Districts get down to business working on Return-to-Learn plans
As district leadership teams roll up their sleeves in preparing their Return-to-Learn plans, there are two themes that seem to be emerging:
Since they cannot predict the future (specifically, what the COVID-19 environment will look like in two months), the unknowns stack up equally as well as the knowns.
They are determined to be ready to meet the challenge.
A check in with two Iowa districts – Ottumwa and Keokuk – show strong similarities to the way school districts are approaching their Return-to-Learn plans, which are essentially souped up back-to-school plans. For instance, they have both assigned specific individuals to head up each of the seven areas essential to planning. And both are seeking input from a broad array of staff, including teachers, counselors, nurses and bus drivers.
Districts need to be prepared for everything. In fact, their Return-to-Learn plans must include three different scenarios: where classes take place in person, where classes are done online and where it’s a combination of both, called a hybrid.
“The most challenging thing is that we don’t know what it’s going to be like in August,” said Ottumwa Superintendent Nicole Kooiker. “We will be prepared for the worst, but hope for the best.”
There are literally hundreds if not thousands of considerations that must be thought through. Among them: How will teachers deliver effective learning online? Do students have access to the internet? How can social or physical distancing be accomplished in the school? Where will students eat lunch? How can physical distancing be established on school buses? Will schools need to stagger start-up times to minimize social distancing problems? How are the special needs of students with disabilities going to be met? How will students catch up from schooling they missed in the spring?
Their checklists go on and on.
“One question leads to another question to another question,” said Lonna Anderson, director of elementary education in Ottumwa. “There are no concretes. There are more questions than answers, and that’s what can be frustrating. We are people who thrive off of answers.”
But persistence and grit pay off, and the districts are slowly seeing their plans emerge into something tangible.
“On day one, we will have devices in the hands of all of our students,” said Doreen Underwood, director of instructional services for Keokuk. “We are now working to ensure connectivity to all families, which is a huge challenge. Since we already have devices, we are working on policies and procedures to check out devices as part of registration. We’re looking at what supports students, teachers and families need on having the devices.”
In Ottumwa, all high schoolers already have devices, so the district is working to ensure they have reliable devices for the rest of the district’s students.
When teachers come back to work in August, both districts said they plan to concentrate professional development on effective online learning as well as ensuring that they are ready to use the technology.
“We put out a survey to staff and asked what their needs are, and it is driving what professional development is going to be,” Kooiker said.
Keokuk’s teacher leaders will receive training who, in turn, will train the teachers, Underwood said.
Once class time returns – whether it’s in-person, online or a hybrid – Keokuk plans to assess students to see where they stand academically and, more important, where some critical building-block skills may be missing.
“Before our staff left for the summer, teachers identified the five most important standards in their courses and listed which standards were taught and which were not,” Underwood said. “Then they had vertical conversations – from one grade to the next – so that if I were a first-grade teacher, I would tell the second-grade teacher what didn’t get taught.”
But don’t expect a new second grader to be taught first-grade material. As a second-grade lesson progresses and an untaught standard is part of it, that’s when the teacher will teach the standard.
“We will teach the information precisely when it’s needed,” Underwood said. “We will make it relevant with the new learning instead of trying to remediate in isolation.”
Ottumwa is adopting the same approach, Anderson said.
“The advice of experts is that you don’t go back,” she said. “You have to build that ladder to get those kids where they need to be. If we spend 10 weeks on working on last year’s work, then we are now 10 weeks behind in this year’s work, and the gap grows.”
Prior to the summer break, Ottumwa’s teachers worked at ensuring they knew essential learning targets in the various subjects and their accompanying assessments so that they will all be on the same page when school begins.
“We are not going to go back into last year’s work,” Anderson said. “There will be lots of preassessment so that before we start that next unit in math, do we have to stop and do a mini lesson? We’re focusing on the gaps along the way.”
Mike Stiemsma, Ottumwa’s director of student supports, said that while all learning standards are important, out of necessity the district is taking a narrow focus and working on the essential standards.
“We need that narrow focus on what things kids need to have to continue to roll in the next grade,” he said.
“The whole plan is about accelerating learning,” Stiemsma said. “And you have to remember that not all students are alike. Some students will be ahead in some areas and behind in others. Some might be behind in most things, while others might be ahead in everything. So it comes down to the individual. Some students may get enrichments (projects that further learning) and some may get extra support.”
Students with disabilities who require additional academic support will not be left behind.
“Equity is very important to us in ensuring those students get access to the general curriculum,” Underwood said. “For instance, are we ensuring that our students have the right devices? We’re looking at each student’s individual needs.”
Just how the educational delivery will occur is still a work in progress.
“Do we send teachers out to them?” Underwood said. “Can we meet in the school in groups less than 10? Do they come to the schools when everyone else is learning from home? There are no fast answers yet, but we’re exploring the possibilities and the supports.”
Ottumwa is following a similar path.
“Our students and teachers are used to a lot of in-person accommodations,” Stiemsma said. “So how do we do this in a virtual environment? We have been amending IEPs (Individualized Education Programs) with parents to figure out how to best help the students. We look at individual needs and make determinations on how we can continue to move students forward.”
While academics is the core focus, the health, safety and well being of students and staff are paramount, as well. That’s when logistics become tricky.
“What does the schedule look like if it’s online?” Anderson said. “Will the teachers work regular schedules or evenings?”
“We have done surveys of our classrooms and adjusted capacities,” Underwood said. “We are looking at how we can spread kids apart in the buildings.
“We know we have to adjust exits and entrances to ensure proper social distancing. For instance, the sixth graders will congregate in one area, the seventh graders in another. And then how are we going to get kids bused to school and promote healthy distances?”
Keokuk is also looking at teaching schedules, such as developing an A/B schedule for the hybrid teaching model.
“An A/B model would be where kids come to the school building only a couple times a week, so that one group of students’ in-school days are Tuesday and Thursday, and the other group comes in on Wednesdays and Fridays. In the off days, students would be learning online.”
Anderson said the A/B model has been discussed in Ottumwa, too, but have since discarded it.
“What if you have a situation in which both parents work?” Kooiker said. “There are implications for everyone in the community. If we decide to do an A/B schedule, what does that mean for parents, families and businesses?
“It feels like we’re building a plane while we’re flying it.”
“Everything is changing, nothing is written in stone,” Underwood said. “Everyone in Keokuk is approaching this with a positive attitude, and doing a good job of problem solving and working outside the box, especially not knowing all the details.”
“It’s all about preparing for what we don’t know,” Kooiker said. “Education has never looked like it will this fall.”
So have there been any a-ha moments?
“Every day is an a-ha moment,” Anderson said.