The evolution of Department of Defense Education Activity education in the Wiesbaden community has been a Herculean exercise in collaboration and creativity. In less than a week, area schools transformed in-classroom instruction to virtual learning. And since, they continue to make modifications to almost every aspect of programming to meet the needs of both teachers and students.
Before the March 13 school closures, the district had given area principals a framework to consider for online learning. The plans came from experiences gained in Korea and Italy, two systems already closed because of COVID-19. While the plans were not perfect, they included the recommendation for two days of professional development, two days of experiential instruction and then follow-up collaboration for modifications at all grade levels.
Angela Hadley, principal of Aukamm Elementary, said, “We had access to Italy’s virtual lessons to start, and then we made them our own.” The first two days of instruction, according to Hadley, were a gage. “We didn’t know if we had too little or too much,” she said. Teachers also did not know how the technology platforms would work for all students.
“Teachers had to work so hard during those first seven days,” Hadley said. “They did such a phenomenal job.”
Michelle Singleton, fifth grade teacher at Hainerberg Elementary, said, “I can’t believe how much we’ve learned in the last weeks.” She said, “The tone and tenor has changed from frenzy and panic to hitting a stride.”
One of the first lessons all teachers had to implement was online etiquette. “To be on a conference call with 20 plus students can be challenging,” Singleton said. Barking dogs, social interaction and even heavy breathing have been issues. She and her peers spent significant time encouraging students to mute their microphones until it is time for them to speak.
At the elementary level, teaching teams (by grade) were given flexibility in their planning for online learning. For example, fifth grade teachers at Hainerberg decided to reorganize instructional responsibility. Moving forward on virtual platforms, each teacher would have one area of expertise. Singleton went from teaching her classroom of students every subject to teaching all fifth graders social studies. As a team, they felt this would ease instructional planning time and better meet the needs of all students.
After the first week of instruction, the superintendent’s office conducted an online climate survey. “We identified trends, and then we delved more deeply into those numbers by conducting a qualitative analysis of over 1,750 comments,” said Steven L. Sanchez, Superintendent Europe East District in a final report. In response, the four schools made additional modifications, including staggered scheduling for real-time online instruction from teachers for elementary, middle and high school students.
Julie Wynn, like most parents, had to be patient and flexible as the learning process evolved. She has four children, two in elementary, one in middle and one in high school. In total, her four children have 25 teachers. Aside from keeping track of everything, her initial struggles included a lack of technology devices and internet bandwidth. Her husband and high school student required constant full-day internet during the first week of home learning. She also was short one device and a second one broke.
“I appreciate that DoDEA heard the frustrations and acted quickly to resolve the underlying problems,” Wynn said. “This is new territory to everyone and despite the frustrations, they are doing a great job.” The new schedule eased the burden on bandwidth and her family resolved the technology issues.
Fortunately, all families who made a request have had access to DoDEA Chromebooks. Hadley continues to advocate for families in need to call their school and inquire, as the resources remain available.
Amanda Moser, mom to three, also appreciates the responsiveness of the system as needs arise. Her sophomore at Wiesbaden High School had a difficult time adjusting to the new learning system. He already had an Individual Education Plan in place to assist with learning needs. “His case manager is doing a fabulous job,” she said. “We video chat often and I can text her anytime.”
The support team at Aukamm, including counselors and special educators, actively engage with grade-level teams and parents to identify and provide additional support for students with IEPs and other learning challenges. “Their needs are different, and we are monitoring them very closely,” Hadley said. Students with IEPs or other needs have the option to participate in additional small group sessions for more support.
Elizabeth Evans, a paraeducator at Wiesbaden High School, said, “My role has changed in that instead of classrooms, I am present during live class sessions engaging with students.” When formal instruction is finished, she supports her students with IEPs by emailing, chatting, and video calling. “It is definitely different these days,” she said.
Moser’s oldest child, Marc, is a senior at the high school. He’s appreciated the adjustments made in the first month, including a later start time. “Students can sleep in and have more time to do their work,” he said. During regular school sessions, he was waking at 6:30 a.m. The current schedule allows him to sleep until 9 a.m. His biggest concern, however, is graduation. Like all seniors, he wants to walk across the stage to collect his hard-earned diploma. There has been no decision on the commencement or cancellation of the graduation ceremony.
Karla Sweeney, mom to Michael, a kindergartner, and Ryan, a preschooler, is also grateful for recent changes. “It has been challenging because we have a younger child in the house and Michael was not familiar with a computer and mouse.” Now, their family receives all her son’s work at the beginning of the week and she has the flexibility to start, take breaks and stop when it works for both children.
“The teachers have been really responsive and meet with Michael in small groups,” Sweeney said. She also is impressed with the online tools and resources the school has provided to extend learning in areas of student interest, like science.
Michael would rather be in school. “I miss my friends and my own desk,” he said. Even though he has twice-a-week online interactions, it hasn’t satisfied him.
The social transition is different for older students who are accustomed to virtual social platforms. Senior Moser said, “I am missing parts of social life, but we are able to chat online.”
Teachers have been creatively coming up for ways for students to socially engage using school virtual tools. Once lessons are complete, Singleton encourages her students to stay online and play optional games of Kahoot and talk to each other.
Other teachers, according to Hadley, have done show and tells, fun Fridays and small social gatherings to fill the social void. “We had to give the teachers guidelines but also the flexibility and opportunity to be themselves,” she said. “They have come up with clever ways to keep the kids engaged.”
Regardless of school or grade, the urgency of educational change has required collaboration and mutual support. Singleton said, “These events that bring the community together, like 9/11, make us a family.” She continued, “I’ve been in DoDEA for more than 20 years and the support I feel is more than I have ever felt.” She has been impressed with the collaborative spirit of administrators, fellow teachers and parents.