Distance Learning Lessons

April 22, 2020 Daren Worcester

A girl attending her distance learning class on a tablet.

Episode 73 of the Get Connected podcast welcomes Derek Parker, manager of information technology at King's-Edgehill School, Hiram Cuevas, director of academic technology at St. Christopher's School, Laura Flynn, director of educational technology at Louisville High School, and Rick Geyer, director of instructional technology at Calvary Christian Academy, for a roundtable discussions on the status of distance learning at their schools.

The conversation covers distance learning topics such as the lessons their schools have learned thus far, challenges with the rapid adoption in ed-tech tools, evolving parent expectations, the pass-fail grading decision, end-of-year activity planning, and the long-term impact of distance learning on K–12 education. 

Please note that the podcast was recorded on April 16, 2020, and all commentary is reflective of that date. Get Connected to this discussion by listening to the podcast above, downloading the episode, or listening on iTunes, Google Play, iHeartRadio, or Spotify.

Current Blackbaud schools can join the discussion in the Blackbaud Community.

Transcript (Edited)

Rick Geyer [Intro]: This is gonna have such a resounding impact on education moving forward from this because, like you said, it's kind of let the genie out of the bottle and I think so many things that institutions have been scared of in the past, they've been thrust into and now realize they're not as scary as they once seemed.

Daren Worcester: Greetings and welcome back to the Blackbaud K–12 Get Connected podcast. I'm Daren Worcester, and our topic for this episode is lessons that schools are discovering about distance learning. We have a great panel of ed-tech leaders from the Blackbaud K–12 Advisory Board joining us to share how the thinking and methodologies for distance learning have evolved at their school since the initial roll-up. We're excited to get into this conversation, so let's have each of you introduce yourselves and your role at your respective schools. Derek, please lead us off.

Derek Parker: Yeah, good afternoon, Daren. I'm Derek Parker, the manager of IT at King's-Edgehill School, KES as we're known, located in Windsor, Nova Scotia, Canada. Our student population is approximately 135 day students and 230 boarding students so a relatively small school, but we are an international boarding school. We're also the oldest independent school in the Commonwealth outside of the United Kingdom. And right now we're celebrating our 231 year of education. I've been with King's-Edgehill for 25 years and have witnessed a lot of evolution in teaching and learning, but nothing like in the past 30 days.

Daren Worcester: Excellent. Thank you, Derek. Laura, you're up next.

Laura Flynn: Hi, thanks, Daren. My name is Laura Flynn. I'm at Louisville High School in Woodland Hills, California. And a little bit newer school, we're celebrating our 60th year. We are a girls-only Catholic high school with about 350 students. So grades nine through 12. And I am the director of educational technology and other hats like the Blackbaud administrator and database coordinator and all that. So, we've been using these services for a long time. It's been a very interesting month—to say the least.

Daren Worcester: I bet, thank you. Rick, how about you go?

Rick Geyer: Hello, my name is Rick Geyer, and I am the director of IT for Calvary Christian Academy in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. We are a Christian day school. We currently have about 2000 students in pre-K through 12th grade. I have been working here for about six years now. And I've been a director of IT in the area at different schools for about 15 years now.

Daren Worcester: Thank you, Rick. Last but not least, Hiram, your turn.

Hiram Cuevas: Yes. Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Hiram Cuevas, and I'm the director of academic technology at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Virginia. We are an all-boys, JK-to-12 school and we're just over 100 years old right now. And this distance learning has been a big jump for all of us. I can't wait to hear what this conversation is going to be like.

Daren Worcester: Thank you, Hiram. So we did a similar type podcast on our last episode where we brought in a panel to talk about how schools were planning for the coronavirus, and I think the lesson that I learned from that is that everything's moving very quickly. And the topics are changing on a day-to-day, sometimes hour-to-hour basis, along with the decisions and things that are happening. So I feel like for this episode, it's important that we clarify right up front that we're recording this on April 16. So all opinions and subject matter within this podcast are reflective of that date.

That being said, let's start with having everyone share when your school began distance learning, how it first approached the strategy and methodologies to distance learning, and how your school has adapted as time has gone on. If your school has changed its approach, why? So let us this time go in reverse order, and Hiram, we'll start with you.

Hiram Cuevas: We started on March 18, and we were on spring break prior to the deployment. And so we went gangbusters trying to get a distance learning plan and also a faculty toolkit assembled prior to the 18th. And so we were busy working over spring break. And part of the rationale for me to move as quickly as we did was part of a webinar through ATLAS—the Association of Technology Leaders in Independent Schools. They had IT directors from around the country and also Italy and Asia, and it was obvious that things were changing rapidly. And so we needed to get our ducks in a row fairly quickly.

I think the biggest lesson learned was that we started off slow, we did not try and maintain the same level of teaching as if we were in the classroom. We started off by keeping a more pedestrian schedule to get everybody up to speed, which also included a lot of PD for our faculty and staff members to try and keep the school going. Not to mention the various stressors that our families and our students were experiencing as they came back from spring break.

Daren Worcester: Excellent. Thank you, Hiram. Rick, what observations have you seen at your school?

Rick Geyer: Like Hiram, we were just coming off spring break when everything was starting to lock down here in south Florida. We made a commitment early on that we were going to follow what the public school districts were doing in our area as far as shutdowns and closures. Up until that time, we had not had any confirmed COVID cases at our school. So we were fine there.

But we did want to follow any local shutdown orders and things like that. So we were slated to start back to school with a professional development day on March the 16th. And then students were supposed to return on the 17th. What we had decided to do was, we felt like we needed more time to kind of get a good plan in place and we didn't want to go into this without a good plan.

We actually kind of extended spring break an extra week for the students. And that ended up being a really good decision for us because that allowed us that week to really plan and dig in as an administrative team with the different principals and academic directors to figure out what the best approach was going to be for us. And so we also use that time to do professional development with our staff on some items that were going to be specific skills needed for distance learning. And then we launched in on the 23rd as our first day of distance learning.

And I'd say that my big takeaway would be—we have to be willing to adapt, and also admit that we don't know the best path forward initially. And the word for us is pivot. Because everything is moving so quickly, you have us that are trying to figure out what does distance learning look like.

And you also have a lot of these solution providers, educational solutions, teleconference solution providers that are feverishly working to accommodate schools and the different challenges that they're facing. And so you figure out how you're going to use a certain solution. And then two days later, they released an update that changes how you have to do it, and so you're constantly having to go back to your community and say, I know I said to do it this way, but we're actually going to change—we're going to do it a different way.

And so we've just tried to instill in our community, from our teachers to our parents and our students, that there has to be flexibility here as we're kind of walking through this, and kind of a grace to roll with the different changes that are developing over time.

Daren Worcester: So what are some of the things you've learned along the way and had to pivot on?

Rick Geyer: Many of it has been with solutions that were not things we were using natively when doing brick and mortar education—namely things like Google Hangouts. We're a Google school, and so we chose as our teleconference software to use Google Hangouts or Google Meet for that. And that's one of those things that Google—I have to credit them, have been really responded to the community pretty quickly on as far as things that were deficient in their program when it came to an educational setting.

So we were trying to come up with ways to best secure a session and best practices for our teachers. And some of those were based on limitations or vulnerabilities in the Google platform, and then come to find out that Google had plugged the hole and changed the way that that happened.

Other things resulted in tools or other solutions being made available free that weren't made available and free earlier on that we were able to then utilize during this time. So we've rolled those out to the teachers as well. 

Daren Worcester: Excellent, thank you. Laura, how about at your school?

Laura Flynn: Well, as a Catholic school, our spring break is around the lunar schedule, so we didn't have break scheduled to go until mid-April. So when this started happening, and California was looking back East, I think it was the very first week of March we started meeting administratively about it. That very first week I remember an administrative meeting talking about things as detailed as how many hours of work per week should the teachers be requiring of those students. That was one of the first things we talked about.

And we also weren't going to prepare to add more tools to the teachers and be heavy on PD. It was more going to be about how to organize the lessons clearly and consistently so that students were getting information the same way no matter what teacher they had. So the first week was talking and the second week of March was two big sessions of professional development about how to best use the tools that we already have in place.

And people are really good at it. And I think there were a few that don't rely on the tools very much. And all of a sudden they're realizing the importance of them and getting some help from their department members. We assigned a tech mentor per department. So it wasn't necessarily the department chair. And that helped spread out the responsibility quite a bit. And that's really helped.

Then LA Unified, I believe, on Friday the 13th said, that's it, we're closing. So the 16th and 17th of the following week, instead of having learning starting on that Monday, we started on Wednesday and gave the teachers two days, sort of PD-free to plan their lessons before starting on Wednesday. That gave us, basically, if we consider starting that Monday, we had four weeks of working on this before we really started vacation, and so at the end of that fourth week, we surveyed the students and the parents. And now we were able to take a pause and digest it, and when we come back this coming Monday, we'll be starting distance learning 2.0.

So it's been interesting for us not having the early break, doing two weeks of preparation, and then, slam—here we go. Four weeks of work on that, and then a pause and evaluation of it. I think we have six weeks to go starting Monday.

Daren Worcester: And what did you learn from the surveys?

Laura Flynn: One of the big things that was a surprise to me was that there were several teachers that immediately wanted to figure out how to continue teaching exactly like they always have. And probably more the majority of teachers were able to envision more of a project-based learning environment and sort of move towards that but there is definitely a contingent of teachers that want to keep teaching the same way they always have. A lot of history and modern language have wanted to continue—and some math—live sessions.

And at first I was surprised at that. And I thought, oh no, that's going to be really a struggle. And the amount of work for those teachers to do that has been very difficult for them. But interesting enough, the student feedback that I saw were the students saying, we love the live sessions, we love the recorded lectures. So that surprised me.

But as I think about it, for every student to have to face a big change and shift in the way they're learning is really daunting. And so if some of their teachers are continuing to lecture, it probably was a relief to the student. And they can replay things and they're taking notes in the good old way they always did.

And so as a technology director, I thought, oh no, the lecture teachers are really going to struggle, and how are the kids going to do that? And it turns out that having a variety of teaching approaches is probably a really great thing. They're getting a lot of project-based from some teachers and they're sticking to their traditional live or lecture in others. 

Daren Worcester: Derek, how about you tell us what's been happening at King's-Edgehill?

Derek Parker: So at King's-Edgehill, much like everybody in Canada, we started our March break the second week of March, not knowing that would effectively be our last week of brick-and-mortar education. My wife and I actually took a group of students to Peru on the 12th of March, we were there for two days when martial law was declared.

So we frantically tried to get our way out of the country and spent the next nine days in isolation in a hotel, which gave me time to, A, try and find a way out by contacting every government source I could, and, B, work on our distance education program with our administration folks back in Nova Scotia. So it was a little stressful at times.

We looked at various products for effective distance learning, but we already had some in place. Effectively, being an international boarding school, we've offered variations of distance learning for several years now, because quite often students for maybe student study permits or discipline issues can't be on the campus. So we've had to offer some form of distance learning for those students over the years anyway, so we had a bit of a game plan in place.

But we found our methodologies changed from focusing primarily on cognitive and critical thinking applications, but to also allow for such things as student motivation, physical fitness, spirituality, and mindfulness. We've incorporated those all into daily online life. We wanted to make sure that we covered all four pillars of our school, so that we're not just focusing solely on academics but also on spiritual health, mental health, physical health, those type of things. And community service, we still have our students engaging in projects online that will help the broader community.

Much like the others, I like Rick's saying that he learned to pivot. We've certainly had to do that as well. You start out with a particular application and you think it may have a practical use, but at the end of the day, no, it wasn't as practical as it appeared. Or something else has been offered for free and you try it and it's like, wow, we can definitely use this, and we do some PD sessions with faculty to try and get them on board and up to speed.

And like Laura mentioned, with our lecture-style classrooms, the histories and the Englishes and things like that, we've been thankful for—I don't know if I can put in a specific plug in for Blackbaud, but I'll put this plug in for Blackbaud—the discussions forum, many of our teachers weren't using discussions, and that area of assessments has exploded. It's being utilized to a large extent in those types of classrooms. So, the times they are a changing, but you know, we're adapting, and so is our way of teaching.

Daren Worcester: Well, thank goodness you guys all made it back safe and sound, and funny enough, we do allow Blackbaud plugs on the Blackbaud K–12 Get Connected podcast. So feel free to plug away there. One follow up for you, Derek, in thinking about you guys having to get back from Peru to Canada. I assume you had students going the other way as a boarding school. How has having students all around the world made a challenge for your distance learning plans?

Derek Parker: Yeah, that's a great question, Daren, and timezone has definitely been a challenge. So what we've come up with is that we try to keep the academic day as stable as we can be. We want our teachers, because they all live locally, starting their classes at 8:30 and being done by 3:30. So we're using Zoom, and on that in itself has caused some issues and concerns. But it's been good for the most part, especially for live tutorials and training sessions.

It's allowed us to record and save sessions for our Chinese students that have a 12-hour difference. So the first couple of weeks I was finding myself doing training from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. for faculty and students on pieces of software, and starting again at seven o'clock or eight o'clock at night for a couple of hours to help the students in China with questions that they might have. That's all kind of eased out over time now as people get more comfortable with technology and how it's being utilized. So, being an international school, that would be one of the biggest challenges is the time of day for for education.

Daren Worcester: Okay, thank you. I wanted to go back to one of Laura's points about surveying and getting feedback from families. And the point to that I wanted to get to from Laura's was having teachers that wanted to try to continue to educate the way they had been teaching—as your schools have made the switch to distance learning, and things like screen time have become an issue and understanding that kids are at home doing homework, and they have their siblings around, they've got lots of other distractions, and how do they fit in all this coursework? And you hear stories that maybe some kids are getting too much work, or not enough work. How has your school had to adjust to those things? Have you guys put in measures to kind of scale things back? Or have you started with not enough and had to scale it up? What's the thinking been there? I'll take whoever wants to jump in on that.

Laura Flynn: We did our survey about a week ago, and a lot of the students—I almost want to say the majority of them—said that there was too much work assigned. And with a lot of the teachers wanting to do live lessons and live lectures, things like that—we had asked them to give four hours of work a week, but it didn't feel like that to the students. And they may have had four hours of live stuff and then more time for homework and assignments.

So trying to get the teachers to stick to the four hours and to be able to correctly predict what's going to take four hours for the students to do, has been one of our biggest challenges. So the administrators have divided themselves up to monitor the teachers' assignments and class pages, and kind of individually work with teachers to get them scaled back to where they need to be or scaled up to where they need to be, but mostly to scale back. 

Hiram Cuevas: And actually, Daren, that was one of the things I was able to glean by learning from one of the schools in Rome. They had initially started off by trying to teach the way they were accustomed to in the brick and mortar setting, and quickly recognize that 20 to 30 minutes was more ideal—that their teachers were exhausted, their students were exhausted, the families were exhausted, and it was really taking on that holistic approach that Derek so eloquently described that they're doing at his school. You need to look at more than just the academics within your school when you're working towards providing a sense of normalcy for our families. 

Daren Worcester: Excellent, thank you. Derek, Rick, do you guys have any comments to add there?

Derek Parker: I'd just like to add that our administration, and our headmaster—everyone's been super supportive. Just for example, after our first week of going through this, and it's much like Laura said, everybody's trying to do their best, but maybe doing too much almost at times. Our headmaster, I just want to put out a little quote here from an email. He won't mind me sharing, I'm sure, but he sent this message to all the faculty and staff and it said, "Everyone on staff sets the bar exceptionally high for themselves personally and professionally, so here it is from me: One, keep your personal bar high. Keep your relationships and your family as happy and healthy as you can. Two, set your professional bar lower. You don't have to do the fitness fix at 3:30 p.m.," which is something we do. "You don't have to attend chapel. You don't have to give your students so much work that you have a ton of marking to do. You don't have to respond to emails right away, or late at night, or outside of your office hours," and it goes on from there.

It's just nice to see as we get further into this thing that there is support on all levels. And I think at the end of the day, we're all gonna make it through this, it's just a different thing.

Daren Worcester: Yeah, I imagine for the staff of your school that that's a great message to hear and get reinforced. Rick, you had your hand up. Did you want to add?

Rick Geyer: Yes. We also surveyed our parents after—we called it our week one—and we wanted to see, okay, did we get this plan right? Or how do you feel about the direction we're heading in? You know, in case we need to make changes, we could make it early on as opposed to waiting. We did a whole school survey to our families. And the feedback was really good. We had some areas for Likert scale responses, but then we also gave some places for free-form responses.

We reviewed all of that and we really had to kind of dig into the minutiae of those because it was so varied. I will say a common theme of our secondary school was that they were giving too much work, but our elementary school was that they weren't giving enough. So it was interesting the difference there.

But actually what we're getting ready to do this coming week is we're actually going to do another survey, but we're having the survey done by department. And the reason we decided to do this is because—what we identified in secondary was that it was particular departments that were causing a lot of the load as far as there being too much work. And so by having each department do the survey themselves, saying, "How do you feel the workload is from your math class?" And asking questions specific to those departments, it's going to help us zero in on where those problem areas are. So we can kind of keep that workload for the students at home to be around those four hours. Like Laura mentioned, that' our benchmark as well.

So the feedback from our parents is key to this process being successful and making sure that we're actually giving them the product that they're looking for while we're in this distance learning situation.

Daren Worcester: It's interesting the similar approaches between the schools. Thank you. So let's transition the topic to technology adoption, which since Derek has gotten the icebreaker and Blackbaud plugs out there, I feel safe going in and saying, monitoring our systems, we're seeing huge increases. Graded Discussions have been up 1300 percent year over year from March. Video uploads, 800 percent. Assessments, 380 percent. Assignments have jumped up 290 percent.

I remember in one of our advisor meetings, one of the advisors that said that, obviously, the circumstances here are not what anybody would have wished for. But from a tech director's standpoint, this day of widespread technology adoption and using LMS tools and all the other tools that you guys are pulling in is sort of the day that you've been waiting for and working towards. How has it gone at your schools? Have there been any unforeseen challenges or circumstances with this quick, rapid, widespread adoption of technology? Hiram, let's start with you.

Hiram Cuevas: So I think one of the most challenging aspects is restraining our faculty's exuberance for wanting to try new software applications, especially now that so many providers are saying that their services are free. And so we've had to actually really put a stop to introducing many, many new applications, mainly because we have the suite already available to us. And we needed to remind folks, hey, we've got a lot of the tools that you are already looking for. And so we saw a tremendous adoption of Topics pages, for example, in our lower school, which was not utilized anywhere as near as I had hoped it would be. And now it's really taken off, and has overcome some inertia.

But I think one of the most difficult—as I mentioned earlier—was really trying to slow people down because we have to also consider some data privacy issues for the students. And oftentimes, when things are free, you usually pay with your student data, and one of the best parts about not having to worry about Blackbaud's LMS is you don't have to worry about that—it's already in place. The privacy policies are sound, and the tools are great. So we have everything that we need, and we were able to manage the expectations of our faculty quite well.

Daren Worcester: That's a great point, Hiram. And I know your school has been ahead of this in that regard. From the top down, is there LMS-SIS usage policies that you have in place? How do you educate everybody on the dangers of going out, and understanding why they need to stick to the school approved services?

Hiram Cuevas: Well, this has been something that we've been challenged with for many, many years. This is not something that happened overnight. And we have a vetting process for our software applications. And I think the big epiphany was when we did a data diagram of how data flows throughout our campus. Obviously, they saw that Blackbaud's products were the hub—I use the word core intentionally here—were the core of many of our functions. And one of the prerequisites that I have is that if it's not an ecosystem partner, or it does not do SSO or LTI, we really shouldn't be looking at many other options, because then you end up with this siloed information.

The opportunity to really educate our teachers about student privacy and data was paramount. And it became really, really clear when this COVID situation happened because we had to gain the support of our administrative team because teachers were asking to use all of these new applications that needed to be vetted. And we just didn't have the time to go through all those terms of service.

We were looking at things like COPPA, we were looking at FERPA ,we were looking at—we don't have to worry about GDPR, but you still have some GDPR issues if you're dealing with software for your alums. And they finally got it. They understood why I end up sounding like Toby from the office. And they understand why we have to slow things down a bit and use what we have first, and then we can start to explore what are some of the additional needs that may or may not be met.

Daren Worcester: Excellent, Hiram, better that you're sounding like Toby and not Michael Scott. Rick, you had your hand up, did you have a follow up to that?

Rick Geyer: We have a similar strategy when it comes to our approach to different technologies. I have pretty militantly held to if it's offered and available through our Blackbaud solutions, that's what we're going to use first. We do have a vetting process as well, for any new software, and I do encourage our teachers to explore and see things that would be useful in their class, but the flowchart that we've created is, does this feature already exists in Blackbaud? If yes, then use Blackbaud. If no, and it has an integration or can seamlessly be used, then it's something that we can look at.

Just making sure that we're holding on to that, and it is tough because we want to have consistency for our families. You don't want the experience in one class to be different than another, or one grade to be different than another because our parents are at home, and this is a very, very difficult time for them. They're trying to work from home themselves, they have multiple kids, and trying to keep track of multiple assignments and stuff. And so we have taken an approach that we want to have consistency across our levels as far as how we're doing school.

And so it's tough sometimes, because some teachers come up with some really great ideas. But if it's not something that we can adopt whole level, whole division, then we're probably going to say, "No, we're better off maintaining this consistency than letting you go rogue with this and making it be something that our parents have to learn or adapt to."

So thankfully that's something that I have been hammering into our staff for years about making sure that we use the things we have available to us first before looking outside, so it hasn't been too challenging, but it's definitely something we've had to stay on top of.

Daren Worcester: Yeah, I'm glad you bring the user experience into this. That's another great point. Laura, you've got your hand up.

Laura Flynn: So definitely along with Rick and Hiram, trying to limit and tie a bow around two or three things that pretty much everybody was capable of doing, and leaving out the outlier things. I wasn't encouraging people to record lectures, but if they really wanted to do that, then with Google Meet, because we just taught everyone how to do it, and here's how you can record yourself. So trying to stick within the tools—we're a Google school as well, so Google Meet was immediately taught to the faculty. I went into every student's classroom over three days and taught them how to use Google Meet and proper etiquette. And that really paid off. 

But other than that, sticking with the Blackbaud tools, and showing the teachers and modeling for them through the use of the group page that we have for professional development, and saying, this is where you're going to put your information for the week on the Bulletin Board. This is where you can post links to your Google Meet sessions right here on the Bulletin Board. And it avoids the teachers from messaging links or emailing links to Google Meets and every class has their link in the same place on the Bulletin Board.

And then the Topics, some teachers had used them quite a bit, and others not at all. So trying to get some normal expectations for teachers as to what the Topic pages should be used for. It's really been a successful way to keep it consistent for the students

Hiram Cuevas: Standardization.

Laura Flynn: There's one third-party tool that we spent a little time on before the quarantine started, and it's called Padlet. And it's a third-party tool that embeds very easily into a Topic page. And so, through that one tool, teachers are able to do 100 different things, including voice recording audio for Spanish, or video conferencing—it's sort of like asynchronous video conferencing.

And just by embedding that one tool and teaching them that one third-party thing, it brought in a ton of creativity and kind of exploded the use of the Topic pages beyond anybody's expectations. So by embedding it in the Topic page, it keeps the students In their Blackbaud account, we call it My Louisville, so they stay right in My Louisville. It's secure, and they can share and collaborate within the class—probably more than they have in the past with projects. So that embedding capability inside the topic has been really, really great.

Daren Worcester: Excellent, thank you. Derek, you've been trying to get in on the conversation, what did you have to add?

Derek Parker: For us, being 231 years old, we've been offering a traditional education for a very long time. That doesn't work now in this time of COVID. So, we found that with our faculty and support services, we've had to take the plunge into the deep end. And, surprisingly, it's a lot easier to swim here than we thought it would be. And no small part to what Blackbaud has offered. You know, we've been a Blackbaud customer for ten-plus years, and I've been pushing the product, but sometimes people are comfortable with what they do, I don't want to force anything on anyone.

But we always have some people coming in, and they're quick adopters. And thankfully for them, they've helped me and IT support bring not only Blackbaud, but other apps into fruition during this time. I think our numbers percentage wise may be even higher than what you guys have in Blackbaud. You're saying Graded Discussions up nearly 1300 percent, Daren, in March. I think of our 40 to 43 faculty members, there might have been one discussion going on in one of the classes and now I can guarantee you that there's dozens that are happening. So percentage wise, we're going through the roof with a lot of the Blackbaud tools, and we found that 90 percent of what we want to accomplish, thankfully, we already had everything in place. So that's worked out well.

Like I said, the two biggest challenges have been time zones for international students, but we are in a rural community and when we certainly have high-speed internet at our school, and many of our students do, but there's some here in Nova Scotia that high-speed internet just isn't a real thing yet. And me included. I'm actually working from home at my cottage—I'm sitting by the lake, it's a beautiful scene, but my internet isn't always the best. I'm hoping it's working well enough now to get through this session. But that's been an obstacle for us. So, hopefully, governments learn that we need better broadband internet in locations that are more rural. That's something I'm hoping will come out of all of this, and I think it will. 

Another thing that I, for me personally, that I didn't foresee was how busy I would be. I almost anticipated vacation-like scenarios, and guess what—no vacations here, that's for sure. So, yeah, for us, the Blackbaud tools have been monumental.

Daren Worcester: So a couple takeaways from that—the Graded Discussions has been a great feature for distance learning, we've learned. I'm curious, is your school using it for the original intent of collaboration and assessment, or—we're seeing some schools getting creative and using it for attendance tracking. How's it getting used at your school.

Derek Parker: We're definitely using it in its original intended purpose. But a few teachers are using it for finding ways to offer new apps into their curriculum, and students are giving feedback on what they like and dislike. It's been good for things like that as well. We haven't used it for attendance, but I've never even actually thought of it for attendance, to be honest.

Daren Worcester: That's fantastic. The other thing that you kind of led us towards was what was going to be my next question in that as a parent, my big takeaway from this has been that I am certainly not qualified to teach first-grade math. And you think—hey, we're working from home, everything's shut down—that you're not going to be as busy and crazy, but everything just seems to have been exponential in how crazy things have been. How have your parents been with understanding and supporting of the schools and everything that's going on? As time has gone on, have their expectations changed?

Derek Parker: Here King's-Edgehill, I would say that the parent response has really been very positive. We didn't formerly survey yet. That is part of our plan at the end of the month after we're 30 days in is to do a formal survey, we're probably a little behind the times on that one by the sounds from Rick and others.

Parents have been, via email or Zoom chats, super supportive. They appreciate that we're still going with some solid educational material, whereas some other schools in public education have closed schools—not here in Nova Scotia, but in New Brunswick they have closed the public schools for the year. Parents love that we're giving their kids structure during their regular daily life so that they're not specifically just screen timing all the time or playing video games. And this is still all the core values of KES. Parents are happy.

Talking to admissions the other day, and our admission numbers are right on par with what they were last year—even potentially, that we may not have a classroom to come back to yet. But that's a long ways away, and we're anticipating that we definitely will be open for classes, but admissions is looking solid as ever. So that's all good indicators.

Daren Worcester: Yeah, that's a great sign. Rick, how about your school?

Rick Geyer: I think it's been pretty well received by our community. I know that early on, as we were making plans, and all the talk was about every school in the area is going to distance learning, we were hearing rumblings from the conversations in the parking lot and social media and different stuff about, "Well, you know, I send my kid to a private school because I don't want to homeschool."

They were thinking what it would look like—a product of what would come out of it would be something where they were going to have to be engaged as a parent a lot more and directly involved in leading that learning process. And thankfully, with the plan that we've put in place, and how we're approaching that, the feedback has been that they've been surprised how little they've had to engage because the teachers have been carrying the load that they would typically carry if they were in a classroom.

The parent is really more of a facilitator, for the most part. I can say, personally, I'm not just an administrator at the school, I'm also a parent, and I have two kids at the school. And as the person that's home, I'm having to do my job and work. But then also support my two kids, I basically am a facilitator, I need to make sure that they show up for their sessions, and they get set up on the devices and things like that. And then it's going to be what the typical parent would have to help with homework and things like that. It's not like I'm having to teach whole lessons.

So, I would say our parents are pretty encouraged with where it's been. And I think our thing is just not to rest with where it's at, but to continue to stay listening to the community and what the response is there, and adjusting to suggestions and direction that they would have us go.

Daren Worcester: Excellent, thank you, Rick. The next topic I wanted to take us to is the idea of pass-fail grading for the spring semester. I know that's something that a lot of schools are considering. I'm curious, if your schools have talked about it, if you're making that change, or if you're not, why? Hiram, do you want to lead us off there?

Hiram Cuevas: Sure. So we looked at the concept of pass-fail, and then we quickly abandoned it. So we're actually going to continue issuing grades. Report cards actually just went out for our first through fifth graders today. So they are still receiving assessments in the conventional sense. Now, in the final marking period, they are looking more at some sort of portfolio-based assessment for our lower school.

And then the new challenge for us is adjusting the gradebooks right now so that we can accommodate for exams that have different percentages that we initially put in place at the beginning of the school year. So we're maintaining it. We've got lots of different reasons from dealing with the NCAA needing specific grades for scholarships to college admissions to maintaining some sense of rigor with our boys.

And I think they do like having the structure of having some sort of assessment in place, noting that we are actually doing both types. We're doing formative and summative assessments, we are doing both types. And so it's really important that they are getting the measurements that they need. 

Rick Geyer: Now, we also chose to stick with our current grading model. We did discuss that at one point as a leadership team, but never pulled the trigger to go in the direction of a pass-fail for much of the same reasons as Hiram. We had already completed the work for our third quarter, the first quarter of the second semester. And with the solutions we have in place, and the approach that we're taking to distance learning, we feel that the product is going to be on par with the rigor that we would typically have in the classroom.

And we're able to assess it in a way that the grade would reflect comparably to what would be happening in the classroom. So we've chose to keep with that for a lot of the same reasons as far as how that factors into things like valedictorian and salutatorian, and making sure that they have grades that would factor in for those or other awards and scholarships that might be available to them, and the impact that would happen if we were to switch for the semester.

Daren Worcester: Great. Thank you both. Derek, did you want to weigh in on that? 

Derek Parker: Well, just to support that even further, I think everyone's probably looked at a pass-fail scenario. We also decided to continue on with our numerical grades. We strongly feel that we're still delivering our curriculum and that students are learning the material that they need to learn in order to proceed to the next grade or graduate.

So we're going to be offering our numerical grades and we do have a report card coming up here at the end of next week that'll be going out to parents and students. We just feel that it's going to be a numerical grade that'll still be very indicative of what that student's ability is to master the material. And no, we don't see a need to go to a pass-fail just because of that.

We know that a lot of universities are going to be looking at transcripts from this year and accepting a pass-fail, but we still think numeric grades that are a true representation of the student are the best way to go.

Laura Flynn: We're the same, Derek, at Louisville. This happened right about the end of our third quarter. So letter grades were going out for that first half of the second semester right then, and to switch to pass-fail felt like throwing out those third-quarter grades that they had worked so hard on. So it will just continue for them with the same sort of amount of work, and the students really work hard.

And so to keep them going at the same level of expectation has benefited everybody because I think the students continue to be as engaged as possible. And we don't really have to worry about them slacking off.

The hard thing that we didn't anticipate was how many students—since they're all high school students—how many of them are ending up responsible for, in some way, child care or supervision of younger siblings. So that's been a bit hard but the teachers have been flexible and working with students outside of class hours if they have to, if the student can't make the scheduled meeting, so I think everybody's coordinating and working really hard to keep that sense of normalcy, and therefore they're earning the grades that they should be getting.

Daren Worcester: Excellent. Thank you. So, here in New Hampshire, where I'm located, our governor just announced today that they're canceling live school throughout the rest of the school year. So everything's going to be virtual from here on out. I'm sure in some of your other states, similar announcements have been made and sorry, Derek, province. So as your schools are looking and forecasting towards the future, what is planning like around events like graduation and or prom if you have an upper school? I know some schools have talked about doing graduation in the fall or late summer, that sort of thing. Have these discussions come up at your schools and what's gone into them?

Derek Parker: I think every school has had that discussion or is having those discussions and they're probably going to continue having those discussions because things change. Obviously, like you said, we recorded on April 16th—on April 17th, the discussion that we had may be completely different because new rules have come in place or rules have been relaxed.

But right now, we are still planning on having our athletic awards banquet at the end of the year—we figure that will be a virtual presentation. Much like, currently, we still offer daily chapel service, and we have a once-weekly assembly and those types of things. So we see things like the athletic banquet, our junior school graduation, perhaps, being an online Zoom webinar, those kinds of things.

But our hope is that maybe before the end of the school year, we could still have a real graduation ceremony in place, and a prom for our graduating students who have worked so hard to get there. But the times are still changing every day. And I guess we just continue to make adjustments as the days go on.

Laura Flynn: I think we're still holding out hope here because we flattened our curve very well in California and we're actually peeking today and tomorrow. And by the end of May, our graduation is scheduled for May 30. There's some hope that with some sort of social distancing in place that we can still pull it off. There's a very beautiful formal graduation on campus in white dresses with roses and nobody wants to see that disappear. So I think, if there is something they can do, they'll work towards that.

What they're talking about right now is starting plans for virtual speeches for ASB elections and a virtual art festival. We have a big festival of the arts every spring, that is visual arts as well as performing arts, and so they're going to carry that on in creative virtual ways, which I'm happy to hear about. I haven't heard anything about prom, so I think they're too sad to talk about it.

Daren Worcester: Gotcha. It is amazing the creativity that people have had in coming up with being able to pull off some virtual events. Hiram, you got cut off there a minute ago, did you have something to add?

Hiram Cuevas: It's more of the same. It's trying to deal with the grieving process of our families and our students because that's exactly what they're doing right now is they're going through this grieving of all the celebrations that are lacking, and really being ever hopeful that we can have these events, perhaps over the summer.

Daren Worcester: Alright, thank you. Rick, anything from your end there?

Rick Geyer: I will say we haven't made a final decision about that. We have ramped up discussions about end-of-year festivities this week, and like what Laura said, we're holding out hope that we can still pull off graduation.

We're also scheduled for around the 30th of May. But we've also had some other schools in the area that have already rescheduled theirs for June. And so that's also on the table as possibly something we could do, but it is such an unknown at this point, being in south Florida where there's quite a bit of cases. We're not at the top of the list anymore, we've started to flatten our curve, but we're still in the top ten in the country as far as COVID cases, so we want to be smart about that. We'd hate to make a decision to push it back and then not push back far enough.

So we're just trying to be cautious and smart and prudent about the decisions we make. And we're just hoping that we get enough data to make a good decision here in the next week or so. So we can communicate it to our families. But we definitely want to make sure that the students and the students and parents feel like we've had an opportunity to honor them in the way that they need to be honored. The end of their year for the seniors hasn't been completely stolen, because we definitely want to be sensitive to some of those feelings because it is difficult for them. 

Daren Worcester: I bet. It sounds like you guys have a great approach. So for my last question, I ask everyone to look into your crystal balls a little bit further into the future. Now that the genie is out of the bottle with distance learning if you will, it's hard to imagine that when school resumes to quote-unquote normal that it's going to be the same as it was two months ago. I keep telling my boys up here in the Northeast that they can kiss snow days goodbye. They're never gonna have another snow day again. As you guys look at hopefully getting back to classes in the fall in session, how do you envision education in your schools evolving from this?

Hiram Cuevas: You can kiss snow days goodbye—that's for certain, and/or hurricanes barring any power issues?

Rick Geyer: Sure. 

Laura Flynn: I don't think we ever had any big plans in place for earthquake closures because that's the kind of scenario having been to the Northridge earthquake where everything just comes to a grinding halt, and that's just the way it is. But here we are 25 years later, the things that can take things to a halt, even if you're all pretty much okay, it could take two or three weeks for building inspectors to allow you to let people back on your campus. So those kinds of inspections or gas hookups and water, those things take a lot of time—even if people had their electricity, we would be able to continue teaching in this way.

So I think that this is good practice for that for us. Hopefully, it'll never happen. But I think summer school will be affected, this summer for sure, but maybe ongoing now that we have an online summer school where we didn't have that before. I think that would be a great idea. So that's one hope that I have.

Rick Geyer: I think that this is gonna have such a resounding impact on education moving forward from this, because like you said, it's kind of let the genie out of the bottle. And I think so many things that institutions have been scared of, in the past, they've been thrust into and now realize they're not as scary as they once seemed. And we can actually do school in this model.

And I think it's going to open doors for a lot of organizations that are well-positioned to offer services like this and almost kind of broaden the market if that's the strategy that they want to take as far as who they can serve and also give flexibility to different types of students that might have opportunities or difficult schedules based on other things that they're involved in. So, I think that the fact that we've been thrust into this and people have had to learn on the fly different skills and different competencies, and just a different way of learning—we would have never chosen this for ourselves—but now that we're here, I definitely think that the impact of this is going to resound into the future for sure.

Derek Parker: I think you've hit the nail on the head there, the new normal is definitely not going to be what it was 30 days ago, and we found at King's-Edgehill that we're much better at adapting than we ever thought we could be. Teachers are becoming resourceful, students are engaged. So I can't see anything going back to what it was 30 days ago—well, not everything, a lot of things will go back. Of course, we will still have our brick-and-mortar education.

But as Laura mentioned, summer programs are now on the table for sure, extended learning to our international students that maybe they choose not to be a boarding student at King's-Edgehill but still partake in our curriculum. I see some really neat opportunities. Nobody would have chosen to go this route and discover these technical opportunities. But at the end of the day, you got to look on the sunny side of things, and hope that we come out of this better than we went in.

Daren Worcester: That's a great sentiment. Hopefully, there are some silver linings here for everyone. Any last thoughts before we close this out?

Rick Geyer: I think the biggest challenge related to this question really has to do with how schools are going to package this and sell it? Because if you're a prestigious prep school, how do you set your price point and tuition model for your distance learning package as compared to what happens on campus? And how do you convince people that they still need to come to your school and pay the on-campus or the boarding amount when they could get a similar experience and a similar diploma remotely? So I think that is one of the biggest challenges—how are we going to package that and how is that going to be presented to the community? And I think that's really one of the big questions that schools are gonna have to answer.

Hiram Cuevas: Rick, to your point, I think what our schools do really, really well, is that sense of community and the relationship building. That goes between the teachers, the coaches, the advisor, and the students. There really is no substitute for that. And it will be interesting to see where families lie in terms of ranking the importance.

Rick Geyer: Yep. 

Daren Worcester: Excellent. Well, thank you all for your time today for joining us on the podcast. I really appreciate it. Your insight is going to be very helpful to a lot of schools, I'm sure. So thanks again.

Rick Geyer: You're welcome. 

Hiram Cuevas: Thanks for having us.

Derek Parker: Yeah, happy to participate, Daren.

Laura Flynn: Thank you, Daren.

Daren Worcester: You're welcome. And for everybody listening, thank you for joining us on this episode, and I hope everybody is staying safe and staying well. And we'll hopefully be talking to you again on another episode soon.

About the Author

Daren Worcester

Daren Worcester has been a member of the Blackbaud K-12 team for 17 years, assisting hundreds of independent schools through a variety of website development roles. A former copywriter and a published author with an appetite for SEO, Daren currently serves as the senior content marketing manager for K-12.

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