Opening Schools in the Fall May Be a Mixed Bag

By: Jon Ratliff

Dr. P.J. Caposey, superintendent at CUSD 223 in Illinois, recently sent a Center for Disease Control graphic outlining the protocols for reopening schools in the fall, including social distancing, disinfecting, and daily checks for signs and symptoms of Covid-19. In a May blog post, Dr. Caposey shared initial comments from colleagues as they responded to the involved CDC protocols, including this one:

“I will see you in 2029.”

Dr. Caposey’s blog post highlights the possible reopening scenarios, ranging from opening schools at the beginning of the year to delaying the start of the school year. He believes the hybrid option, with a mix of online learning to students in the classroom, will have the greatest odds of success. The hybrid option helps districts instill confidence in parents, students and teachers. A Patron Insight white paper outlined the need for trust between school districts and the communities they serve. Foremost, districts must be concerned with the foundation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, safety and security before learning can take place.

In May, USA Today conducted a poll of 501 teachers and 403 parents and learned that one-in-five teachers are unlikely to return to their classrooms in the fall and 60 percent of parents would pursue online options rather than send their children back into the classroom. The hybrid model allows parents and students to have educational options and reduce health risks. Teachers and students who are at greater risk for Covid 19 can work remotely. Those risks underlying conditions such as heart or lung conditions, hypertension, and diabetes.

Other aspects of school procedures had to be revised, such as arrangements for food preparation and pickup, families had to figure out how to connect their children and teachers, and how to help with lessons. Using the hybrid model will help connect curricula, reduce the need for food pickup, and create opportunities to increase online participation.

Some of the school districts Patron Insight has worked with reported great success and high levels of participation during last spring’s rapid shift to online education. Other districts saw a commitment by students and parents at the beginning, which eventually began to fade. Participation levels via video dropped off, with teachers reporting that they began to know who would be on screen and who would not – with or without an excuse.

With the 2020-2021 school year looming and, with it, the distinct possibility that some districts will be faced with having to continue distance learning for the time being, is there a better way to encourage – or even compel – student participation?

Student compliance with assignments began to slide as well in some cases, leaving teachers with the unenviable task of trying to grade something that they weren’t able to manage in a hands-on environment. The answer may be to take an almost collegiate approach, through the use of a combination of classroom (via meeting software) learning, homework, and scheduled “office hours” for each student, each week.

Combining both classroom and individual learning opportunities, the hybrid model increases student engagement. Further, this option:

  • Creates an expectation, rather than just an invitation
  • Catches problems before they become chronic issues
  • Keeps the personal connection with students – particularly those who might not be comfortable speaking up with other classmates watching

Office hours are more than an open time when a student can connect with his or her teacher, but a scheduled time for each student, each week, (at least at the outset) to monitor progress, set weekly individual goals, identify problems and help create solutions before the student falls too far behind.

Last spring’s rapid switch to online learning identified a number of technology issues, including home wifi capacity, school virtual private network (VPN) capacity, and multiple students trying to use s single home computer to do work at different grade levels. A hybrid option could reduce capacity issues and provide parents with alternatives. In a recent Patron Insight survey, parents expressed a desire to standardize meeting software (some districts are allowing teachers to decide among Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Google Meet and others.) Creating a standard would save parents considerable bandwidth and stress.

Distance learning poses more challenging issues, as well. Teachers have expressed concerns about providing social-emotional learning and building crucial relationships with students as the school year begins. In an article titled “How Teachers Want Emergency Distance Learning Improved,” teachers assessed the challenges and opportunities of online learning. One fifth-grade language arts teacher stressed the importance of relationships and peer interaction by using a “soft start” to the school day, to “let (the students) be 10.”

Older students need relationships as well. For example, a survey indicated that about 40 percent of high school students weren’t participating online. One Florida High School instituted a team approach called Building Assets, Reduced Risks (BARR) to increase engagement and improve outcomes for at-risk students.

While technology enhancements will be necessary to increase engagement, preparing for a return to the classroom may be an even bigger challenge. Teachers and staff will not only need to disinfect and space desks for social distancing, they will need to stagger passing periods and adjust lunch schedules to reduce risk. Having a portion of students learning online will reduce the number of students and teachers within a school building and help everyone keep their distance.

Now is a good time for districts to conduct a climate study to better understand the feelings of parents or a communication audit to learn how well constituents understand messages about managing through the Covid-19 crisis. To learn more about Patron Insight’s research and strategic plan development, contact Ken DeSieghardt.