Top officials at the Guam Department of Education met virtually with members of the Guam Chamber of Commerce on July 22 to talk about the learning models coming next school year and other initiatives in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Education officials fielded inquires about sanitary protocols, supply procurement, online sessions and internet access.

As reported earlier, Guam DOE is experiencing some difficulty securing personal protective equipment for the beginning of the school year. During the chamber meeting, education Superintendent Jon Fernandez said several procurement processes are underway but in the event supplies do not come in time, the department will "have to take another look at the start date." The Guam Education Board has set the school year to begin Aug. 17.

"Hopefully within the next week or two, we'll be able to confirm which (procurement) option will be help us get at least through the first 30 days of school," Fernandez said.

For students choosing to learn from home – the majority of students – Deputy Superintendent Joe Sanchez said there will have to be significant flexibility with student engagement online. It would be difficult to manage classes through the synchronous model, which is to have everyone online at the same time, when there are multiple classes and students, he added.

"What it's going to require is we would need to have some type of routine in the home, and that's where the teachers will work with the families. ... As I mentioned earlier, there will be some synchronous videoconferencing ... that will be scheduled by the teacher and coordinated within the school," Sanchez said.

He also noted that parents need support with how to structure lessons and support at home. The department is working to ensure that materials sent home are easy to understand, for both online and hard copy home learning options, he added.

Sanchez said training and discussions acknowledge that there will need to be a substantial amount of parent-student engagement with schoolwork, which is a positive outcome from the situation.

Technology at home

Another potential positive is the massive push for technology use, even for families opting for the hard copy home learning model, he added. Many of those families do have some internet access but aren't confident they will be able to engage in full online learning, Sanchez said.

"Which is totally fine. We can support that. But we can still support those families in their continued effort to access technology. ... We can help them in the development of that skill," Sanchez said.

Over time, this can help build the collective capacity of the community to utilize online tools, he added.

In addition to COVID-19-related supplies, federal funding granted to Guam DOE is also intended to improve distance learning. For Guam DOE, this means focusing on improving equipment and internet access at schools, as well as developing campuses into WiFi hubs.

Internet access

Fernandez said the department has been saying from day one that it will not have a laptop or tablet for every student who needs one, without knowing how it will guarantee internet access to every household. The governor was also allotted a portion of grant funding to develop distance learning, and a recently completed request for information to telecom providers is anticipated to provide guidance on how to improve internet access within the villages.

Sanchez said the department's approach to improving technology support is systematic, but what Guam DOE knew it did not want to do was simply pass out computers.

"That would be the absolute worst plan we can possibly think of. ... We were able to collaborate and share with other districts about certain strategies that have been deployed. ... And one thing you don't want to do is buy 10,000 and all of a sudden pass those out," Sanchez said.

The capacity of the students, families and communities need to be built up so technology can be used correctly. Protocol also needs to be established so technology is returned to the system and not lost, he added.

The first phase of Guam DOE's systematic approach is ensuring that its campuses are up to par in terms of technology and internet access, Sanchez said.

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