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Baltimore School Leaders and Their Response to COVID-19 – Joseph Manko, Liberty Elementary School

In light of recent events, the Fund asked a group of City Schools’ principals to share their perspectives and experience in grappling with school closures and the COVID-19 crisis. In our second blog post of this series, Joseph Manko, principal of Liberty Elementary School, describes how his school community has rallied to provide quality, virtual instructional tools and resources to students and families:

This has clearly been a challenging time for our students, families, teachers, and community as we all work to adjust to the new social distancing measures. We miss our kids and I am sure they are missing coming to school each day to see their teachers, their friends, and continue their learning journey. In these most unique of times, we are working to continue to push the learning process despite the limitations of time and space.

As the principal of Liberty Elementary School, the educational home to over 500 students, we have worked to continue to provide instructional opportunities to students during this period of closure. Thanks to the efforts of our incredible team of teachers, we spent the bulk of the professional development day on Friday, March 13th imagining what instruction could look like if the closure period extended beyond the designated ten days. We quickly mobilized to create a home learning page, coming off of our main website, www.LibertyLearns.com, that contained the most recent updates on the school including an FAQ page, locations for the school meals program, information about how to talk to your child about COVID-19 from our school social worker, and access to home learning resources for each grade level.

The teachers worked diligently not simply to compile at home learning packets, but also discuss a plan for delivery of content, create a structure for continuing academic interactions with kids, and plan for a system to provide feedback to students.

Four days into the closure period, I was astounded by the response of so many of our teachers and families. Throughout the week we handed out 203 learning packets as parents came in to pick up the work needed to keep their children learning and moving forward. We also had 224 unique visitors to the website, many of those visitors whom we believed downloaded learning packets for their kids or accessed the online resources. Between those two numbers, we feel like the vast majority of our 500 students were able to access learning materials during the first week of school closures.

Beyond the learning packets, teachers began to upload content on their own newly created YouTube channels, conducting read alouds, morning messages, questioning prompts, etc. to help students learn, connect, and see a comforting face during these challenging times. We had reports from one parent that her child gathered up all his siblings to hear his teacher read the story on YouTube. Our third-grade teachers instituted an old fashioned pen pal system where they would write letters to their students and respond to their messages, thus helping with writing skills and continuing the student/teacher connection.

I am a strong believer that online learning can never replace the depth of instruction that can occur in a face-to-face setting, particularly for elementary-age students who are so dependent upon a deep, loving connection with their teacher. However, in these unprecedented times, we are working to suspend our disbelief, and imagine what distance learning could look like. We are still learning our way through this and didn’t have the appropriate lead-up time to plan and prepare, but despite these challenges, we are trying as much as possible to bring rich content and personal learning experiences to our students every day. I have always felt that it is during times of great struggle that you really see the true strength of a community. During these most pressing times, I am proud of what the Liberty community has done to demonstrate learning is important, our kids are precious, connections (virtually) can continue, and our community is stronger than the virus that seeks to distance us. As our first-grade instructor says in her Facebook post, “the show must go on!” and despite all odds, for Mark, learning definitely does.

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