First in a two-part series

MOUNT CARMEL — Although her students will be watching their lessons at home on a computer, Mount Carmel Elementary School first-grade teacher Connie Moffitt won’t be teaching to an empty classroom.

Moffitt has three stuffed monkeys keeping three desks occupied until her students return to the classroom, hopefully after the Hawkins County school system’s current Red Phase startup plan expires on Sept. 11.

For the past two weeks since the Red Phase virtual classroom plan was approved by the Board of Education, faculty and staff across Hawkins County have been working diligently not only to install the technology required to teach classes online, but also to get their students/parents up to speed on how to use that technology at home.

“I’d much rather have them in class,” Moffitt told the Times News on Tuesday. “To teach in an empty room, that’s going to be awkward. That’s when I thought, ‘I’m going to put some monkeys in the chairs like they're my students. They won’t talk back to me either.’”

”MAKE SURE THEY UNDERSTAND THE SETUP”

Although the framework for delivering online classroom instruction is basically the same across the school system, there are a lot of variables — especially between elementary, middle and high schools — and they’re not all doing exactly the same thing.

On Tuesday, the Times News visited MCES to learn its plan for the beginning of the online school year on Monday, Aug. 17.

Daily lessons from each teacher will be uploaded to Google Classroom on video, but to have a daily personal connection with their students, teachers will be using Google Meeting, which is a live, face-to-face application similar to Zoom.

Fourth-grade teacher Martha Mowell noted that students and parents have already visited MCES in person for tutorials on how to sign in and use the Google Classroom website, where they will receive their assignments and daily video lessons.

“We have given them our schedule as if they are at school, but they’ll be at home with our schedule,” Mowell said. “We have assignments already uploaded on Google Classroom for them to play around with and make sure they understand the setup.”

How will videos and live face time be utilized during a student’s school day?

Principal Amy Glass: “They’ll get all their instruction from the videos, and then when they have their independent work time, then they will have time to meet with a teacher (online). It could be in small groups, especially in the younger grades. ... There’s lots of flexibility in how we’re going to meet with all of the students, but we want to face-to-face meet with all of them at least once a day.”

Are parents prepared to facilitate the online classrooms at home?

Glass: “We have spent the last three to four days meeting with groups of parents and students in the classroom going over this. How to log in. How to click on the Google Meets. How to turn in assignments. We have met with every single family face to face for an hour to train them and get them to where they can utilize all the educational programs.”

Do you have 100% online connection with your students at this time?

Glass: “We have a hot spot outside of our school where they can come and download things at any time if they don’t have Internet at their homes. We are offering during ‘Red’ time that up to 25% of our students can come in (the school), they can download things, they can use all of our devices, download assignments, and ask questions to certified staff, and then go home around 11 a.m.”

Can teachers communicate back and forth with students, even with those not utilizing Google Meets?

Glass: “We use Classroom DOJO. We can notify parents of any update at any time.”

Fourth-grade teacher Laura Tipton: “If kids have a question, they can email us or send us a message through Google Classroom so we’re in constant contact with them.”

Are the lessons going to stick the way they would if you were in the regular classroom setting?

Mowell: “That is our hope. I think we will figure it out as we go. We will always have those high expectations. ... The teachers, the parents and the kids all have to work together and keep that communication open. If we do that, those expectations will be met. But it will be challenging.”

The students who had practice runs so far, how are they doing?

Mowell: “I think they enjoy it. I think the parents feel a little less stressed about it. As a parent myself, I try to look at it that way. How can we help parents not be overwhelmed by it? What we’re trying to do is make sure our lessons are something that they (parents) don’t have to sit right beside of them the whole day. They can just be a facilitator.”

How are working parents dealing with having their children at home during the day?

Mowell: “We’ve heard grandparents will be there. Babysitters will be there.”

Glass: “We talked to several where students from multiple families are getting together and working together. Everybody is kind of figuring it out. It’s a unique time and they’re figuring out creative ways to make it happen.”

As educators, what’s your biggest challenge during this virtual classroom phase?

Glass: “I think the biggest challenge is not seeing the students. We’re not used to filming ourselves. We’re not actors. Not having that back-and-forth with students, feeding off the students. It’s very different. We’re used to live audiences. The technology has also been a challenge. Learning all these programs that we’re not used to using to get the information out to the students in a creative way and an engaging way.”

Will you be able to hold students’ attention online the way you can in person in a classroom?

Glass: “That’s what they (teachers) are working tirelessly to do. They have worked day and night learning different ways to present this to students in a way that is engaging and exciting because they know the attention span isn’t going to withstand 45 minutes of me just standing here talking.”

For kindergarten students, what are the challenges of being online for what is probably their first classroom experience?

Kindergarten teacher Michelle Shanks: “I’ve been here 36 years, and this is a completely different experience for me, to not be able to stand over the top of my students and be able to take their hand and help them learn to write or to color. We’re going to do it virtually, hoping that those parents are going to give us the support we need to make it wonderful and fun, and still a learning experience.”

On Thursday the Times News takes a closer look at how Volunteer will be delivering online instruction.