On November 5, a new day dawned for Westmoreland County Public School educators and students. A roll-out of a dual way of learning, a hybrid system, was unveiled. Students who were assigned to a Blue cohort arrived at school on Thursday, November 5 and they would also come on Friday, November 6. These students would leave on Friday to learn remotely until the following Thursday. In the meantime, a Gold cohort arrived at the building on Tuesday, November 10 and Wednesday, November 11. Students are present in their classes for two days, then have virtual instruction for three days. Monday is a virtual day for all students.
Changes were apparent with the arrival of the school buses. The almost empty buses had children sitting one per seat, unless they were in a family group. Students were released one bus at a time, one seat at a time. Students proceeded immediately to a health station, located at the entry of all schools, to have their temperature taken. They walked in single or dual lines with six feet of distancing between them and all students and staff wore masks.
Leslie Steele, Cople Elementary Principal observed, “We thank our Cople parents and students for their patience as we implemented our ‘Return to Learn’ plan last week. We have a few things that we need to work out, but overall, things went well. I must give kudos to our Cople teachers and staff who, despite losing five days of planning and preparation due to the power outages we were experiencing, stood ready to serve our students virtually and face-to-face! Our Cople teachers and staff are the best!”
Teachers at Cople Elementary School and Washington District Elementary made special efforts to make sure their elementary students were safe and secure. Teachers met each bus and made sure each of their students were checked in properly at the health station before being led to the cafeteria to pick up their breakfast. All breakfast and lunches are being eaten in the classroom. Students were reminded of the safety rules throughout the day.
Staff at both Montross Middle School and W&L High School were also thrilled to see the students return. Mr. Bowen, MMS principal, had even painted small eagle heads on the sidewalk to help visitors to the front door. He noted, “At Montross Middle School we had 75 in-person learners on Thursday and 70 showed up on Friday. Things ran very smoothly at our school. I give the utmost credit to our staff members, students and parents at MMS for working together to make hybrid learning successful. We exercise a lot of caution and have mitigation procedures in place for everything from traveling in the hallways to entering and exiting classrooms to using restrooms. We are very thorough in our regard for student and teacher safety, and I am thankful we can return to some glimmer of what normal used to be. You can certainly see teachers light up after working with students in the actual classroom.”
Sandy Sullivan, WDES Reading Specialist, was excited about the return of her students. She said, “Students appear to be happy back at school. The small class sizes are beneficial for one-on-one instruction and to maintain safety.” WDES Assistant Principal, Jarvis Bailey, added, “Overall, both students and teachers are adapting well and making changes, as needed, with the new schedule.” Education is happening throughout Westmoreland County. Teachers are incorporating both virtual and synchronous students in their lessons. All four schools are doing their best to engage all students in education. Packets are sent home weekly to students so they may have homework and assignments.
Classrooms have a small number of students but instruction is done as if the whole class has returned. At W&L, Mr. Inge, Government teacher, held students’ attention as he discussed the current political system and how it relates to the students. Kindergarteners at Cople were learning how to follow the directional signs and joyous WDES students were mesmerized by the brightly colored walls and inspirational artwork found throughout the school. One young man stared intently at the “Behind the Mask” display showing the school staff without masks. He was trying to find his teacher’s picture and when found, he thought that it was really funny and giggled away to his class. Montross Middle School students were working hard trying to recall math initiatives. Everywhere one looked, a student was learning.
The School Division made the decision early in July, after much discussion and surveying of families, that virtual education would be the best option to begin the WMLCPS school year. This was done at a board meeting reversal, after it was decided to begin with a hybrid model. Since then, sixteen hundred chrome books and 600 Kajeet Hotspots were handed out prior to the beginning of school to address the needs of local families. The Hotspots will be used to provide contact to the internet and all students now have access to a computer for their studies.
Students and teachers have been engaged in virtual education using a learning management system called Canvas. Canvas houses virtual instruction for pre-K through 12th grade instruction. This system has allowed teachers to meet with their students via a virtual classroom. Every day students meet with their teachers and have synchronous time (live time) and asynchronous (virtual time). This process works with every student’s email. Teachers can create special times and visits with Canvas. Amazingly, through the efforts of dynamic educators, concerned parents, and stalwart students the system works. Peter Lockovich, W&L English 9,11,12, noted that “the Canvas system makes it so it is accessible for students to complete assignments. It accomplishes the goal of distribution of assignments in a clear way. However, there is more activity and engagement in person than Canvas. We can attribute that to being able to establish relationships in school better than trying to do relationships in Canvas. I am concerned a lot of students have opted to be virtual.” Justin Savoy, CTE Director, shares this view. “The hardest thing for Career and Technical students is the lack of hands-on training. Students have missed the in-person collaboration and experience found in the normal school year.”
“In-person instruction is better, “continues Lockovich. “Virtual students don’t ask as many questions. Also, rapport is hard to establish. My biggest concern is that students will lack personal engagement and involvement in the curriculum. Schoolwork seems to have diminished. I try and have students do a lot of reading and writing. We have done some projects, but some things such as educational games that you could do in a block session have been lost. I try and maintain enthusiasm for my students. I try and convey how much I love literature and share in my discussions that level of enthusiasm so they can see the importance of reading and writing skills. These skills can be useful in the future. For example, literature can teach us human condition. I unequivocally, want the students back.”
In addition to the education of the student, are the efforts of the WMLCPS staff to provide a safe atmosphere. Westmoreland County Public Schools has been diligent in creating a safe environment for students at all four schools. Great expense has been used in having temperature reading machines at every school that allow hands free monitoring of students; water bottle filling stations, marked hallways and signage for students, and top-of-the-line cleaning and sanitation equipment for all schools. Employees have been trained in all aspects of COVID prevention. The schools literally glow as the efforts of the hard working custodians is evident. Edward Baylor, W&L custodian said the biggest difference is being “mentally adjusted.” He noted that it “takes every individual to make it right. We are cleaning harder than ever, and the students are watching that. We clean everything the students touch all day. The main thing is that everyone keeps up the morale and tries to be ready.”
This is a new type of educational experience for everyone. Students will be expected to follow all the safety rules, including wearing a mask and keep social distancing. Everyone at Westmoreland County Public Schools is delighted for the return of students and the prospect of a great learning year. Ralph Fallin, WMLCPS Board Chair, observed, “I am excited to see some of our students back in school. There is no doubt that the instruction and safe social interaction they receive is critical to their learning. I am impressed with the commitment of our custodians, staff and teachers who are doing everything possible to keep our children safe and provide them with a quality education.”