How one rural district became a case study in resilience

The response plan: Remotely engage students, families, faculty and staff, and ensure that essential needs are met
By: | April 17, 2020
(Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash)(Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash)
Jeff Babbitt is the marketing, brand and communications coordinator at Genesee Valley Central School District in Belmont, New York. 

Jeff Babbitt is the marketing, brand and communications coordinator at Genesee Valley Central School District in Belmont, New York.

It’s often been said that times of crisis bring out the best (or worst) in people. The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly put this adage to the test, stretching us to our very limits—testing our capabilities, flexibility, creativity and patience. For public schools, COVID-19 has tested the mettle of administrators, the fortitude of faculty and staff, and the creativity of communities in facing a challenge unlike any other they have encountered.

Genesee Valley Central School District, along with others across the nation, revamped operations and instruction in the wake of the coronavirus. In a quickly evolving situation, this rural western New York district of approximately 600 students (preschool through high school) crafted a plan to remotely engage students, families, faculty and staff to continue education and ensure that the essential needs of families were met.

Read: Updated: 176 free K-12 resources during coronavirus pandemic

Revamping instruction

For educators who’ve spent their entire careers teaching face to face, the challenge of adjusting methodologies and practices to distance learning was daunting. Genesee Valley’s teachers didn’t have weeks or months to get up to speed. They had days.

Superintendent Brian Schmitt encouraged teachers to focus on the relationships and primary needs of families. “We immediately developed a meal, technology and school supply delivery plan and tested the myriad ways we communicate with families,” says Schmitt. “Our main focus is always to support the students, families, staff and community.”

“The presence of our community members online, participating in conversations and sharing ideas, has been inspiring. If nothing else, this crisis has shown what can be done when a whole community works towards one goal. I hope that it continues long after things have returned to normal.” —Donna Slawson, social studies teacher

Kellie Schmidt, now in her 18th year of teaching at Genesee Valley, was faced with retooling her second-grade class for virtual instruction—and fast. The solution: Facebook.

“Facebook allows me to post lesson plans and worksheets, links to educational sites and videos,” says Schmidt.“It’s the closest thing we have now to a classroom.” Schmidt’s private Facebook group has 52 members and sees an average of 25 posts per day. The group includes videos of Schmidt reading students a bedtime story, pictures of proud students holding up their completed work for all to see, and parents sharing resources and words of encouragement.

Social studies teacher Donna Slawson had little trouble adapting to an online learning environment. “My students have been using our online learning platform [Microsoft Teams] all year, so we made the transition to remote learning quite well,” says Slawson.

Read: 6 things no one tells you about teaching online

Slawson is up early each morning posting assignments by 7 a.m., and spends her school days chatting online with students, answering questions and clarifying expectations. “My students enjoy setting their own schedule, working at their own pace, and having the ability to reach me at their convenience,” says Slawson. “These students are learning such great lessons about time management and have such an intrinsic motivation to learn.”

Handling tech limitations

Reliable access to technology and the internet is paramount in online learning. In a region where upwards of 20% of district residents do not have access to high-speed internet service, Genesee Valley ensured that all had equal access to learning resources. It loaned out 180 iPads to students who needed access to a device for instruction. In addition, Genesee Valley worked with local libraries, village offices and other community organizations to provide free Wi-Fi access to families without internet service.

Some teachers navigated the path from in-person to virtual instruction quite adeptly, while others faced a steep learning curve. Enter Lindsay Simpson, Genesee Valley’s technology integration specialist.

Simpson and designated technology liaisons at Genesee Valley held an all-day training session for teachers on the Friday before the shutdown, and by the following Monday, many had already begun setting up and implementing their virtual learning environments.

Read: How to drive digital citizenship in online learning

“Not only did our staff immediately start working hard to learn, they haven’t stopped yet,” says Simpson. “Their creativity is amazing, and the way they are working to try and create meaningful and fun activities for the home makes me proud to be at Genesee Valley through this crazy worldwide event. To say I have been impressed with their response would be a significant understatement. I am in awe of them!”

Simpson supports faculty and students in all grade levels by coordinating online platforms, hosting training sessions, troubleshooting problems, brainstorming solutions, and creating resources to coach students and teachers in online etiquette and expectations.

Combating food scarcity

In many communities, public schools function not only as providers of education, but also as critical resources for basic needs, including medical, dental, mental health, and food and nutrition. In a high-needs district such as Genesee Valley, food scarcity is a real and daily concern, with 53% of students qualifying for the free or reduced-price lunch program through the New York State Department of Education. (Under the Community Eligibility Provision, 69% of Genesee Valley students qualify for free meals.)

The cafeteria staff, led by Food Service Manager Kelli Zenoski, sprang into action immediately, devising a plan for providing daily meals for every student qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch. “With help from teacher’s aides and bus drivers, we are sending out approximately 800 meals a day to Genesee Valley families,” says Zenoski.

Read: 9 tips for serving meals to students during school closures

“The response from our students and parents has been beyond amazing,” adds Zenoski. “The smiles and even tears when meals are dropped off makes our efforts so worthwhile. We are humbled by the response so far. It is so rewarding to know that we have helped out our school and community.”

Maintaining community

The mandated school closure, coupled with constant reminders about social distancing, is challenging for students and families. Students who are used to the social interaction inherent in a typical school day are coming to grips with a surprisingly reality: They miss school.

“Many of our older students actually miss school,” says Simpson, the technology integration specialist. “They miss their classmates, they miss their clubs, they miss athletics and (gasp!) they even miss their teachers!”

Read: Share your stories of teacher creativity in online learning

To continue the tight knit sense of community found at a small district such as Genesee Valley, faculty have created structures and routines to keep students connected.

Slawson, the social studies teacher, hosts two virtual lunchtime gatherings each day for middle and high school students. “We use the time to talk about what we watched on Netflix over the weekend, silly videos, even what everyone is eating—anything to help us feel connected to each other now that we aren’t in school.”

Kellie Schmidt and her co-teacher Melissa Shafer reach out to their students to keep the lines of communication open. “Mrs. Shafer and I call each of our students,” says Schmidt. “From there, the students take over; they start calling us! Their parents text us, call and post to our Facebook page continuously. They never hesitate to contact us for advice and to provide suggestions and ideas of their own that they would like to share.”

Facing uncertainty

While students and teachers have adapted their instruction and have settled in to a new routine for the school day, questions still linger. “On top of trying to understand what is happening in the world,” says Simpson, “students have been asking really practical questions like: ‘Will we have a senior prom?’ ‘Will we be able to cross the stage for graduation?’ ‘If there are no Regents exams, will that affect my ability to graduate?’ ‘Will I have to retake classes or double-up on classes or tests to catch up?’”

Read: COVID-19: How one high school principal is helping lift spirits

At Genesee Valley, the character word for the month of March was “resilience,” and it’s exactly that trait that permeates the district.

“I’m so proud of our faculty, staff and community,” says Superintendent Schmitt. “Everyone continues to demonstrate patience, flexibility and a desire to do what is best for students. It gives me great hope for our future.”

“What has amazed me most about this experience,” says Slawson, “is how everyone in the Genesee Valley community came together. I see students supporting each other—responding to questions, motivating each other. I see other teachers lifting each other up and learning from each other, and our support staff feeding and delivering items to students each and every day. The presence of our community members online, participating in conversations and sharing ideas, has been inspiring. If nothing else, this crisis has shown what can be done when a whole community works towards one goal. I hope that it continues long after things have returned to normal.”

Jeff Babbitt is the marketing, brand and communications coordinator at Genesee Valley Central School District in Belmont, New York. 

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