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Now that the new school year has officially started in Nashville, Tennessee, Metro Nashville Public Schools are engaging in 100 percent virtual learning with required live teaching, attendance and assignments.

With 85 percent of our students receiving free or reduced-price lunch, a major concern in our district has been a lack of access to technology and the internet, so our city spent $25 million to provide devices and hotspots to families. When the deployment is complete, we will be a one-to-one district: Every child will have an internet-enabled device.

When schools closed in the spring, the district didn’t immediately jump into formal distance-learning, instead focusing first on humanitarian needs like providing food for families. We’re still providing meals daily, and we’re also applying the lessons we learned in May to guide a more structured program we call “Virtual Learning.”

Lesson 1: Meet students and families where they are. This spring, even without formal distance-education in place, my families wanted their kids to be learning at home. I directed them to Teach@Home, a free website that has simple activities and printable manipulatives that cover the basics for pre-K through fifth grade. For kindergarten online, all I had to do was share a link to the website, and families could watch videos for lessons, then download and print worksheets for their kids. They would then send me pictures or videos of their work.

The district started official distance-learning in early May. As a kindergarten team, we reached out to families and asked them what the easiest way would be for us to do distance-learning. Families told us to use YouTube because they were familiar with it.

Then we looked at our remaining units for the year, and we settled on animals. That’s our end-of-the-year unit, and we also figured it would engage the kids. We did an animal a day, following the same model we use in the classroom. We did a read-aloud plus a graphic organizer about each animal and posted those videos on YouTube. To make the lessons richer, I used some of the manipulatives I had used in the classroom, like the balance and counting cubes made by hand2mind. After each lesson, the kids drew a picture and wrote about the animal. We did that for three weeks.

Lesson 2: Keep lines of communication open however you can. To maintain face-to-face time with my students, every Monday I did a whole-class Zoom meeting. These meetings were very much like being in the classroom: everybody’s talking, and they want to tell you random things. We saw lots of animals and pets and bedrooms. It was fun. It was controlled chaos, as you would expect with a bunch of five-year-olds.

With our focus on humanitarian needs in the early days of the pandemic, I definitely bonded at a human level with families. They have my cell phone number and can call me any time. I now check in with families every day using the Remind app. To teach my classes, I’m live-streaming two hours a day on Microsoft Teams (from my actual classroom) and using Schoology as a learning platform. We’re also offering the Florida Virtual School curriculum for self-paced learning.

Lesson 3: Relationships are everything. With the instructional time we missed in the spring, we couldn’t cover the curriculum we would have covered in the classroom. My families asked me to continue teaching over the summer, so I created some videos and lessons to help students with the basic phonics and math skills they need to be ready for first grade. It didn’t end there for kindergarten online or otherwise: this year, I am supporting my current class of kindergarteners, but I’m also helping “my” first-graders and their families with technology and serving as a bridge to their new teachers.

My hope is that the pandemic’s effects on our schools have shined a bright light on the fact that a school isn’t just a school and that teachers aren’t just teachers. We’ve made sure families have food every day. We’re building relationships, and I think people now see — more clearly than ever before — that schools are a vital part of the community.

On the last day of school in June, we had families come and pick up students’ belongings. As I carried a bag out to a family’s car, the mom got very emotional. She said, “I just want you to know that you and all of the teachers at the school are true heroes for our kids.” That was powerful to hear from a parent. I think teachers need that right now. She went on to say how thankful they were for us, and how much they appreciated everything that we do on a normal school day, and even more so now.

And then she said, “Y’all have to open next year, because I can’t do this anymore.”

This story about teaching kindergarten online was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for Hechinger’s newsletter.

Greg Smedley-Warren is a kindergarten teacher in Metro Nashville Public Schools in Tennessee.

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Greg Smedley-Warren is a kindergarten teacher in Metro Nashville Public Schools.

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