For the last three days, students at the Franklin private school Battle Ground Academy have taken all of their classes online after a parent tested positive for the coronavirus.
As public school systems consider how to switch to online classes, the experience at Battle Ground Academy could offer a preview of what’s to come.
Students at the county’s public schools systems won’t be back until later this month, and administrators are still figuring out what that will look like.
“We’re in the process of determining the parameters under which we could operate with online classes,” Williamson County Schools superintendent Jason Golden said in a Facebook live video. “Colleges, universities and even private schools are under some different rules from public schools.”
He pointed out that public schools are required to follow state standards and also have an obligation to serve students with disabilities. Williamson County Schools started offering online classes as a part of its regular curriculum earlier this year.
In a Facebook post, Franklin Special School District told families that it was planning for an “alternative learning plan.”
A representative from Franklin Special School District did not respond to questions about what that alternative learning plan would look like, and a representative from Williamson County Schools declined to answer any questions about online learning.
Battle Ground Academy head of school Will Kesler said his school was able to quickly make the switch, in part, because teachers were already using an online system to assign work, present materials and conduct assessments.
"The more interesting part was, OK, now I've really got to boil my class down to the essential elements. How am I going to deliver that in a non-classroom setting?” Kesler said. "That was the piece we really had our faculty work on.”
Kesler said teachers started preparing for online learning as soon as the school learned about the first coronavirus case in the state, which was a BGA parent.
"We had our teachers roll up their sleeves and get creative and be thoughtful,” Kesler said. “We didn't even know what that would look like.”
I am so proud of our administrative leadership and our talented faculty in all 3 divisions. They have trained intensely to prepare for a robust online experience for our students if necessary. #GoBGA #Excellence #Community #1889 pic.twitter.com/1dDu8D1JTD— Dr. Graham (@BGAAcademics) March 11, 2020
Teachers attended a staff training day on Tuesday and reported to campus on Wednesday to oversee the rollout of online classes. Teachers could work from home on Thursday and Friday if they wanted to stay away from large groups.
Wednesday through Friday, most students didn’t receive instruction in real time. They got assignments from a teacher and sent them back electronically.
English Dept. Chair Leah Handelsman is test driving Google Hangouts and holding a productive literary discussion with her AP English class! She gives it a thumbs up and says it’s great to “meet” with her class! @BGAwildcats pic.twitter.com/8Ar26I6D2j— Mr. Griffin (@BGAUSHead) March 11, 2020
However, some teachers did start testing strategies for live, online teaching, trying tools like Google Hangouts and Google Docs. Administrators will keep working to finalize the program before spring break is over. Kesler said the goal is to create an experience that is as close to classroom learning as possible.
“We really believe that one of the best learning tools is when the teacher is facilitating a high level of dialogue between students back and forth,” he said. “Whether it's online responses or an online discussion or something like that, that's what we're going for.”
The desire to maintain the continuity of the school experience extends to elective classes. If students are in a choir class, they will practice their part, and maybe record it. If students are in a physical education class, an instructor might send a short workout routine. A teacher leading a ceramics class told student to draw ideas for pottery in a sketchbook.
The school is still working out exactly what online classes will look like, but the plan is to have a block of time for each class where students work on an assignment independently. Then they will have a block of time where they are talking with the teacher and other students. Kesler said he expects students to stay engaged during that discussion portion.
“Even keeping the structure was really important so that when kids come back they haven't been sleeping until 11 a.m. every day,” he said.
As a private school, Battle Ground Academy had a lot advantages for this switch. Every student at the school already has an iPad and the school was already using online tools to manage course materials and electronic text books.
Making the switch at a public school system like Williamson County Schools, which has more than 40,000 students, will be a much bigger lift.
One enormous hurdle will be making sure that parents have a way to take care of students off campus. Many parents may not have a job that allows them to work from home, especially for long periods of time.
Kesler said that’s been an obstacle at BGA as well.
“We are trying to figure out what does this look like in households where this is a real challenge,” he said. “We need to partner with our parents and figure out how to make this work, but everybody's got to give and take.”
Schools will also have to figure out how to make sure kids who rely on school lunches can get enough food when they’re not on campus. Several nonprofit organizations, including The NOOK, OneGenAway and Graceworks, have already started bringing food to families with students at Franklin Special School District.
In addition to working as an administrator for Battle Ground Academy, Kesler also has two children at the school. He said one of the hardest parts for his own kids has been shifting into a school mindset when they are at home.
“It's a paradigm shift in basically a week,” he said.
If the coronavirus continues to spread in Williamson County, that’s a shift that thousands of students and their parents may have to make soon.