Kevin Hanlon, K-8 curriculum coordinator, and Marlene Silano, assistant superintendent, work to set up remote learning for Cheshire Public Schools in Cheshire, Connecticut, on Tuesday, March 17, 2020. Credit: Devin Leith-Yessian | AP

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CAMDEN, Maine — Students and teachers across the globe are adapting to remote learning practices as the spread of the coronavirus has forced schools to close indefinitely.

But for the Camden-based Five Town Community School District/School Administrative District 28 remote learning isn’t a new concept. It’s something the combined district has been doing on snow days for the past two years to prevent interruptions in student learning.

Superintendent Maria Libby considers the district fortunate to have had a plan in place for how to continue school when doors had to close.

“Since we’ve done dry runs of this a number of times already, we didn’t have to do the level of preparation that some schools have had to do [to transition to remote learning],” Libby said. “It was just kind of a stroke of luck for us in some ways that we were so well prepared for this unexpected turn in our history as a country.”

Last year, the public schools district became the first in Maine to conduct remote learning on snow days. It has since had four remote learning days that otherwise would have been missed instructional opportunities because of snow.

The district spent more than a year preparing for remote learning — educators had to figure out which students had internet access at home, and provide “hot-spot” devices to those who did not.

[Schools could be closed for weeks. Here’s how to set a schedule for your kids.]

The remote school days were completed using “genius bags” full of take-home work for the district’s elementary school students. Middle and high school students engaged in online learning using iPads provided by the district.

To adapt to the extended closure caused by COVID-19, Libby said some tweaks were made to make remote learning more sustainable: elementary students who did not have a computer at home were given iPads so they could access online resources.

Currently middle school and high school students are following an instruction schedule that starts at 9:30 a.m. and wraps up around 2:30 p.m. They check in with teachers at the start of each class, doing the work that corresponds with that class and in some cases holding a class-wide video meeting.

Libby said every teacher is doing something a bit different, but participation from students has been excellent.

“On [remote] snow days, we don’t have the work be synchronous with a student’s schedule. So they get work and can do it anytime during the day. But we recognized that with this longer term remote learning situation it would be best for students and families to have a schedule to give structure to their day,” Libby said. “A number of teachers have said they have seen better attendance than on a normal school day.”

Across Maine, districts are employing a number of methods to continue learning outside of their schools. However, those methods vary greatly based on a school district’s demographics, funding and location.

In Bangor, all remote learning is being done through take-home packets, since the district could not ensure that all students had access to the internet outside of school.

For Rockland-based Regional Unit 13, where that wasn’t the case, educators still had to develop a remote learning plan in a matter of days.

“It was literally like building a new educational system overnight,” RSU 13 Cirriculum Coordinator Steffany Tribou said.

Last week, the district distributed paper packets of work for students to take home. The district has posted its remote learning plans for each school on its website, along with additional online learning resources.

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“Our main goal is just to focus on maintaining students where they are, not necessarily introducing new curriculum during this time,” Tribou said.

With districts trying to adapt to remote learning, Libby said it’s important for school administrators to do their best with what they have.

While her district is tentatively slated to reopen after April break, Libby believes it’s likely that students won’t return to school this year. Though remote learning can’t replace face-to-face instruction, Libby said the pandemic has demonstrated the importance of having a back-up plan.

“We live in a world with a lot of unknowns. Even right now with this pandemic, we don’t know how long it is going to last and what implications it will have for the future,” Libby said. “But I do think there will be value in this kind of worldwide experiment that is happening with most of the world’s children doing remote learning.”

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