Virtual Reality: Laptops are handed out to students at Universal Charter Schools

Virtual reality: The staff at Universal Vare STEM & Arts Academy prepares to hand out laptop computers to students. (Contributed Photo)

Virtual is the new reality.

The Universal Family of Schools, which oversees seven charter schools in Philadelphia, has handed out laptop computers to students in need during the COVID-19 shutdown.

On the first few days of April, eligible students from Universal’s schools were able to receive one of nearly 1,500 Chromebooks that were purchased by Universal Schools. Another 1,025 will also soon be made available by the Philadelphia School Partnership as part of an expenditure to keep children engaged in school activities while schools remain closed.

Laptops have been loaned out. Now the next phase of education begins.

“When it comes to the kids and the school, we’re just trying to make sure they have access to the materials they need,” said Universal Audenried Charter High School Principal Blanchard Diavua. “That’s why this is so important. We need to get the technology in their hands.”

Prior to the shutdown, Universal students had been given lesson plans to complete during the first two weeks that schools were closed.

“When we left school that Friday, students all left with two weeks of math, English, reading and social studies work,” Universal Vare STEM and Arts Academy Principal Karen Howell-Toomer said. “And they all had a project to do for either music, art or physical education.”

As those two weeks neared their conclusion, teachers contacted students individually to check on progress and keep the instruction moving as a bridge until each student was set up online.

“All of my teachers called all of the students during the second week to check up on how far along they were,” Howell-Toomer said. “The teachers also have the ability to go online and see how many minutes students are working each day for each subject. The teachers have been in constant communication, and it’s working so far.”

Starting on April 13, full, live online instruction will begin at those schools using Zoom and Google Classroom. The goal is to keep students engaged, educated and informed with virtual classrooms.

“It’s the most important thing,” said Diavua, who oversees 525 students at the high school level. “We want to provide a little bit of normalcy for our scholars. That’s the main reason we want to do live instruction, for that interaction and to provide that sense of comfort. It’s absolutely critical, in our opinions, that they have that.”

A limited number of hotspots were handed out to students in need. Universal is providing internet access for those who do not have the ability at home.

Although things have run smoothly so far, according to officials at Universal charter schools, there were several challenges that needed to be met with the staff and administration.

“I said this is an opportunity to provide instruction in a different way and it’s an opportunity to get a little more creative,” Diavua said. “It’s a way to look at your content a little differently and for us to step into the 21st century a little bit more.”

Open office hours will be provided by teachers, counselors and administrators. The goal is to provide continuity of instruction to mirror learning that happens in the classroom. It was an adjustment, but a necessary one.

“I’ve (virtually) met with the whole staff each week just to reassure everyone that we’re OK, we can do this,” Howell-Toomer said. “The students need us, and we need them and we need to keep it going. It’s different but virtual is our new reality.”