After 35 years of teaching, Cynthia Syfan thought she had a pretty good handle on how to plan for a school year.
But as Syfan, a fourth grade teacher at Gainesville Exploration Academy, and all other Gainesville teachers returned to school buildings for pre-planning Wednesday, she quickly came to realize how different this year would be.
Preparing for students to return to classrooms in the midst of a pandemic already carried plenty of difficulties, but on Tuesday evening, the Gainesville City School System Board of Education announced that Gainesville schools would be starting the first three weeks of the year remotely, adding another layer of complication to teachers’ plans and making this year’s pre-planning more of a challenge than usual.
“As a teacher, you’ve always got to be flexible,” Syfan said. “But I think now, with virtual schooling and what’s going on, you have to be like an Olympic gymnast.”
It’s been a quick turnaround for Gainesville teachers, who have shifted their focus from decorating classrooms to taking professional learning courses on remote instruction.
Lauren Callaway, also a fourth grade teacher at Gainesville Exploration Academy, said she was glad the announcement came before the start of pre-planning, as it gives all Gainesville teachers time to ensure they are fully prepared to teach remotely.
“Now that we know for sure we’re starting virtually, we can be a little more prepared on the front end, vs. in March,” she said. “I think now, knowing that we’re starting back virtually it gives us a little more time to really help (the students) learn.”
It’s a sentiment that was echoed by Superintendent Jeremy Williams, who said during the Tuesday night board meeting that he was hoping the school could “do a 180” in terms of virtual teaching compared to the spring.
According to Williams, it all starts with organization in digital teaching strategies across all Gainesville schools.
“The first thing is just a set framework of what tools are being used by our students,” he said. “Imagine if a parent has three kids in two or three different schools, they don’t need to keep up with six different ways of doing things.”
Williams said there were a few online courses that all teachers would be required to take, including an overarching lesson called “Introduction to Synchronous Learning” as well as basic training in cyber security. Other courses, such as a brush-up lesson on Google Classroom — Gainesville’s primary online learning platform —will be available for teachers who think they need the extra practice.
Beyond that, Gainesville teachers will be focusing on how to make the remote start to the school year seem as normal as possible for their students. Suzanne Cindea, a third grade teacher at Gainesville Exploration Academy, said she was already planning to tailor some of her typical beginning-of-the-year assignments to formats that work from a virtual setting.
“For example ‘All about me’ projects instead of doing a project where they bring in items, they’re going to do a PowerPoint presentation or something that we can share on a Zoom meeting or something like that,” she said. “Just figuring out a way to meet them where they already are.”
With the focus temporarily shifted to remote instruction, Gainesville teachers are learning to deal with different challenges than a typical pre-planning period would present. As Syfan put it, “it’s most definitely not the same.”
Yet despite the new challenges ahead of them, all the third and fourth grade teachers at Gainesville Exploration Academy remained confident that the school system would guide them in the right direction and have them ready for anything in the coming year.
“Working in this system, you’re always going to be prepared for whatever happens,” Syfan said. “I can guarantee that.”