Schools report early success as children get to grips with remote learning

Noella Murray, principal of at St John the Baptist College in Portadown. Picture by Matt Bohill

SCHOOLS are reporting early success as teachers and pupils get to grips with distance learning.

Only children of key workers are attending schools, and numbers are low.

Before the blanket lockdown, some principals had told children to stay home to allow staff time to prepare for alternatives.

While schools are closed until at least the end of the summer, the education minister has insisted it is not an extended holiday.

In a very short period, teachers produced learning packs to be sent to homes while lessons have been uploaded to the internet.

Many teachers are also delivering distance learning.

The Education Authority has been working to ensure there is capacity in the system, although the C2k network was not designed with this in mind. There are other packages including Google Classroom available.

There have been teething problems. Some rural areas do not have sufficient internet access for online learning. Concerns have also been raised about the availability of laptops and tablets for children in areas of social deprivation.

St Genevieve's High School in west Belfast said its pupils were engaged with their learning through Google Classrooms and regular contact with teachers.

Principal Jackie Bartley said teachers had worked hard over the previous couple of weeks to ensure that learning in all subject areas would be ongoing for every pupil.

"Teachers can check through their Google Classroom who has not logged on and submitted work. Pupils can then be contacted by our St Genevieve's app and our social media platforms Facebook, Twitter and Instagram," she said.

"Some departments have been able to have regular contact and have meetings through the platform Zoom and our e-mail system.

"The difficulty for the first 48 hours was ensuring that pupils all had their passwords and that they were online for their lessons. This was sorted with ongoing contact with parents through our app and email address. We are sending out daily messages on social media to support our pupils mental health, support service provision and information in relation to free school meals, keeping to daily routines, reading lists and literacy support.

"The teaching staff of St Genevieve's have worked tirelessly to ensure our pupils get 'what they need' and will continue to do so in the weeks and months ahead."

St John The Baptist College in Portadown routinely uses online learning platforms and communication apps.

Principal Noella Murray said staff, students and parents were well-versed in using these, which made the switch to a virtual school easier.

"To ensure a coordinated and streamlined approach and avoid overwhelming children, we narrowed our main mediums for learning and teaching to Google Classroom, Explain Everything, See Saw and our Show My Homework app. These enable teachers to set work, mark it and provide timely and meaningful feedback - feedback is always a vital part of the learning process, but within the virtual school landscape it's even more important as we believe children will dis-engage without it," Ms Murray said.

"Teachers are using video to teach and explain as they would in school elements of their course. They are then setting activities based on the lesson for pupils to complete and this is working really well for visual learners in particular. Diversity in methodology is vital now - not every child has the motivation or ability to simply work through reams of worksheets or past papers. The key is variety but also ensuring we don't overwhelm students or parents who are trying to deal with so much change."

The school has planned for differentiated approaches for pupils with additional needs and assigned learning mentors to virtual classrooms.

"We have created a guide for parents and students explaining how they can use resources such as Immersive Reader which will read text aloud, translates text into different languages, enables pictorial representation of words and can change size or font of text," Ms Murray added.

"It also allows teachers/students to change the colour of the background which is great for pupils with dyslexia. As a school with a very high percentage of newcomer comer students we are also endeavouring to continue to provide online tutorials for ESOL and individual literacy support - these withdrawal sessions were making a real impact to these pupils and therefore we were keen to continue.

"We like so many schools have a large number of children who depend greatly on key adults within school for emotional support. We have been working hard to engage with all children but in particular our most vulnerable to ensure they have a line of communication with their mentor/key adult and can access support. Each day our form teachers are conducting an emotional check in and if a child is identifying they are very anxious or worried, a member of our pastoral team or safeguarding lead makes direct contact.

"Schools are so much more than hubs for learning and teaching. The real challenge is ensuring our young people continue to feel connected, valued and access much needed emotional support at this time of change and high anxiety in households across the country irrespective of religious, cultural or economic background."

At primary level, schools prepared resource packs for children to take home.

Chris Donnelly, principal of St John the Baptist PS in west Belfast said there was positive feedback via the SeeSaw app and other social media from parents showcasing children's work.

"Schools will endeavour to support parents by providing guidance and instruction regarding recommended timetables, explanatory texts and answer sheets to supplement any learning packs sent home, but it will be a challenging time for many parents, who will be juggling other responsibilities in the home and quite possibly at work," Mr Donnelly said.

"The remote learning approaches used by schools will be essential to provide both guidance but also confidence for parents and children, a necessary means of direct communication."

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