The novel coronavirus pandemic proved to Cherokee County School District stakeholders that learning online, away from classrooms could be successful when needed, officials said.

Students, teachers and families found themselves suddenly adapting to an at-home, technology-based learning environment as the state closed schools in March as a part of its stay-at-home order to lessen the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by novel coronavirus.

“The past three months have tested our school district, and our entire Cherokee County School District family — students, families, teachers, staff, volunteers and partners, all exceeded expectations,” Superintendent of Schools Dr. Brian Hightower said.

CCSD ensured the transition to Digital Learning Days went well as they focused on student learning, successful teaching and providing support families needed to oversee schooling within their homes.

“Our school board and I feel incredible gratitude to our teachers for making digital learning a success,” Hightower said. “For while our leaders laid the groundwork by creating the infrastructure and providing the training and technology, Digital Learning Days would have failed without the dedication of our teachers.”

CCSD parent Olga Spivey said the timing was “very fortunate” since it aligned with testing review and Milestones.

“Overall, they did not miss out on learning because of the timing of the year,” she said.

Spivey said the transition was smooth for her four boys, including a fourth-grader at Little River Elementary School, a sixth-grader at Mill Creek Middle School, and a freshman and junior at River Ridge High School.

“I think our district was ahead of a lot of others in our preparation and readiness thanks to our technology department. We were up and running so fast, the boys didn’t even miss a beat,” Spivey said. “We are very fortunate. I know the story is not the same across the state and country, we are just really fortunate they were ready for it.”

Spivey said her children’s teachers posted content each day to Canvas and her boys would do their work first thing in the morning.

“We had fabulous teachers who communicated really well,” she said. “It was just a matter of finding their own space where they could do their work. It was a pretty good structure. Honestly, after the first week or so they were really self-sufficient.”

In addition to the 3,500 laptops already provided to middle school students through the 1:1 laptop initiative, CCSD distributed 5,000 laptops to students who requested technology for Digital Learning Days.

“Our technology team members all understood our role as essential workers and knew we had to continue to provide the technology and technical support needed in order for our business of educating students to continue digitally,” Chief Information Officer Bobby Blount said.

All CCSD teachers received training from the instructional technology staff before the closures, which prepared them to use the Canvas learning management system and other online learning tools.

“Although we only had envisioned using digital learning in times of brief closures due to snow, our teachers demonstrated they were ready and able to sustain a digital learning presence for an extended period of time using the tools and resources at their disposal,” Blount said.

Spivey said two of her children are musicians, in which their teacher had them record pieces for assignments.

“It’s amazing what they were able to accomplish from home,” she said. “To see teachers rise to the challenge…they are all dealing with their own learning and children at home, but to really watch them go out of the box to connect with children has been amazing and inspiring.”

Mill Creek Middle School Director of Chorus and Orchestra Ben Rice said his classes went through two transitions over the three month period to allow a better learning experience for the more than 300 students he teaches.

“Teaching music classes online is an entirely different and unique animal,” Rice said. “The transition to teaching online was a little slow at first, but once we found our rhythm, we were able to take off and get things moving pretty well.”

Rice said he was able to grade assignments and have dialogue with students about their answers and recordings on Canvas.

“As a whole, I think my students adjusted fairly well to the completely online format. I was absolutely blown away by many of the responses my students gave to their assignments, many had thoughtful and passionate answers,” he said. “They were pushed to take responsibility for what they wanted their music program to be like next year. They could either do the minimum and just get by, or really push themselves to be prepared for what next year brings.”

Hightower said he is thankful for the commitment of the CCSD community to continued learning during this time.

“It was truly impressive to see our teachers connect with each other virtually to share best practices and continue upping their game, while dealing with the challenge of working from home,” Hightower said. “I’m also very thankful to our students and their families for the efforts they made to continue learning at home, as we know such a big change doesn’t come easily.”

Looking to next school year, Spivey said it will be challenging but she is confident in CCSD’s ability to make it successful.

“For all of them, starting the year off would be more of a challenge when you are introducing students to new grades and teachers — there’s a lot more challenge built into that scenario,” Spivey said. “I have no doubt our school district can handle it and tackle it with finesse, but it’s going to be a bigger challenge if that ends up being the case. I am confident that no matter what comes, that they are going to be up to the task.”

The CCSD technology staff are currently collecting all devices to clean, repair and prepare them to be used for high school online summer school and next school year.

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