JoAnna Roberto, BA’97, M.S.Ed.’00, superintendent of curriculum and student achievement at the District School Board of Niagara, in Ontario, Canada, is working with her team to ensure the students in the 79 elementary schools she oversees continue their education through the coronavirus pandemic. While continuity of learning is a priority, so is maintaining the connections established between educators and their students.
Roberto had been monitoring the situation since she first heard about it in January. Her senior team gathered immediately after the Ontario Ministry of Education’s March 12 announcement that the March break would be extended for an additional two weeks until April 6 to help in the fight against the spread of the coronavirus. (That since has been extended to May.)
The groups’ first step was to craft messages—one to the staff and one to the community at large—to let them know the schools would be closing to ensure the safety of the students and school personnel.
Specific messages to elementary and secondary principals were also issued, giving them information they could share with their staff and students. Graduating students were assured that the completion of their studies would not be compromised, agents representing international students were contacted to ensure they were doing well, and mental health and well-being supports were put in place.
“The communication department has been exceptional with the constant contact with families and letting them know where we’re at and steps to take,” Roberto said, emphasizing that the well-being of the students is the priority.
A Continuity of Learning plan issued by the Ministry provided guidance for a two-phase initiative within the schools that launched on March 27. Phase One was the development of a “Learn from Home” website, a coordinated effort between the district’s IT staff and its consultants, principals, and educators to provide at-home access to the tools and resources typically used in classrooms. Software and tools for students with special education needs, and access to well-being resources such as counselors and social workers were also built into the site.
“Providing a one-stop online learning website for our families was our goal,” Roberto said. “We wanted to provide some additional supplemental resources to our students and our families during these unprecedented times, and we wanted to stay connected, because we value that.”
The website provides a variety of activities for each grade that can be completed by students both online and offscreen, independently and with their families.
Roberto said that the response to this phase has been overwhelmingly positive.
“When we put out our Learn from Home page on Friday (March 27), by 2 o’clock we had 10,000 unique visits,” she said. By Sunday night, there were more than 32,000 unique visits, she added. “So we know it’s working, and we know that families appreciate the link. Our teachers will integrate their lessons and we will continue to build a repository of well-vetted resources connected to curriculum and supporting students during these unprecedented times.”
The district is now into Phase Two, which includes building on the site, adding resource links, and connecting teachers to students. Principals also have been contacting each family to find out what they need, from access to technology and WIFI to food, and the district is working toward meeting those needs.
“I think the biggest piece for us right now is to make sure our families are safe while we’re not with them,” Roberto said, adding that both teachers and their students are missing their time together. “Even though we’re distant, we’re trying to maintain the relationships.”
“Knowing that we’re in this together has been very helpful as we move forward,” Roberto continued. “Our teams are meeting regularly, our superintendents are meeting regularly with their principals, our principals are meeting regularly with their educators, and we have mechanisms for parents to reach out to us. And that’s very critical, I think.”
In the midst of this “new normal,” Roberto has chosen to remain optimistic.
“The piece that I always remind my team is that we’ll get through this, that we have to hold onto the hope and the resiliency to be able to get through this together, knowing that everybody is at the same place,” she explained. “You can only move upward from here, so let’s stay positive as best we can with the scenario we have.”