During the last several months of the COVID-19 pandemic, education and childcare has drastically changed with many children and families navigating hybrid and remote learning for the first time. Recently, the Community Foundation of the New River Valley’s (CFNRV) First Steps initiative brought together a panel of regional education leaders to discuss this topic. First Steps is a network of agencies and individuals working to support young children and families in the New River Valley. Composed of representatives from childcare centers, social service and healthcare agencies, enrichment programs and public-school officials, First Steps works to share information about the importance of early childhood education and development. This year, First Steps has hosted several “Meet Yourself” sessions via Zoom, virtual versions of the popular professional development sessions the network has hosted since 2018. Among the many pressing topics suggested by network members, virtual teaching and learning was at the very top of the list.

On November 18th, community leaders, parents, and other members of the First Steps network attended the panel discussion. The panel featured:

  • Emily Altizer with Montgomery County Public Schools,
  • Jessica Cromer with Floyd County Public Schools,
  • Veronica Finch and Alison Harris with New River Community Action Head Start,
  • Rob Graham with Radford City Public Schools,
  • Kathryn Thompson with Radford Early Learning Center, and,
  • Lincoln Whitaker with Pulaski County Schools

Moderator Jessica Wirgau, the CFNRV’s executive director, asked a series of questions including the schedule of the different localities and the extent to which elementary-age children were engaged in virtual instruction. Panelists also discussed training and support with technology for teachers, best practices for remote teaching, feedback from parents, and questions of equity and the long-term impacts of COVID-19 for education.

No two school districts in our region are on the same schedule during the pandemic, though all are offering some remote instruction, including a 100% virtual option for students who wish to learn at home. Montgomery County elementary school children attend in-person four days per week for a half days, while Floyd County offers full day instruction for Pre-K through 3rd grade 4 days per week, with  4th and 5th graders in a hybrid in-person and remote schedule. Radford City also has a four-day hybrid schedule for Pre-k through 2nd grade with the opportunity for upper grades to attend in person each day if they are struggling academically. Pulaski has half of their students come in on Monday and Tuesday for full days, and another half come in on Thursday and Friday, and is the only county that currently has plans to go 100% virtual before and after Thanksgiving. Early education programs, such as Head Start and the Radford Early Learning Center, are also navigating remote instruction during and after school hours. For example, Head Start follows each county’s requirements depending on the location of the program and helps to supplement virtual learning during the center hours as well. Radford Early Learning Center provides support to Radford City students at the center on their virtual learning days.

Several panelists noted that regular and open communication between families and teachers is key to supporting students in virtual learning. Many parents that were not as engaged in their child’s learning previously are now more involved. Still, parents and caregivers are in need of different levels of support depending on their own comfort with technology and work commitments. Schools have pivoted as quickly as possible to help in those areas with several districts offering hotspots to families who do not have internet, engaging third parties to translate all communications for families with students in English as a Second Language programs, and offering group and 1:1 technology training sessions for families.

Beyond these challenges, education leaders are most concerned about the immediate and long-term social and emotional effects of children being out of school, including developmental delays and mental health effects. For example, early education providers worry that infants and toddlers may see delays in speech development. Being able to see a caregiver’s mouth move when talking is a key part of speech development, yet teachers must wear masks to keep children and educators safe in the classroom. For older students, panelists worry that the lack of social interaction with peers will lead to depression. They also noted that teachers are working harder than they ever have before, with many preparing both in-person and virtual lessons and trying to cover content in shorter periods of time. They worry that teachers will burnout and leave the educational field, and that those studying to become teachers may choose a different career path entirely. Emily Altizer shared that school leaders have always been committed to “learning as they grow”, and that is particularly true during the pandemic.

The panel discussion was the final 2020 event for the First Steps network. Earlier this summer, First Steps members hosted a discussion on childcare during the pandemic with Senator Tim Kaine. The network also hosted virtual Meet Yourself sessions in the spring focused on mental and emotional health and providing services to clients remotely. More information about First Steps is available on the CFNRV website, including a recording of the November 18th panel discussion on virtual teaching and learning.

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