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Kansas schools improvising solutions in rollout of continuous learning programs

School’s out. In its place is a learning curve that students, teachers, parents and administrators have only a few weeks to try to master, the result of Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly’s mid-March edict to shutter K-12 school buildings for the remainder of the semester to slow the spread of the coronavirus in the state. 

All struggling with what’s been lost are now learners who face novel challenges and opportunities, with schools implementing continuous remote learning programs at a scale that’s largely new everywhere.

The differences in education between the beginning of March and the beginning of April will be stark. Teachers used to educating students face to face will act experimentally by largely rely on two key teaching tools: paper and computer.

It’s a situation that elevates inequalities that could affect how well students from different socioeconomic backgrounds or from geographies where broadband is less accessible are able to learn. 

Many schools provide take-home computers and tablets. But not all. Do those students without take-home devices have computers at home? Do students with or without take-home devices have access to Wi-Fi? If not, is there some way to connect them to Wi-Fi? And how does one teach younger children who are not yet computer literate?

“The life we left before spring break is not the life we are coming back to,” says Randy Hendrickson, superintendent of Pretty Prairie USD 311, about 50 minutes west of Wichita.

The abrupt shift might be felt most keenly by 2020’s seniors. Andrew Sargeon, a senior at Shawnee Mission Northwest High School, was on spring break when he found out that schools were shuttering.

“I was shocked when I found out,” he says. “I felt sad like I didn’t get to finish my senior year. Prom was just around the corner, something I had been planning for since my junior year, and graduation was so close. I had family coming in from out of town. … I just kinda felt my four years went down the drain.”

Sargeon, who is planning to major in fashion design and will be attending Johnson County Community College, said at first he thought closing the schools was an overreaction. “A little crazy and unnecessary, but in the end, I think we just have to do whatever we can to slow down this virus, cause it doesn’t look like it’s gonna be slowing down anytime soon.”

Andrew Sargeon, a senior at Shawnee Mission Northwest High School, was on spring break when he learned the shocking news that schools were shuttering.

Kelly’s order means that about 500,000 students will ride out the coronavirus outbreak at home rather than in crowded classrooms. But she tried to buy educators some time to adjust to educating students outside the classroom. Days before her announcement, she had asked the state Department of Education to appoint a task force of local school board members, school administrators and local teachers to provide a roadmap for school districts to follow to finish the school year.

“This was not an easy decision to make,” Kelly said in a news release at the time. “These unprecedented circumstances threaten the safety of our students and the professionals who work with them every day, and we must respond accordingly.”

The guidance document suggested each of the more than 300 Kansas school districts come up with individualized plans for each school. And perhaps underscoring the challenge, it suggested that teaching could be more individualized to ensure that each student had a learning plan to fit their situation where they live.

Or as the state Department of Education put it when it released the continuous learning report:

“Just as the name implies, this will allow Kansas students to continue learning despite school buildings being closed for the rest of the year. Instructional models may include blending of nontechnology; face-to-face, small-group learning sessions; and virtual platforms. Plans will vary from school to school and district to district. Boards and districts will have to make local decisions that are unique to their student population, staff and resources. Districts should develop and implement Continuous Learning plans in partnership with families, staff members and local boards of education, and follow the guidance of local health departments and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. The task force is recommending that districts focus on essential learning for students and use materials, resources and platforms that already are in place.”

Bailey Fouquet, a fifth grade student at The Independent School, works with her teacher Shane Walck, during online school. (courtesy photo)

Improvising Wi-Fi access

For the Pretty Prairie school district, the biggest issue complicating the transition is access to Wi-Fi.  

Superintendent Randy Hendrickson said parents in his rural district are close-knit and the schools, with about 300 students, are the center of the community. 

“Our parents are a bit anxious about what comes next, and they are asking, ‘How do we help the kids?’” he says.

Every student is supplied with laptops or tablets, but because some live miles away, Wi-Fi isn’t available.

But the district’s techs have found a way around that. They will boost the district’s Wi-Fi signal at the school.

“Drive-up, curbside cellular service” is one answer, Hendrickson says. “If you are in town, or can get to town, they can pull up in our parking lot and sync up pretty good.”

Hendrickson says even as they are working to provide continuous learning, there are no substitutes for lost activities such as track, the historically successful forensics team’s debates, the Future Farmers of America state convention. 

He’s still hoping the prom and graduation can take place, but maybe not until mid-summer.

“The sad part is we have abandoned a lot of different things,” Hendrickson says. “Prom? We are not saying it’s done. Most of the (high school girls) had purchased their dresses. One was purchased in our house.

“I would never have dreamed this is the way we are ending the school year, no way,” Hendrickson says. “But you can look at this as a crisis or an opportunity.” 

Goodland USD 352 Superintendent Bill Biermann answers questions from parents during a recent Facebook Live broadcast.

‘Welcome to fun schooling’

While it’s true that all Kansas school districts face similar challenges, no two school systems are alike, and some larger districts are preparing to deal with not one major challenge but a range of them.

Shawnee Mission USD 512 is one of the state’s largest districts and faces the challenge of continuing to educate 27,000 students. 

“It’s a huge thing,” district spokesman David Smith says. “It’s going to mean different things for different levels for different schools. It’s going to mean different things for different children. We are going to learn a lot from this.”

The district has been working for the past couple of weeks to make sure students have a Wi-Fi connection, and it plans to roll out its online classes on March 30 using Google Classroom, a program it already uses. Students fourth grade and above have iPads and MacBook Air laptops, depending on the grade. But teaching younger children without iPads and a connection with their teachers will be complicated, and parents will need to be involved. Paper packets for students will be available.

But even if schools get continuous learning 100% right, there are other variables to consider, such as the role that parents must play in helping educate their children at home. 

Katie LaMartina of Overland Park has five children, three of whom are in elementary school and two who haven’t started school yet.

“Five kids; welcome to fun schooling,” said LaMartina, who works at KVC Children’s Psychiatric Hospital on weekends. “I was very much shocked when this came down.”

LaMartina said she is waiting to see how her children’s classes will work. Besides the upheaval in schooling, her children have lost other activities, such as piano lessons and gymnastics. Even going to the playground has stopped.

“We can walk outside, but it’s not like you can go and touch a playground,” she said. “They miss their friends a lot. It’s hard to explain why they can’t do these things anymore.”

But school officials are working to provide support where they can, diving quickly into territory that’s often uncharted for them.

Goodland USD 352 Superintendent Bill Biermann is quickly figuring out that he can communicate easily with his 900 students and their parents via Facebook Live. He used the tool last week for the first time and acknowledged it felt a little clunky to him. 

But the audience didn’t seem to care. Both parents and students posted questions, and many offered thanks that he was there to provide answers.

The Goodland School District is just coming off spring break, so next week will be planning sessions for teachers and deep cleaning of the school buildings. 

Biermann says he is telling his teachers the first day of strictly online classes won’t be any different than the first day of school in late summer.

“Don’t try to plan too much. The first days usually roll out a little bit at a time,” Biermann said.

The district is offering grab-and-go lunches at the concession stand near the football field, where drive-up service will be available.

Sherman County has yet to have a case of COVID-19, something Biermann thinks is inevitable. But the community is generally enthusiastic about finishing the year.

“I haven’t heard any complaints,” Biermann says. “Our community is happy that we didn’t just call off school and walk away.”

The Journal, the print and digital magazine of the Kansas Leadership Center, is publishing a digital newsletter that explores what is working, what isn’t working and what’s being learned during the response to COVID-19. To receive twice-a-week updates, subscribe here: https://kansasleadershipcenter.org/contact-us/join-our-email-list/

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