The hallways, classrooms and parking lots at Fort Campbell schools are mostly deserted but teachers and students are showing up in virtual classes as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
All of Sonya Forbes’ students showed up for first period on March 20, the second day students were required to begin distance learning, mostly with laptops, electronic tablets and desktop computers at home.
The social distancing urged by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to stop the spread of COVID-19 is leading to teaching with the use of virtual platforms created by the Department of Defense Education Activity.
Schools were closed March 16 following a recommendation by the Fort Campbell leadership and it remains unclear as of press time when they might reopen. Spring break began March 23 and continues through March 27. Jade Fulce, DoDEA Americas Public Affairs Officer, said any decision will be based on many factors, from the advice of health experts to senior commanders.
“Any discussion about reopening the schools is multi-faceted and we don’t make those decisions on our own,” Fulce said. “It’s in collaboration with Fort Campbell command, so it would be very premature right now to say when we will open, but what we can say is we are prepared to continue educating the students at Fort Campbell for the duration, for however long the students won’t be able to get back into the schools.”
As staff continue to deep clean schools for the students’ eventual return, students and teachers – and in some cases parents who have young children – are participating in a new “robust, digital learning environment,” to maintain the continuity of the students’ educations, said Youlanda Washington, DoDEA Kentucky Community Superintendent.
‘Senioritis’ takes back seat to real illness
Forbes said most of her 90 English and Advanced Placement students are seniors so by late-March they usually suffer “senioritis” and perfect attendance for a first period class is rare, but all 22 students logged in 7:45 a.m. Friday.
“We’re all using Google classroom,” she said. “It’s a very easy platform for us to create our classes. We can not only post assignments there, with instructions and all, we can also post videos and do a group chat where I can see all my students on the screen at the same time.”
Forbes said most high school students already have experience with digital tools being used now.
“Because it is in the Google suite, many of our students were already familiar with a lot of the tools,” she said. “They’ve already been using Google Hangouts, and things like that, so it made a really easy transition for us to transition over into that virtual learning environment.”
Forbes can record video lectures that will remain online, so students who may not have taken good notes can watch it again. It’s one of the many digital tools she discovered during training that Forbes sees as beneficial even after students return to school.
Forbes teaches senior English, one sophomore English class and AP Literature. Advanced placement students are using AP Classroom, which is also meant to help them prepare for upcoming AP exams.
She said all but two of her students had access to internet and a staffer was putting together printed packages of materials for the others to do work. Students or parents also can reach out to teachers by email or schedule an online meeting to discuss concerns.
Each of Forbes’ students must visit her virtual classroom during their normal on-ground scheduled time and have to answer at least one question. Students also are prompted to say if they understand the assignment. This keeping a regular schedule and answering the assignment prompt allows Forbes to keep up with attendance and reach out to students who may need extra help.
She said there are ways teachers can make classes interesting and distance learning has offered unique ways to enhance classes.
“The good thing about this Google platform is it allows us to pull in so many different types of documents, videos, weblinks, all kinds of things, YouTube videos, so it’s very easy for the students to access,” Forbes said. “I also will post a video to my classroom of me explaining something that I feel like I would normally do in a lecture or on the smart board. I can post a video of me talking about that and they can access that anytime. So, it works really well.”
Just one day after online classes began, she posted students’ grades from their first assignment.
Many of her seniors are worried about activities they may miss as their senior year comes to an end – everything from class trips to prom and even graduation. Forbes tries to keep them optimistic and to rise to the challenge of the times, she said.
The closures because of COVID-19 are unprecedented, but the students are using skills that may help them in the future.
“I just tell them this is going to make us stronger,” Forbes said. “We’ve already learned new things because of this that we normally wouldn’t have taken the time to, if we had not been through this.”
Forbes has taught at Fort Campbell for 10 years and worked in education for 23 years. She said the challenges of the pandemic have led her to learn new ways to teach and use supplemental materials.
Her children go to school in a public school and also are virtual learning, but she said the platforms being used at Fort Campbell provide much more “face time” with students.
“They don’t have the interaction with their teachers that I think we’re having at Fort Campbell,” Forbes said. “I can say I think we’re rocking it, especially being so new at this.”
She said she posts a short video of herself to greet each class.
“Just seeing each other is a good thing, I think,” Forbes said. “Being face-to-face – or face-to-face on the computer.”
Her desk is set up at her kitchen table because she wants to honor social distancing as she cares for her mother, who, because of her age, is at higher risk if exposed to COVID 19.
‘It has gone extremely well’
Washington said she wants to recognize the work put in by so many people to continue the mission to educate DoDEA children.
“I just want the community to know that all hands are on deck and everybody who is associated with DoDEA is working to support one another so our children continue to get a quality education,” she said. “I want to thank the teachers, the faculty, and the principles and leadership team for their outstanding job that they have embraced doing this new digital learning platform. It has gone extremely well.”
Teachers had three days of intensive training before the digital classes launched. Parents and students picked up materials at their respective schools and could borrow a laptop or tablet if needed.
The comprehensive plan put together by the Southeast District-DoDEA continues to offer teachers support with answers to question, on-the-spot training and technical support, Washington said.
Fulce said digital tools were already being used by DoDEA but never at the magnitude required with the pandemic.
“It might not have all been online but digital learning and this 21st century teaching and learning mindset that we have in DoDEA is to prepare our students for future jobs and careers we can’t even think of,” she said. “So digital tools have always been embedded in the instructional design of how we train our students.”
That training helped Fort Campbell schools be ready for its mission to continue to educate students, even when the buildings closed.
“The work the teachers have been doing over the last two years, and learning more about digital tools and how to utilize that within their classrooms – and then how to make their children the facilitators of that learning – is not brand new to us,” Washington said. “In Campbell, over the last 2 1/2 years that has been one of our foci.”
Not all classes are held in real time.
“Our digital learning is really a combination of real time, virtual instruction from teachers, as well as a component that students may complete independently and submit virtually, so it’s not a one stop shop for everybody,” she said. “The teachers know their students the best and they are modifying things to meet their needs. Our instruction and learning will be high quality, will be connected to our standards and it’s designed to keep students on track for their learning goals this year.”