All Grand Island students resumed classes Thursday, but for some, their chair is in a different place as they learn in Virtual School.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as part of the GIPS Reimagined model of reopening, the district is offering Virtual School as an alternative to students and families who may not feel comfortable resuming in-person learning. At the elementary level, students from across GIPS come together at Virtual School. At the middle and high school levels, Virtual School students still are members of their respective schools, but learn virtually.
As of Friday, 1,412 students are enrolled in Virtual School, according to GIPS. The number represents 685 elementary students, 388 middle school students and 339 high school students.
Elementary Virtual School Principal Whitney Flower said no grade level in Virtual School has more than four sections.
“We have seen that there are quite a few first graders,” Flower said. “Our upper grades, like 3, 4 and 5, have more kids in the individual classrooms, as opposed to kindergarten, first and second. But, in those grades, there is a lot more to teach than just computer skills and content. It is a lot of, ‘This is how we do business when we are at school and when we are at virtual school.’”
Flower said the elementary Virtual School has 29 teachers and about 20 staff members.
“We have been working for a week now as a team,” she said. “It was really exciting today (Thursday) to just get off the ground (with the first day of school). The team, overall, has been awesome.”
Following a schedule
Flower said unlike with e-learning this past spring, students have to log on to a Zoom session at a specific time and follow a “strict schedule.”
“The schedules pretty much mirror what is happening in our brick-and-mortar schools,” she said. “They (students) are getting all the same subjects. The only thing that is a little bit different is we will do some things asynchronously, which means they will do things on their own at times. So (for) things like PE, music and media, they will do those things on their own instead of with a teacher.”
Maura Hendricksen, a fourth-grade Virtual School teacher who works from home, said that on the first day of school Thursday she talked with her 30 students about how they need to get into a routine like they do in a brick-and-mortar school.
“We talked about how normally it would be reading time, but we would be doing some (learning about) routines, some practices and trying to get around technology (challenges). We still talked about how this is the schedule of things, that they would be sitting there with me and I would see their faces on Zoom. If they have to go to the bathroom, I told them they would just leave their chair for a little while, but would come back just like they would in a brick-and-mortar classroom.”
In her virtual classroom, Hendricksen said her students stand up and say the Pledge of Allegiance each morning, have ways to interact with their classmates and have recess just like they would with in-person school.
How does a virtual classroom have recess?
“Before we had recess time, we talked about some of the things that they could do,” Hendricksen said. “Their ideas were that they could go for a quick bike ride, play with their brother or sister, go play basketball or soccer, or jump rope. Then, they said if it is snowing or raining outside, they could do something like draw or read, but they wanted to be walking while they were doing that.”
To keep her fourth graders engaged throughout the school day, Hendricksen said she does a “20-20-20,” during which students take their eyes off their computer screens for 20 seconds and do different activities during that time to rest their eyes and get them moving.
Hendricksen said the difference between teaching in Virtual School versus in-person at Lincoln Elementary last school year is preparation and connecting with her students.
“With Virtual School, I have to be able to have those touch points with kids in different ways,” she said. “It might be that I have to put them in breakout rooms where they talk and I can come visit. I cannot physically go to their desks like I could in the brick-and-mortar classroom. I have to Zoom as best I can to make some of those touch points with those kids.”
Hendricksen said she told GIPS initially that she had no preference between teaching in-person or in Virtual School. However, she said, Virtual School seemed like a natural fit for her.
“My brain thinks paperless a lot of times and this was an easy way for me to get to that (point) with kids,” Hendricksen said. “I wasn’t scared of this part at all.”
Flower said she wanted to get into administration for a number of years and, like Hendricksen, felt her experiences with technology meant Virtual School “was really a niche for me.”
“It is definitely a learning experience,” Flower said. “There are some things we did not think about and we are having to figure it out as we go along. Thankfully, teachers and parents alike have been giving us a lot of grace because we all understand that we are in this together. If we support each other, we are going to give our children an education that they deserve.”