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Prepare and plan: Best practices for virtual administrators

Hang on, gain on. That is the theme we at Walton County School District have taken for this school year.

We were interrupted this past year due to a pandemic. 

We were interrupted. We were not stopped!

Because we were merely interrupted, it is now time to pick up where we left off and push forward to greatness. 

“Hang On and Gain On” means we hold on to the academic progress we’ve made (even during an international pandemic) and continue our progressive rate of improvement. 

That requires us to be, and stay, preparedeven as learning and the needs of students, families, and teachers continue to evolve. In that view, I will be sharing a series of three blog posts aimed at helping administrators succeed in the virtual settingincluding being prepared and planning for virtual instruction as well as evaluating the effectiveness of instruction, students, and teachers during implementation. This post, in particular, will focus on preparing and planning for virtual instruction and subsequent posts will cover evaluation. 

While the initial preparation and planning stages have already taken place, it is not time to stop. The guidance in this post, which I shared with administrators in my district ahead of virtual instruction, can be used going into or during virtual learning to develop a continuous cycle of improvement that ensures students and teachers are set up for success this school year. 

 

Prepare 

Districts and schools must have clear guidelines on how the methodology will work. A workgroup can be brought together to brainstorm expectations for students, parents, teachers, and other district employees; list requirements for hardware and other supplies; provide resources used for curriculum and digital platforms; and much more. Many of these expectations and requirements may be documented in written form so all groups are on the same page. In addition to district and/or school guidelines, a parent-friendly document could be developed and require a parent signature before enrollment in the virtual setting takes place.

It is also best practice to communicate to parents what a typical virtual day may look like in advance with sample schedules and expected routines. Parents need as much information as possible in order to best choose the appropriate educational option for their child. For instance, if students need to be up and on the computer at 8:00 a.m., then parents need to be prepped on that expectation. It’s helpful to think through Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) that parents may have, especially those new to virtual education, and create a FAQ written document as well. The expectations, which could be posted on your district or school’s website, will help parents make the best choice for their family. It is also important to help parents, students, and families feel welcome once their decision is made to choose virtual or distance learning.  District or schools might also consider developing a “virtual education” site for their webpage where all virtual resources can be listed.

Once parents have chosen distance education, it is recommended that virtual teachers hold an orientation or make an initial, official phone call home. It is best practice for schools to develop a presentation for orientations or a script for calls home so messages can be unified, professional, and with a common language. By developing a presentation or script in advance, multiple pieces of information can be gleaned in one setting. If you call home, it is best practice to schedule when these calls will take place so not all teachers are calling at once for parents who have children in multiple schools. Schools can publicize that virtual students should attend an orientation or expect a call during a certain window of time. That way, families will feel connected and know what to expect, especially as virtual may be a new experience for them. It is also important for administrators to be a part of this welcoming process. Best practice would include administrators kicking off virtual orientations and/or teachers sharing administrators’ names and contact information.

The following is a sample phone script that can be used by teachers. It is important for teachers to take notes regarding the phone call or any time talking with a parent in an Excel spreadsheet or other organizational chart.

 

Sample Script for Rolling Out Virtual Education to Parents:

  • Greet the parent(s), and introduce yourself.
  • Verify that you have called the correct person. This may be done by asking a student’s middle name and/or verifying a student’s address.
  • Explain the purpose of the call – check on your student, prepare for virtual education/instruction, and answer any questions.
  • Make sure the parent understands the expectations of virtual education and the discipline required to make this modality a success. Your district or school may develop a list of written expectations which could require a parent signature.
  • Check on the well-being of the student during this time of crisis. Does the family know about food distributions, or does the student have any mental health needs?
  • Review several questions that will help in the preparation for virtual education.
    • Verify the student’s contact information. Contact info should include address, phone numbers, and email addresses for parents.
    • Ask about technology access for each of their students who are working from home. Clarify the number of students and devices. For example, the parent may have one computer and one iPad but five school-aged children. Determine if you believe the family needs help in receiving a device from your school district. You may have to develop a priority or tiered list.
    • Ask parents if they have access to the Internet. Determine if you believe the family needs help in accessing the Internet from your school district. This would be important for families who have a device but no way of connecting. If your school has Internet access for families in your school’s parking lot or throughout your city, provide this information to the parent.
    • Ask if the student understands how to sign in using the district’s single sign-on system, if you have that option available. Make sure the parent knows where to find the single sign-on and when the first sign-on is expected to happen.
  • Let the parent know how to contact you, school administration, and the school if they need help. It is important for parents to know the preferred contact method – email, text, phone calls, etc. in lieu of interrupting a teacher during a virtual lesson with students.
  • Close the call by answering any questions and wishing the family well. Keep a list of any questions that were generated by the parent, so you can follow up for the family or provide during future updates that might be pushed out by your school.  

 

Plan

It is important to communicate with teachers as they begin planning for virtual instruction. Teachers will need direction from you, especially if they have not taught virtually. Start with your theme or vision for the year (like “hang on, gain on”) and go from there. Once teachers and staff know the importance of the school year, they are then ready for details.

Teachers will want to know what you expect in the classroom. Share district initiatives with your teachers and give them examples and non-examples of when and if they could veer from those plans. If specific curriculum or technology platforms are required, make sure teachers know this in advance. If teachers need professional development in these areas, it is important to assess and fulfill those needs. Set teachers up for success! It is best practice to provide a checklist for teachers regarding the first few days of school. Virtual teachers may need a reminder that it is still appropriate and expected for class time to review rules, expectations, routines, and processes, much like they would in a traditional setting. 

As the first days of virtual instruction approach, administrators will have many tasks to plan out for the success of their distance learners. The following is a short task list of items for administrator planning: 

  • Welcome, and update parents via your website. Let families know that you are preparing for them and teachers will be contacting each parent individually. In addition to documents and other resources, consider creating a video so parents and students can see your face as well as your excitement for the school year!
  • Work with the district office regarding device needs and distribution.
  • Determine the students and/or families who have been unreachable. Begin a plan of reaching these students.
  • Follow up with any families who may need additional support, such as food, Individual Education Plans (IEP), or other appropriate services.
  • Follow up on questions that you do not know the answer to and provide in a school update on your website, if appropriate.
  • Check teacher lesson plans to ensure they are aligned with the district focus. If not, talk with individual grade groups and/or specific teachers for lesson plan revisions.
  • Praise teachers who are following your expectations. Help those individually who are not.
  • Share models of best practices, and share your vision of what a highly effective teacher looks like during this process.

There will always be more to do, but—with strategy and efficacy—we can make this a win/win situation. 

Hang on, and gain on. We’ve got this. 

 


About the Author

A. Russell Hughes is the superintendent of the Walton County School District (WCSD).  Walton County school enrollment totals 10,500 students with over 1,000 school district employees.  The WCSD office is located in DeFuniak Springs, Florida, but the county’s boundaries run from the Alabama line (Paxton, Florida) to the Florida coast (Santa Rosa Beach, Florida).  Superintendent Hughes has spent his career in education.  Mr. Hughes has worked at all levels, as a teacher, coach, assistant principal, and principal.  He is currently entering his second term as Superintendent and has recently been named as a top 25 “Superintendents to Watch” by the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA).

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