Behind the Scenes of Virtual Learning

Jack Kelleher

Staff Writer

On July 23, Henrico County Public Schools (HCPS) announced its decision to go virtual for the beginning of school. While not a surprise to many, it was certainly a change from the original idea of a hybrid plan proposed in mid-July. Due to the complexities of the verdict, students and parents had questions about the upcoming school year.

These questions included the quality of online education, how the school day would look, and how the change would affect students’ mental health. In order to maintain their standard in education, HCPS staff and faculty, including Freeman’s own, took time to invest and prepare for virtual learning. 

According to Freeman principal John Marshall, this preparation consisted of “study[ing], read[ing], and engag[ing] in professional learning from districts that were doing [virtual learning] really well.” 

Along with these preparations, another factor weighed into the decision-making process: Schoology data measuring student interaction. The data gathered from last spring showed a significant drop-off in consistent student participation after the change in teaching style. This change occurred when HCPS decided that all assignments would be due at the end of the school year, instead of the traditional staggering of due dates. These two elements led to the current system, with students attending virtual classes on a modified bell schedule, much like in-person school.

In an attempt to make virtual schooling interesting and interactive, HCPS made adjustments such as an investment in online resources to allow teachers to be more creative with lessons. Jessica Ciokan, a member of the Freeman IT team, said that “these tools include Loom (for screencasting), Nearpod (for interactive presentations), and Microsoft Teams.” 

In addition to the initial plans, Freeman teachers and administrators have taken it upon themselves to continually improve virtual schooling, whether that be changing the schedule, thinking of new lesson ideas, or asking parents and students how they feel about the school year.

Another modification took place when, on Sept. 29, Henrico County decided to move to a shortened bell schedule after receiving input from students and teachers. According to the county’s survey, the majority of both teachers and students supported shortening the school day.

An empty classroom during the virtual first semester at Freeman.

In addition to maintaining the academic standard, HCPS has a number of other objectives, one of which is providing students with food. Before virtual learning, students went to the cafeteria to receive their lunches. Today, in order to supply the community with food, Henrico County utilizes “Grab-and-Go” meals as a way for students to get school-provided meals while maintaining safety and COVID-19 guidelines. Surina Thomas, Freeman’s Cafeteria Manager, said that these precautions include “working six feet apart, wear[ing] face masks, and [wearing] gloves.” Grab-and-Go meals are available at every county school and at over 60 bus stops throughout Henrico.

As various parts of Freeman change their daily routines to fit virtual learning, the clinic is preparing for the eventual return to school. Many of the clinic’s duties can only be carried out with students in the building, so currently the clinic is being restructured into two parts. 

School nurse Caroline Estrada said that one room will be “a ‘clean room’ for students needing daily medications, medical treatments, concussion rest, [and] mental health breaks,” while the other room will be a “‘health isolation room’ for students presenting… any illness or COVID-19-like symptoms during the school day.” This way, the clinic will be able to perform its duties while also keeping students safe from COVID-19.

Back in July, HCPS deemed virtual schooling the best choice considering the circumstances. Though there are expected obstacles to virtual learning, as Mr. Marshall put it, “We’re going to get better every single day.”

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