WOOD RIVER JCT. — Chariho administrators, teachers and staff had only one week to design a “virtual instructional” learning plan so students could continue to learn in their homes after schools were ordered closed because of the coronavirus. Chariho's plan, which, as was the case for all school districts, requested by the Rhode Island Department of Education, was launched at 11 a.m. on Monday.

The Chariho school district had introduced personalized learning and laptop computers several years ago, a move Interim Superintendent of Schools Jane Daly said eased the its transition to distance learning.

“Our teachers have been working on personalized learning for quite a few years, and we’ve been fortunate that our students have had, in grade 5 through 12, 1:1 devices for a few years, so I feel that we were very well-prepared, and although we had to make some immediate shifts, because it’s certainly a shift to totally go virtual versus blended instruction, I had no doubt our teachers would be able to make that shift,” she said.

So far, the issues have been minor and Chariho Principal Craig MacKenzie said attendance in the virtual program had been very high.

“Our attendance over the first two days has been incredible,” he said. “We only had a total of 10 kids out of 1,142 absent during the first two school days. Teachers are reporting really high levels of engagement.”

Hope Valley resident Stephanie DaPonte’s three children, Bode, 5, Lucas, 9, and 12-year-old Ella, are working well at home. DaPonte admitted she needed to spend more time working with her boys and Ella was managing without much supervision.

Bode, who is in kindergarten, is working mostly from a paper packet of lessons that is sent home weekly to the district’s youngest students.

“He needs a lot of me,” DaPonte said. “Some of the apps they have assigned he can do on his own, but a lot of it needs direction.”

Lucas, DaPonte said, is engaged in his classwork all day.

“He’s really busy,” she said. “It takes up the whole day. He starts at 9 and he finishes about 3 o’clock.”

Ella said she was already feeling comfortable with the virtual format.

“It’s going pretty well,” she said. “I like the Google Meets stuff, because you can see your teacher … It’s pretty smooth.”

Catherine Giusti, who has three children attending Chariho schools, represents Hopkinton on the School Committee. Giusti said she was impressed by the relatively trouble-free rollout of the program, but she worries about the lack of social interaction and the amount of screen time her children are getting.

"I think all of the students and teachers miss the social piece  of going to school,” she said. “ I worry that students are spending close to seven hours at their computers. I'm hoping we can work more structured movement breaks into the day, even for the older students. Chariho has always been a leader in digital learning. I am very happy with the work that the administrators and teachers have put into this adventure.”

Giusti’s 10-year-old daughter, Charlotte, who is in fifth grade, said sharing a single wifi connection was sometimes a challenge.

"My teachers have been really helpful and open to questions. I don't like that it's hard to work consistently because so many of us are on wifi at the same time,” she said.

At the Marcille home, also in Hope Valley, Tom Marcille said his three children seemed to be adapting easily.

“It seems like it was put together pretty well so far, and seeing as they only had a week off of school and the following Monday, they had everybody up and running. I have to say I’m pretty impressed,” he said.

Miller Marcille, who is in 10th grade, said the experience had been better than he had expected.

“I think it’s going a lot smoother than I thought it would be,” he said. “My first impression was that it would kind of be all over the place because nobody’s really done this before, but it seems to be pretty well organized. Even FaceTime, our teachers, we get the assignment, we check in at the end of class, it’s pretty well organized. It does not feel that cut off. I can look and see my teacher and hear her talking.”

Miller’s sister Lainey, who is in 6th grade, said her anxiety about virtual instruction had turned out to be largely unfounded.

“I think I stressed it too much in the beginning, but it’s probably better than I thought,” she said.

Since the virtual instructional experience is new to the entire Chariho community, Daly said the district would be monitoring the different components of the program to determine what went well and what needed improvement.

“We started working on that yesterday in terms of collecting that data and we will be reviewing that each day, including such things as student attendance, staff attendance, how many Chromebooks we’ve loaned out, how many meals we’re providing each day,” she said.

Next week, the district will be sending a survey to parents asking them how they feel the program is going. Gov. Gina Raimondo has directed that schools remain closed for two weeks, but they will likely be closed for a longer period.

“We can get feedback to help us in terms of our planning, whether this continues beyond April 3 or if we would ever need to implement a plan like this again in the future,” Daly said.

In her 34 years as an educator, Daly said she could never have anticipated the district-wide changes necessitated by the coronavirus.

“I never anticipated that we would be in this situation,” she said. “It only strengthens my belief that as educators, we’re all continuously learning and continuously improving our practice and this just gives us one more opportunity to step up.”

The situation is poignant for Chariho seniors, who will miss some of their senior year rituals and experiences. 

“Even though they’re missing out on certain experiences this year, there’s a real strong sense of togetherness and gratefulness, too, in the student body,” MacKenzie said. “I’m very emotional about it because I hate that they’re missing out on some really defining experiences.”

MacKenzie described an uplifting post on social media by Charlestown senior, Joshua Smithey.

Smithey wrote: “For everyone my age going through this last year of high school recognizing that there is a chance of sports getting canceled, prom, field trips, and even graduation hurts to even think about. But in these times of hardship, it’s important to try not to be sad or to worry too much. It is important to recognize how it is a time to be grateful for the others around you … It’s important now not to wish this time away and take advantage of every day you have with your family. Even though it seems like everyone is down, it is important to rise up and face this challenge. We can all overcome this if we work together and do our part.”

The district has put together a comprehensive resource page for parents, which can be viewed at: https://sites.google.com/chariho.k12.ri.us/crsdvirtuallearning/home.

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