Distance learning is here

John Christensen
DCS principals Laurie Hopkins-Halbert and Chris Arnold help load a school bus with materials to deliver to students.

With the closure of schools ordered by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to combat the Coronavirus outbreak in the state, teachers and administrators were left to conceive and execute plans for how to continue their students’ educations at home for several weeks. With no direction from the federal government or plan in place at the state level, teachers and staff gathered their students belongings, computers, musical instruments, and packets of material for each subject so that their kids progress in school might continue.

Superintendents Howard Dennis of Penn Yan and Kelly Houck of Dundee were asked by The Chronicle-Express to explain how each of their schools approached this unprecedented challenge.

Penn Yan

“The approach that Penn Yan CSD is taking for distance learning is a foundation of paper-based skills-based reinforcement and practice,” said Dennis.  “The paper-based approach is then being supplemented with optional online resources.  This paper-based decision was driven primarily by the reality that there are a number of student and staff homes in the district that do not have access to reliable, high-speed internet, or in some cases, even cell phone coverage.  At the elementary level, teachers developed differentiated, student-specific materials that included individualized reading materials, math, science, social studies, music, PE/Health, STEM Lab, library media, and additional intervention materials as appropriate for individual students.”  

Paper materials were coupled with a range of optional digital materials with content from Literacy to Math and online databases with a range of resources. PE/Health offered an exercise schedule with a variety of physical activities in keeping with the limitations of social isolation. “Elementary teachers are also reaching out to their students at least once a week to check in and say hi.”  

Penn Yan took the same approach at the secondary level; paper-based, skills-based reinforcement and practice.  Chromebooks were sent home at the high school level since students have had that opportunity all year. Supplemental digital resources and digital spaces such as Google Classrooms are being used as a mode for additional communication and support. 

“The important note for our students to remember is to pace yourselves! The amount of material can look overwhelming at first, and that is because this is three weeks’ worth of material from multiple classes! We keep reiterating to take your time, chunk out the work, and if and when support is needed, there are avenues for it.”  

Dennis also stressed students’ mental health needs during the period of isolation.  

“Our counseling staff has developed plans for on-going phone or video chat-based support with our students who need on-going counseling and mental health supports. Similarly, every learner is different, and drastic changes such as this are hard. We are being as responsive and supportive as possible when a student or parent reaches out for additional support.”

Dennis praised the schools’ level of preparedness and the sense of relief it brought to some families and students. “As families entered to pick up materials, there were a number that you could tell were worried, but the organization and student specific touch helped bring some calm to this time of uncertainty.”  He says over 95% of the student specific materials were picked up in person, giving students and families a chance to ask questions.  The remaining 5% were delivered directly to families at their homes.  

“Social media is also being used as a way to reach students and help keep students engaged and the relationships strong.”  The Penn Yan Elementary Facebook page has daily workout ideas, a daily “mindful minute,” and read-alouds from our staff.


“When preparing materials for our students to use and have during the school closure period, we were very careful to focus the organization of the materials around preventing regression,” says Houck. “Most, if not all of the material were intended to be a solid review.” But communication infrastructure is a hurdle many students in Dundee cannot cross.

“In regards to using distance learning, virtual meetings, and other technological platforms and resources, we proceeded with extreme caution as there is much inequity that exists within our rural school district boundaries. Many of our students reside in very underserved areas regarding internet and overall connectivity. It is irrelevant for these students if the service is being provided free at this time as the infrastructure is not even available for these students to take advantage of this opportunity,” said Houck.

For those reasons, teachers and staff made sure every child had hard copies of the instructional materials. Dundee’s buses were loaded with the materials for all the students on their route and delivered by hand door-to-door.

“It’s the only way to ensure that all students had an opportunity to participate in the continuity of education,” says Houck. “It would have been much easier to prepare and organize if we could have solely relied on technology.”

However, a couple of teachers were able to confirm that every student in those classes had the connectivity needed to participate in virtual learning and have gone ahead. Dundee high school science teacher Jennifer Clancy had 100% attendance for her 90 minute Gemini Biology class on the first day. She also conducted a genetics research class. 

“Everyone is in high spirits and we’re having a great time with Zoom! (the online class platform),” said Clancy. They even had the pledge to the flag and visited with everyone’s pets before finishing Kingdom Fungi and starting Kingdom Animalia. Clancy used the private chat in Zoom during Chemistry to have the kids give her their answer choices.  She is also going to try to host a MasterMinds practice online.

Dundee is also making good use of live streaming on their Facebook page. Elementary Principal Laurie Hopkins-Halbert interacted with the students, giving morning announcements to start their day. Houck presented an update for students, parents, and staff Monday evening, and will again at 6:30 p.m. Monday March 30.