VCS, Sumter lead state in remote learning tech

Adele Casper, left, 8, and Aiden Pustaver, 7, work on their Chromebooks in Stephanie Cruz’s classroom at The Villages Charter School Intermediate Center. Sumter County School District was praised as one of the only districts in Florida to be prepared to switch to remote online learning.

COVID-19 may have canceled school for weeks or months across the Sunshine State, but The Villages Charter School is using its technological edge to get kids back in the classroom next week. The Sumter County School District is one of only four in Florida ready for remote, online learning. For years, VCS has deployed Chromebook laptops for in-class learning in all K-12 grades and allowed students to take them home starting in middle school. “There has never been a school more prepared to excel in our current situation than The Villages Charter School,” said Education Director Randy McDaniel. “We have an incredibly talented faculty who know the subject matter well and have a passion for helping our students achieve. I believe we will look back at this challenge with pride.” VCS teachers will return to work next Monday to prepare for online courses two days later. Families of kindergartners through fifth-graders will be asked to pick up their students’ Chromebooks in a drive-through event, likely Monday, McDaniel said.

The school has emailed a survey to all families to ensure they have home internet access and to direct them to locations for free meals previously provided at schools.

“We’re dedicated to making sure every student is successful,” he said. “We are committed to zero student failures.”

Charter school parent Terra Machonde said she was confident in the school’s plans for online learning and felt better after receiving an the school’s email.

“They’re going to do what’s best for the kids,” she said. “It sounds like they’re going to get online learning going sooner than I expected.”

Machonde said that she knew several teachers had already contacted each another two swap ideas for engaging online lesson plans.

“They’re going to pour their hearts into whatever way they have to teach,” she said.

Hard work is one of the school’s core values, so McDaniel said he trusts that students already have developed the work ethic to hunker down and do their school work online even if their parents are at work and not able to monitor them all day.

Machonde said she expects families will form small groups to help students study and complete assignments.

McDaniel said he is confident assignments will be engaging.

“Every lesson will be as age-appropriate as possible and have as much rigor as possible,” he said.

The governor announced Tuesday that the Florida Standards Assessments and other state end-of-course assessments were canceled this spring and that schools should grade students based on their other work just as if the state tests did not exist. The governor also gave parents the option to hold their students back a grade.

“We had public education in America for hundreds of years before we had high-stakes tests,” McDaniel said. “If we all work together, we’re going to be successful.”

He said the charter school’s dual-enrollment classes through Lake-Sumter State College will not be affected, nor did he think scholarships would be impacted.

McDaniel is hoping that classroom learning will resume by mid-April, and he has no plans to cancel graduation in May.

Plans for parents to fulfill the rest of their required parent involvement hours will be determined later as will the fate of some extracurricular events, he said.

Extracurricular activities are canceled through April 15, including sports and the State Science and Engineering Fair of Florida, to which 11 student projects had advanced, as well as other student competitions.

The Florida High School Athletic Association also postponed all athletic events, meetings and conferences until further notice. The association said it would follow guidance from federal, state and local authorities about whether to resume activities after April 15.

Spring sports typically last until late April or early May, so McDaniel said he expects students will be back in school before the end of the season.

Prom was March 7, so it was unaffected by the school closure.

The charter school had to postpone its Founders Day/BBQ Bash 20-year anniversary celebration, which had been planned for April 4.  The event organizers want to reschedule it in the fall, he said.

OTHER SCHOOLS’ PLANS

Sumter County School District previously prepared the district’s Instructional Continuity Plan for emergency school closures with a comprehensive collection of digital content and learning resources. The district will begin to use that plan Monday.

It also offered work-at-home packets that parents could pick up Wednesday or today for elementary students. Those lessons were to be ready to download if families have internet access or on computer devices available to every student.

Sixth- through 12th-graders will be able to access all assignments using their school-issued computer.

Lake County Schools said online learning was to begin March 30. Students and families will receive information next week on how to access their courses. It also was surveying parents about computers in the home, offering to distribute Chromebooks to families who don’t have one.

FREE MEALS

Sumter County School District will offer grab-and-go breakfasts and lunches that may be picked up from 8 to 11 a.m. today and Friday at Wildwood Elementary, Webster Elementary  or Lake Panasoffkee Elementary schools or South Sumter High School.  Children must be present.

Lake County Schools will provide free breakfasts and lunches for children up to 18 from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. starting Monday through April 15 at traditional Lake County Public School campuses. Children must be present.

Marion County Public Schools said it plans to announce its student learning options Tuesday for the time classes are suspended.

Starting Tuesday through April 15, Marion will offer grab-and-go meals with curbside service at some schools, including Lake Weir High, Lake Weir Middle and Belleview Elementary schools, from 10 to 11 a.m. It will deliver meals using school buses or vans to some neighborhoods. For more information, go to www.marionschools.net.

Free meals for children and teens may also be found at summerbreakspot.freshfromflorida.com or by calling 211.

The National School Lunch Program is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

SoZo Kids also needs extra food donations while children are out of school because of COVID-19. SoZo Kids Club of The Villages will hold food drives today. Donations may be dropped off at Eisenhower Recreation Center’s parking lot from 9 to 10:30 a.m., Hiers-Baxley Life Event Center from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Stone Creek Grille’s parking lot from 3:30 to 5 p.m., or 15309 SW 15th Terrace Road, Lot 94, from 1:30 to 3 p.m. Call 850-766-0049 for more information.

Staff writer Dayna Straehley can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5408, or dayna.straehley@thevillagesmedia.com.