristen Montieth agreed, attributing White River’s success during the transition to having the culture and technology in place, a mission to ensure high levels of learning to prepare kids for success, and teachers who do not want to sit and wait.

“We want to be teaching our kids. It might look different, but we are all doing our best,” she said.

TECH LEVY PROMISES KEPT

Montieth also noted that using technology to enhance education is a priority in White River–hardware, software, and infrastructure, but especially the hours of paid technology training that is a part of the teacher contracts. Teachers attend hands-on sessions to learn to use technology in the classroom. They learn to create and assign digital lessons, to collaborate and to design with their grade level and content level teacher teams, as well as how to increase student engagement in lessons, provide feedback, and assess students learning more quickly, effectively, and efficiently.

Since 2014, White River voters have supported technology through the passage of levies and bonds. The money was used to provide a solid and secure network, an educational technology teacher to provide teachers professional development and support, access to modern devices and laptops for teachers, and device access to students at school for preschool through high school. All high school students have had a Chromebook take-home program. Part of the coronavirus plan involved extending that so that all students, grades 2-8 have a Chromebook at home.

Molen said the familiarity with Chromebooks in the classroom has made the transition at home “pretty easy.”

FEEDING A NEED

For many students, school is more than a place to learn, it’s a meal.

While the doors are closed, district leaders are making sure students are not missing out on breakfast and lunch with a free meal to all newborn to 18 years olds.

The Governor and Superintendent of Public Instruction made it very clear that feeding kids was a state priority, and supported White River’s program, and others, with relaxed rules and guaranteed funding.

“Our meal production and distribution has increased significantly,” WRSD Business and Operations Director Jer Argo said referring to the March 16 start date. The district is delivering between 2,400 and 2,600 grab-and-go paper bag meals, two a day (breakfast and lunch). Meal distribution sites are set up across the district at each school and the 130 bus stops in Buckley, Wilkeson, South Prairie, Prairie Ridge and parts of Bonney Lake.

In addition, to aid those fighting the virus on the front lines, the district is overseeing childcare programs at its Early Learning Center. Bolstered by the WRSD nursing staff, para-educators and Kids Club staff, the district is prioritizing services for healthcare workers, first responders and “essential” workers.

“Our food service employees, bus drivers, aides and childcare employees are absolute heroes for the kids and families in our community,” Argo said.

In the end, Keating Hambly said, it’s about learning. Learning what works. Learning what doesn’t. And, making sure as a community White River is creating life-long learners.

“We can accomplish this because every employee in our district understands the commitment to student learning, and the role they play,” Keating Hambly said. “We can accomplish this because our families support this work. We can accomplish this because our community has supported us through levies and bonds and a Monday late start so all teams can collaborate. We can accomplish this because our commitment to student learning is unwavering – we just needed to adjust for a new way to make it happen.”

Feature produced by Brenda Sexton, Sexton Communications, for the White River School District. For information regarding this release or about the White River School District and its innovative learning programs, please contact Superintendent Janel Keating Hambly at 360-829-3814 or jkeating@whiteriver.wednet.edu.


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