“The state of Washington was the first to really start the movement toward school closures over the week of March 9,” Knicely said.
On March 13, Athlos Academy of Utah closed for roughly two weeks per order by Utah Gov. Harry Herbert, who stated that all public schools will close to establish quarantine-based safety protocols due to COVID-19. He later extended closure until May 1.
By mid-March, government officials in both Louisiana and Minnesota announced closure of public schools, including Athlos Academies. Louisiana Gov. Governor John Bel Edward announced in early April that public schools will likely close for the remainder of the year while Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz ordered public schools shuttered until May 13.
Preparing for the storm
Before states began to implement emergency COVID mitigation measures, Knicely and Athlos Academies leadership had already started organizing a distance learning plan. After examining online education options and meeting with leadership staff at each individual Athlos Academy, a framework for remote learning took shape.
“We started having meetings on the 13th, and we wanted to have all of this produced by the morning of the 16th,” Knicely said. “Including communication with our parents, we were able to get all of this rolled out in two-and-a-half days.”
The motto for the impromptu system was “connection before perfection,” Knicely said, since time was a limited resource and Athlos Academy is committed to providing a quality education, despite social distancing.
Knicely said the goal was to create a streamlined system that didn’t require much work on the student’s side to access their lessons, classwork, and allow interaction with teachers and fellow students.
“We decided very quickly that we should have recorded lessons and hold office hours so that we can have strong instruction coming through on a regular basis, 2-3 times per week per grade level,” he said.
That meant Zoom training for Athlos educators, so staff could record their lessons and manage digital classrooms on the videoconferencing platform. Athlos staff already communicated and stored information via the Microsoft OneDrive cloud, but the platform didn’t translate well into a working distance learning tool due to access issues.
“We said, ‘We have to start from scratch and build a Google Drive university for ourselves,’” Knicely said.
Distance learning from scratch
After putting their heads together, Athlos Academy leadership assembled Google Docs lessons spreadsheets and master distance learning documents for each school, Knicely said.
Aware of the workload the new system would create for teachers, staff at Athlos Academies have access to lesson spreadsheets for each school to so they can organize, label, and screen recorded lessons, ensuring videos are functioning properly and student privacy is protected.
Knicely said staff has had to deal with privacy threats like “Zoom bombing,” when a Zoom meeting is hijacked by outsiders who seek to disrupt the meeting. To mitigate privacy issues, links for live Zoom events are sent to parents directly, Knicely said.
“The links aren’t searchable on Google since they are in a private document, but meeting security is something we are very cognizant of moving forward,” Knicely said.
While students were not initially required to participate in their coursework, data shows participation increased steadily in March. From March 17 to March 31, link clicks for Athlos Academy lessons and videos increased 15 percent, from 8,978 link clicks in the first week to 10,351 clicks in the third week.
Knicely said Athlos Academies also uses two digital learning platforms, Study Island and i-Ready, which can monitor student usage to a certain extent. However, he said, the focus on grading content and tracking attendance had to be pushed to the back-burner as not all families have access to technology or the internet.
“The assessment part will come after we can deliver content consistently,” he said. “None of this is required at this time. Attendance is something we will have to figure out moving forward.”
Knicely said student accountability and tracking student interaction with teachers is on the horizon as the current distance learning program is transferred into a single learning management system (LMS) that is more user friendly and houses all educational components in one app.
Meeting students’ basic needs
As Athlos Academies students were sent home, Athlos Academies Chief of Operations and Growth Camille Wells was tasked with making sure students had access to technology to continue their studies.
“We pushed a survey out to our families asking if they had a device with the capability to run Zoom or one of our online learning platforms,” Wells said. “Most mobile devices won’t work.”
She said laptops or tablets were then provided to students in need as part of a lending program and families without internet access were notified that they could receive free or reduced-price internet from their local service provider, Wells said.
In addition to technology needs, Wells said, Athlos Academies must continue to provide consistent meals for students.
“We have students that are in at-risk populations in all of our schools and breakfast and lunch may be their only meals,” she said. “During a crisis like this, you have to worry about other families unexpectedly being thrust into situations where they are at risk.”
Since meals cannot be served in the lunchroom, a social distancing meal drive-through service was implemented.
“During the first week of distance learning, we instituted grab-and-go meals where families drive through the drive-through line. We have tables outside and parents indicate how many students they need meals for,” she said.
Staff in protective wear then place the correct number of student meals on a table and step back several feet so parents can take the meal while avoiding exposure.
Meals offered to students are non-perishable helping reduce the number of weekly visits to each school, Wells said.
“Families are only picking up meals for multiple days, no more than twice a week, to limit exposure,” she said.
Luckily, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which reimburses publicly funded schools for meal service, adapted quickly to the COVID crisis and approved the grab-and-go method, she said.
Wells said $13.5 billion in COVID-related federal stimulus and education funding will be soon available for issues like technology access. She said Congress has earmarked $8.8 billion in federal funds for school meals and $3 billion for state governors to spend on early childhood and higher education.
“It’s just too early to tell where those funds will go,” she said. “Also, these are one-time funds, so we will have to be cautious about how we use the resources we receive.”
Getting staff and parents on board
Athlos Academies Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Josalyn Filkins was tasked with ensuring each Athlos Academy’s leadership understood the distance learning plan and could train staff to get on board.
“I created the phases for rolling out a distance learning plan at the administrator, staff, and parent level,” Filkins said. “I also built a bank of resources so when people needed instructions and more information, they could find what they need in one place.”
She said Athlos Academies instruction and management systems in place before the COVID crisis helped serve as a framework for transition to distance learning. Filkins said her weekly meetings with Athlos Academy leadership have been focused on distance learning training.
“I rolled things out during our big group meetings each week, then clarify misconceptions during one-on-one meetings and listen to their thoughts,” she said. “Because I’ve been a school leader, I know that if I was to dump everything on them at once, they would shut down.”
Filkins said distance learning rollout has been in three phases: setting up the system and Zoom training, accountability and management for support, and finally ensuring the content being delivered to students is of the highest quality.
“I share exemplar lesson videos with staff members to show the best work we have produced so others can learn from those examples,” she said. “Some people have really taken to this distance learning process quickly and we want to use those examples to help everyone excel.”
Keeping Families Informed
In early March, as COVID-19 spread across the country, concerned Athlos parents began asking questions about their children’s safety.
“We started getting a lot of emails and Facebook messages with questions from parents because they were starting to see other states making decisions to close down their schools,” Athlos Academies Communication and Marketing Director Tabitha Bower said.
She said parents were very concerned about their children being exposed to the virus.
“Our goal was to not spread any more fear than was already happening,” she said. “As we got closer to school closure, we started releasing information about what a distance learning plan would look like.”
As states began to close schools, Bower said, she monitored messaging from each state closely to be as accurate as possible for communication with families.
“The easy part to communicate was school closure, then it was a mad scramble,” she said.
Bower said families needed communication on how to receive student meals, how distance learning would work, and making sure students who receive special services still have the help they need.
“We wanted to make sure that we were compliant state-by-state with all of those pieces,” she said.
Email, text, social media, and each school website have been the main avenues for informing families, Bower said.
“We needed Somali and Spanish translations as well in areas where we have non-English speaking families,” she said.
When an Athlos Academy staff member tested positive for COVID-19 in mid-March, Bower said, she informed families and staff who may have come into contact with the employee and recommend that they self-quarantine and monitor their condition.
Since the initial communication in mid-March about school closures and COVID-10 prevention measures, the bulk of communication has changed.
“Most questions I get now are about access to technology and what is going to happen long-term with school closures,” Bower said.
Athlos Academies Social Media Specialist Bryan Bennion said communication with families has slowed down over time, but he still helps families by answering their questions when a staff member at an Athlos school cannot be reached.
Bennion said since most people are in quarantine at home, they are far more active online.
“Since COVID, our Instagram stories views have gone up 5-10 percent,” he said. “I feel like we surprised ourselves in our ability to communicate any updates about this whole situation.”
“Not only have we been able to adapt to our circumstances more quickly, we were able to communicate that information out to parents very fast,” Bennion added.
Picking a Learning Management System
As distance learning continues, Athlos Academies Chief Information Officer Josh Koenig has been evaluating learning management systems (LMS) based on several criteria to make sure a new system meets the needs of both Athlos educators and families.
“We are trying to implement an LMS as quickly as we can, but it’s hard because you want feedback from everyone,” Athlos said. “We are being as thorough as we can in a short amount of time.”
Selecting an LMS that fits the Athlos Academy model presents a challenge as well, Koenig said, since students learn athletic movement as part of the Healthy Body Pillar.
“When you’re training kids, you really want to see be able to work with them in person,” he said.
Koenig sees the LMS as becoming a part of teacher’s daily lives, allowing parents to access student grades, due dates for assignments, attendance info, and anything school related on one app.
He said the COVID-19 crisis should allow Athlos Academies to come back for the 2020-2021 school year leaner and more advanced.
“Moving forward, you use that LMS as your main system even when we are not using distance learning,” he said. “Next year around this time, we should be cutting edge. The minds we have in place will be able to use these tools and take us to a level that we have never seen before.”