VAN, Texas — What we've all learned about the year 2020, is that anything can happen, and we have to be prepared for any sudden changes, including schools to shut down again.
That's precisely why school leaders in Van ISD wanted to test all of the upgrades and changes they've put into place since March, to see if they're truly ready to support an entire district learning virtually again. On Thursday, October 8, Van ISD kept all of their students home for their virtual day.
"We knew that we had all of this technology in place. We knew that we had all the training in place, but we really didn't. We didn't know whether or not you know, the connectivity of our students from their homes was going to be able to work in case, you know, something were ever to happen," Van ISD Superintendent Don Dunn said.
While many schools across East Texas are asking students to return to campus and pumping the breaks on remote learning, Van ISD chose a proactive approach with a virtual day.
This wasn't a day off from school, but an important exercise for all students, teachers, and the technology department.
"You know, as a former coach, I know the importance of scrimmaging and I saw this as a scrimmage," said Jason Johnson, Director of Instructional Technology. "You know, a scrimmage can tell you the good things about your team, but it can also show you what your flaws are."
Van ISD wanted to find out — are there any holes in their virtual learning game? Director of Instructional Technology, Jason Johnson, believes their virtual day did that.
"It went much better than I could have anticipated. I think we had 40 calls into helpdesk on Thursday, which when you consider that we have nearly 2,400 students that's not that many calls," Johnson said. "And the thing that I was worried about the most was connectivity issues. How are the kids going to be able to connect at home?"
A concern shared by Superintendent Don Dunn.
"Our kids had very few problems connecting," Dunn explained. "Our teachers were able to get their assignments out. The students were able to, you know, first engage to get their attendance in, and then were able to submit their assignments."
You may recall Van ISD learned a critical lesson last spring – around 60% of their students were out of touch with no connectivity.
It was not because they didn't have a device. They've been a one-to-one district for a while, but reliable WiFi wasn't available to every student.
It's why Van purchased all new devices with LTE service. "That's absolutely, that's 100% on us. You know, we just felt like that was the best thing to do for all of our kids to make sure that it was equitable and fair to everyone," Dunn said. "You know, we love our kids and so, every one of them deserves to have the best and so that's what we did."
So the question is, did that help?
"Very few of those 40 calls were connectivity related. It was more things, OK, I forgot my password, forgot my login. Can you help me with that? So, it went great," Johnson said.
But, they also want students to succeed, so while the virtual day went pretty smoothly, Superintendent Dunn says it's been a mixed experience academically for remote learners this fall.
"To be honest with you, about half of them had failed at least one course, or were failing at least one core subject and so that's not acceptable," Dunn said.
So, a letter went out explaining that students who are not passing classes would need to come back on-campus for in-person instruction.
But, what about the other half of students doing well with virtual learning?
"We have some kids who are flourishing in the virtual environment, and so we are going to continue to offer that to them," Dunn explained. "You know, they can they can continue to learn at home."
So, what is the key to making remote learning successful moving forward, should students need to pivot back to virtual learning?
"For for us, it's being prepared and as I said before, we didn't start preparing for this when COVID-19 came about, we've been preparing for this for years," Johnson said.
In part two of this Lessons Learned, we hear from a Van ISD teacher and her Lessons Learned from their virtual day.