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'We have an important first day coming up': MMSD set to begin year with virtual learning

'We have an important first day coming up': MMSD set to begin year with virtual learning

Virtual Learning Preview 090420 03-09042020123904

Jake Fisher, a seventh-grader at McFarland's Indian Mound Middle School, starts his virtual learning program for the day at his family’s home in McFarland, on Friday, Sept. 4. MMSD students will begin their year virtually as well, on Tuesday.

The first day of school this week will look different from every other in the history of the Madison Metropolitan School District.

Smiles over Zoom and welcoming words will replace the usual hugs and high-fives that accompany a new year as the district begins virtual learning for at least the first quarter amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have an important year, and we have a very important first day coming up,” assistant superintendent for teaching and learning Lisa Kvistad said at the Aug. 31 School Board meeting.

On the surface, it’s a continuation of the spring — most students will be at home learning on their district-issued Chromebooks. But that “crisis mode” learning, as administrators have referred to it repeatedly, was different in many ways than what students and families can expect this fall.

For one, the district had time to plan.

[MMSD staff answer questions about virtual learning as school year approaches]

In the spring, sudden closures left districts around the country scrambling to implement virtual programs to a wide range of success and failure. In Madison, the results were mixed, and many families were understanding of the challenges school staff faced.

The district took feedback from families after the spring and administrators said one key was a desire for more live, or “synchronous,” instruction. While all schools will have a fully asynchronous day on Wednesdays as teachers use those days for planning and professional development, the other four days of the week will feature that live interaction.

While schedules vary from school to school, some are publicly available online and show a more traditional school day — in front of a screen instead of in a classroom.

At Elvehjem Elementary School, for example, second graders will have a morning meeting from 8:30-9 a.m., a “foundational skills” lesson from 9-9:30 a.m. and fill out their morning with 45-minute sessions on literacy and math, a 30-minute lesson in science, social studies or social-emotional learning and two 15-minute breaks.

An hour for lunch from noon to 1 p.m. is followed by “number corner” for 30 minutes, "specials" time for art, recess, choice time or physical education from 1:30-2:30 p.m., 30 minutes on the learning platform Seesaw and a “closing circle” from 3-3:30 p.m.

[‘Good news for all of us’: Federal waiver extensions allow MMSD to keep providing free meals to all students]

At the middle school level, Whitehorse Middle School students will have two hours of synchronous learning each morning along with some office hours or small group opportunities. After an hour lunch, the afternoon includes a synchronous advisory period, two more hours of synchronous classes and a half-hour of intervention or small group learning.

High school students at West will have seven periods split between Monday/Tuesday and Thursday/Friday, with Wednesday an independent learning day and an hour for lunch each day.

Mondays and Thursdays will have three hour-long class periods, three 30-minute student support time sessions and 90 minutes of mentor-student connection meetings or “Zero Hour” to end the day. Tuesdays and Fridays will include four hour-long classes and four 30-minute student support sessions.

Attendance at all levels will be taken daily this fall. Students will be marked as in attendance if they attend live instruction, complete and submit an asynchronous learning task assigned by the teacher or connect with a teacher via phone, email or an office hours virtual visit.

[Public Health amendment allows in-person instruction for students with disabilities]

Staff plan to focus on creating a welcoming environment, as well.

“If students don’t feel like they belong in an environment, they respond differently,” superintendent Carlton Jenkins said during a Q and A Wednesday. “So we have to do an exceptional job of making sure we create those relationships.”

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Scott Girard is the local k-12 education reporter at the Cap Times. A Madison native, he joined the paper in 2019 after working for six years for Unified Newspaper Group. Follow him on Twitter @sgirard9.

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