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Bitney Prep continues ‘one student at a time’ teaching amid pandemic, distance learning

Submitted to The Union
Since the end of the 2019-2020 school year, a working group composed of Bitney Prep teachers, administration, governance, and parents started looking at the spread of COVID-19 in Nevada County.
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How do we make our high school curriculum as dynamic, interactive, and engaging as it always has been if we don’t have the students in our classroom? This is the question that the teaching staff at Bitney Prep High School has been wrestling with over the past few months.

Since the end of the 2019-2020 school year, a working group composed of Bitney Prep teachers, administration, governance, and parents started looking at the spread of COVID-19 in Nevada County. They have been referring to the CDC guidelines for school reopening and have been consulting with Nevada County Health officials about the various ways students could return to campus for the 2020/2021 school year. The health and safety of students and staff is the focus of every discussion. So, too, is the educational and emotional needs of Bitney’s 100 or so students. The complexities of on-campus learning were such that running a dedicated distance learning program was the only viable option. After much thought and planning, this proved to be the best way to maintain educational continuity as well as minimize the risk of exposure for staff and students.

“Once we all made the decision, the Bitney teaching staff snapped into action. We’ve been meeting three times a week. We share curriculum ideas, best practices for distance learning, and are really trying to make what we do this year as close to being on campus as we can,” said English teacher Daniel Elkin.

After identifying what was difficult for students during the distance learning program pivot that was made at the end of the 2019/2020 school year, Bitney staff is making some significant changes to how they will be conducting their program.

“We, as educators, will do everything we can to make this school year meaningful, challenging, and rewarding for all of our students.”— Daniel ElkinBitney Prep English teacher

According to Bitney Prep director Jonathan Molnar, “Students said they were overwhelmed trying to manage the demands of six or seven classes a day while learning from home last year, so this academic year we are shifting to a block schedule where students will only be responsible for staying on top of three academic classes a semester plus their advisory.”

“We’re doing synchronous learning this time around,” said Daniel Elkin. “While students will be in the safety of their home environment, for all intents and purposes they will be in the classroom with their peers and their teachers. I’ll be teaching. They’ll be in their ‘seats’, and I’ll make my instruction as dynamic and interactive as I possibly can. Also, students need to hear from each other as much as they need to hear from their teachers. We’ve been doing a lot of research and experimentation with the platforms and the technology to ensure there will be a great deal of focused and meaningful student to teacher and student to student communication and interaction.

Bitney Prep Math teacher Alison Harper added, “Our advisory classes will focus a lot of its curriculum on addressing the social and emotional needs of our students. We have also made sure to put time in at the end of each day for group activities. We’ve been talking about book clubs, film clubs, photography clubs, and clubs around cooking or fashion or crafts. Our climbing teacher has even been talking about doing some epic Dungeon and Dragon campaigns with the kids. We know that academics are important, but we are very tuned into how High School is a social environment as well.”

“We are putting a great deal of time and resources toward issues of equity,” continued Molnar. “We are putting the final touches on a technology learning center on campus for our students who have no access to the internet at home. We are also working with our Special Ed team in order to make sure that those students get all the time, resources, and assistance we can dedicate to them.”

“We’ve always adhered to our ‘one student at a time’ model at Bitney. We’re just adapting it to the present circumstances,” added Elkin.

“We are really excited about what we call our Learning Through Interests program,” says Bitney Social Studies teacher Tori Harris. “One of the unique offerings of Bitney has been our internships. With the realities of COVID-19, on-site internships won’t be an option for the majority of our students. So instead, we will be working with students in their advisories to create their own passion projects. We’ll help them identify things they’ve always wanted to know more about or things they always wanted to try, and then direct them to pursue those things with purpose, documenting their learning and engagement all along the way.”

It’s clear that nobody on the Bitney staff thinks that distance learning can take the place of in-class instruction. They are all looking forward to the day when the campus is teeming with life again. Until then, they are confident that they can make this year’s experience as close to normal as they can make it, while still keeping everyone safe.

“If we, as a community, can do all the things we need to do to mitigate the spread of this virus, then we can have kids back in class that much sooner,” insists Elkin. “Until that happens, we, as educators, will do everything we can to make this school year meaningful, challenging, and rewarding for all of our students.”


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