Wando High School transitions to online learning
April 4, 2020
Sitting on the couch at my grandparents’ home, it took two clicks and there I was — in Dr. Jason Brisini’s office back at school. Face to face over a video-based online learning portal called Cisco Webex, we were talking in real time, though miles away from each other.
Teachers and students in South Carolina have had to transition in a matter of days from seeing their students everyday to virtual learning. Since March 16, the state of South Carolina has been conducting virtual learning in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic — something completely new to the school system.
Brisini, one of Wando’s instructional coaches, has been at the forefront of planning and navigating the online platforms teachers will use — Zoom, Google Meet and Canvas. The school started planning for a potential closure on the horizon on March 5.
“[School closure] was on our radar because we had no idea then how soon it would be, so we immediately had meetings here at Wando to start the plan. So we felt pretty good,” Dr. Brisini said. “But I feel we did a good job as a school preparing to prepare.”
He has been teaching AP Human Geography virtually to students at St. John and Baptist Hill since 2018 through Cisco Webex, a software that students and teachers can use to bring the classroom to the student.
“Luckily, I was already familiar with [virtual learning],” Dr. Brisini said. “So what we did was we had a really big meeting… before we knew we were going to be closed down, and we kind of gave teachers an overview of [the] basic expectations if we are out two weeks… this is the workload you should give your kids, here are some options… I was real lucky to have some experience in this because I can talk first hand on the pros and cons of all different systems.”
As of March 13, teachers, like English teacher Jeannie Fox, and students were preparing for a closure in the future but were still under the impression that school was to continue business as usual, despite schools closing like falling dominoes around the nation because of COVID-19, Fox said. But just two days later, South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster closed all schools, starting March 16.
On a Sunday afternoon at four, “that’s as close to last minute as last minute could be,” Fox said.
Dr. Brisini was able to coordinate a seven o’clock virtual meeting for teachers that night to try to prepare them for the coming weeks, he said.
Senior Brooklyn Cantey did not have an exact picture of what that Monday, let alone the next month, would look like for her seven AP classes and theater.
“I was kind of expecting [the school closure] to be honest because a lot of schools were closing anyways, but I thought it was going to be later because the teachers never really said much about it,” Cantey said. “When we left school on Friday, we were like ‘oh, we’re coming back on Monday… ’ but then we weren’t, so it was kind of a shock. And I feel like teachers didn’t really have that much time to explain a lot.”
In the first couple of days after school was cancelled for students, teachers were able to meet with their department and with Dr. Brisini to be comfortable with the new procedure and environment of teaching.
“I’m not [worried]. I’m actually super impressed with how quick our staff has picked up and just been like ‘what do we need to do?’” Dr. Brisini said. “I’ve had quite a few teachers… who already held virtual meetings, or done screencasts, or pushed out assignments to their students, and they feel good about it, so I’m honestly not worried about it.”
The county is implementing guidelines for teachers, encouraging communication directly to each student twice per week, through one of two methods — virtual eLearning platforms or individual or group phone calls, according to Dr. Brisini.
The school has distributed chromebooks on multiple days in a “drive-by” format to students without the necessary technology at home to complete their courses, according to mass emails sent by principal Dr. Sherry Eppelsheimer.
In addition, the county has equipped school buses at Lincoln High School with wireless service for students without it at home. Students can drive up to the bus and use the wifi without contact with other students, according to an email sent by William Outlaw.
Classes that are online-based like AP Computer Science Applications are easier to transition to virtual learning, Cantey said, but there are courses that require in-class discussion and have a more difficult transition to online.
“The biggest thing… is the value of the class discussion. And for my honors kids, I am broken-hearted, devastated, quite possibly overreacting, but we just started reading The Crucible and you know how I feel about The Crucible,” Fox said. “I feel terrible that they are not going to have the in-class, performing experience. Because I think that coupled with my excitement and passion and love for The Crucible and the class discussion is really what makes it meaningful to resonate with them because it seems so foreign because it is in 17th century America.”
This was one of the most immediate challenges that the English teacher faced in transitioning to this online format. She is trying to “work around” the distance through textbook audio readings which allow students to hear the play out loud and face-to-face class discussion of ideas through Google Meet, she said.
In the first week of virtual classes, Fox attempted a screencast program, so she could share her screen in a video to the students. This is another recommended tool for teachers to use in distance learning.
“The first time was a complete pham, and the second time only two and a half minutes of what I actually had to say recorded,” Fox said. “And I posted it anyway to classroom with a ‘please be kind to me. This is my first attempt’ kind of thing… to show to the kids that learning is messy. It’s not perfect no matter how hard we try. And I think there is some value even in that.”
But other classes are still working out the kinks. Classes with more hands-on curriculum and community-based learning might struggle during this time of uncertainty.
“I was talking with Mr. [Jason] Sox a lot about this the other day because he is our science department chair, and I also talked to Chef Liu who is our culinary arts teacher,” Dr. Brisini said, letting out a sigh. “I think our students in the meantime are going to kind of lose some of that hands on, so those classes… I hope we get back in school pretty quick. I mean, they can do some, but you can’t do a chemistry experiment right now in your grandparents’ house. I mean you can try it, but…”
There are still so many questions that both students and teachers have about what the next month is going to look like. Dr. Brisini discussed with Dr. Eppelsheimer about not having a “blanket policy” for all teachers and students, he said, to help address these more nuanced concerns about class structure.
“We have really professional, intelligent teachers, so we said ‘y’all structure everything that is best for your kids,’” Dr. Brisini said. “And we don’t mind talking through it with people.”
But the course load, environment and procedures are still new to teachers and students.
“Senior year, the workload wasn’t that bad, so I wasn’t that stressed about it, but now with all this online stuff, it definitely is a lot more work — more work than I was expecting it to be,” Cantey said. “I’m working almost the entire day on all the stuff, so I would [like] more communication between teachers on how much work they are actually giving us because I feel like they don’t realize how much it actually is.”
Virtual learning has a distinct place in the classroom, Fox said, and it is important for teachers to be able to adapt and evolve, especially in a situation like the pandemic. It is putting her out of her comfort zone, which helps her from becoming “stale” as a teacher.
“I think right now everybody is just trying to process the fact that we are shut down at least until next month and getting used to this new normal, and as both a teacher and a parent — since I have two kids of my own — it’s about really being self-disciplined,” she said. “It’s about setting boundaries. It’s about taking ownership over your learning.”
Which is what junior Ronan Lurkin is making sure of doing.
Lurkin’s schedule is full — made up of five AP courses and an engineering course. But he prefers distance learning because of how he is determining his day. He has set a routine where he wakes up around nine, works until one in the afternoon and then takes the rest of the afternoon to surf with his brother who is home from college, Lurkin said. He might take a couple of hours at night to finish up.
“It is pretty simple to stay away from people while surfing, especially when the island’s closed — I live on the island — there aren’t that many people that surf out here,” Lurkin said. “We are out in the water, so it’s easy to stay six feet away from people… It’s what I find fun for entertainment, so if I can get out there and do it, I’m going to until they do the mandatory lockdown… It’s my way of working out and de-stressing.”
This activity has helped him to cope with the changing routine of the school year. Because of the routine that he has set, he’s able to spread out his work and achieve his daily coursework goals, he said.
“It works, you just have to be able to pace yourself and not stress out too much about schoolwork, having a proper balance,” Lurkin said. “I get why a lot of people are stressed for AP exams just because they are not going to get as much material or information that they might have gotten before school was cancelled. But people just need to take advantage of it and see light in the dark situations, I guess you could say. Just stay healthy.”
This situation has also been the push to get teachers adjusted to create a more immersive virtual learning foundation for their classes for the years to come.
“Honestly, the silver lining in all of this is teachers are getting more comfortable with using kind of the latest technology of everything, which I think is really good,” Dr. Brisini said. “So whenever we get back, I think this is going to transform our school. If anything… good comes out of this, I think we are going to get some more innovation and forward thinking.”
The foundation for virtual learning has been laid for the next month — next generation of students — in the face of a global crisis. There is still going to be a lot of adjusting, a large learning curve, but teachers and students are trying to remain positive.
“Again — I’m so trying to extract every positive that I can like imagine from this because otherwise, I’ll make myself crazy. And I don’t want to seem like I’m overly self-important, like that’s not true either,” Fox said. “And part of what I miss from the classroom is the interaction with my students and you know what — learning from my students because y’all know a lot about things I know nothing about. In my classroom, the learning is a two-way street.”
If this goes well, Dr. Brisini suspects the county might expand on this type of learning in the coming semesters, he said.
“I have full confidence in our faculty and staff to where if we had to close for the rest of the year, we’d be alright. But I still think learning will occur. Will it be as good as if we were here? I don’t know,” Dr. Brisini said. We’ve laid a good foundation to where our students won’t lose out on too much.”