The governor last week extended the shutdown indefinitely, which spurred many districts to make the commitment to plunge back into specific coursework online instead of just treading water with enrichment activities.
(TNS) — After three weeks away from a classroom, Nate Johnson, 16, is ready to get back to learning in the Mechanicsburg Area School District in Pennsylvania.
On Monday, that’s what he and thousands of other students across Central Pa. will do, but from the isolation and comfort of their homes.
School buildings have been closed since March 16 because of the threat of the novel coronavirus. The governor last week extended the shutdown indefinitely, which spurred many districts to make the commitment to plunge back into specific coursework online instead of just treading water with enrichment activities.
Many districts started those lessons online Monday, with the expectation that all students would participate. Previously, most districts offered “optional” enrichment activities.
As part of Nate’s enrichment activities in recent weeks, he read an article about the origin of the math number, Pi, for his trigonometry class. But he said he is looking forward to more challenging material going forward, including learning new trigonometry functions so he will be prepared for AP Calculus, which he’d like to take in the fall.
“We have a lot of great teachers and unfortunately we won’t be able to get their full potential at home,” he said. “But I’m ready for more to do to occupy my time. I haven’t been doing too much lately.”
In Mechanicsburg, they are starting assignments for older students this week and elementary students next week.
Of the districts ready to dive back into their curriculums and try to finish the fourth marking period remotely, many of them are doing it with batches of weekly assignments posted online instead of live lessons where students tune into their teachers at a particular time.
Students in Derry Township are among the few districts where students are logging in from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. each day to view “live” lessons from their teachers because the district is relatively small and all students have a device and internet access. The district started those classes last week.
“By and large things are going pretty well,” said Dan Tredinnick, district spokesman. “We've had a few technical glitches like an online conference or two disconnecting, but everybody has been patient and resilient.”
Tredinnick said the role of parents and guardians helping facilitate instruction cannot be overstated, especially at the elementary level.
“Classroom management and keeping everybody on task is a skill that can be challenging enough with 20 students together in a room,” he said, “but it can be even more so when you have those same students scattered across 20 different locations! We've always viewed the educational process as a partnership with our families and that's never been more so than now when parents are essentially acting as teacher's aides.”
Across the state, more districts are going with recorded lessons versus live lessons because of logistical reasons, said Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators. Some video conferences don’t work consistently well with more than 20 people, he said, and teachers are logging in from their homes, which will have varying degrees of internet strength.
Having each student work from their own schedule creates less pressure and works better for families with multiple children who may be sharing a device. Students can email their teachers at any time with questions or reach teachers for a video conference during set “office hours.”
Districts who haven’t created their own online curriculums can use two free platforms offered last week by the Pennsylvania Department of Education to upload lessons, DiRocco said.
Districts that have low technology access among students also can compete for $5 million in “equity” grants that will be given out by the state in the coming weeks. The Harrisburg School District, where about 67 percent of students have devices and internet access, will be applying, said Acting Superintendent Chris Celmer.
Because of low connectivity, Harrisburg students so far have primarily been getting enrichment education from a partnership with the local public broadcasting television station. But the district is preparing to move into “the next phase of enrichment,” with more details to be released this week, Celmer said.
While some districts are still assessing student access and preparing for remote learning, the Cumberland Valley School District is among the districts launching into new academic territory this week through weekly batches of assignments posted online.
Cumberland Valley Superintendent David Christopher said assignments for younger students will focus on central skills and assignments for older students will focus on essential pieces of content to get them ready for the next level of particular courses.
While district leaders are providing lessons in English, Math, Social Studies and Science, they can’t ignore other courses like world languages, Christopher said, where students in German 2 for example would need to be prepared for German 3 in the next school year.
Many districts starting this week are starting slowly, with a mix of review and new material, with plans to ramp it up next week once they can be more certain that all students are engaged.
If teachers notice students aren’t completing assignments and checking in, then teachers and administrators will try to find out why and get those students connected, Christopher said.
“If two weeks from now we find hundreds of kids don’t have access, we may shift and have correspondence activity (packets of handouts,)” he said. “We’re going to continue to modify our model as the kids dictate.”
Cumberland Valley tapped 30 of its curriculum specialists to create standardized lessons that will be used, Christopher said, to ensure consistency for each grade level. Students with Individualized Education Plans or English Learners will get additional support, he said.
“There are essential things we want students to complete,” Christopher said. “We have about eight weeks of school left, so we’ll probably hold to that.” Extending the school year isn’t an option because of negotiated contracts with the teachers’ union. The teachers have been working during the entire shutdown, Christopher said, so the district can’t tack on additional weeks at the end of the school year. But negotiating for an earlier start or adding student days next school year is a possibility, he said.
A couple of elements worked in school districts’ favor this year, Christopher said, including not having to use any snow days and not having to worry about standardized tests. The state was granted a waiver from the mandated tests because of the Covid-19 crisis. That means districts aren’t that far behind despite losing three weeks of classroom time, Christopher said. Districts still could get through the same amount of content, he said.
“Preparing for testing eats up a lot of time in the last 9 weeks of the school year,” he said. “April is lost to testing normally.”
One of the challenges to pivoting to online teaching amid a pandemic is that teachers can’t be pulled together for professional development to prepare them for the new delivery method. Some teachers will be posting videos of lectures and available for video conferencing while those skills may not be in other teachers’ wheelhouses.
“This is not a normal situation for anybody,” Christopher said. “Teachers are doing this from their dining rooms in some cases watching their own children. Parents are in the same boat. There’s so much stress involved.”
While districts are moving into new academic material, most districts aren’t assigning letter grades for the fourth marking period. Cumberland Valley students who were previously failing classes can pass if they complete the fourth marking period activities, Christopher said.
Students with passing grades at the end of the third marking period will get those grades if they complete the fourth marking period activities.
Other school districts, including Derry Township, are still determining how to approach grades in the fourth marking period.
As far as graduating seniors, the Pennsylvania Department of Education on Friday put out new guidance that said “yes,” current seniors can graduate at the end of this school year. Each school district is responsible for ensuring that those seniors graduate on time, according to the department’s website.
“No student should be restricted from completing their high school graduation requirements or pursuit of a post-secondary pathway due to the pandemic of 2020,” the website said.
Establishing and calculating course credits is the responsibility of each school district, according to the state. If graduating seniors have not completed their classes due to any COVID-19 issues, the department suggested districts use discretion and “provide all reasonable latitude for students to graduate on time.”
Same for students enrolled in career and technical education programs, who normally would need to pass an industry-based competency assessment to graduate. Students enrolled in such programs may graduate without taking the test if they have demonstrated a high likelihood of success, the education department said.
Districts still must grapple with whether they should modify grade-point averages or class ranks this year. The state said those decisions would be up to each school district.
State officials said districts may hold “virtual” high school graduation and other traditional end of school year ceremonies during the closure.
“Currently, restrictions on gatherings larger than ten people and aggressive social distancing recommendations are in place,” the state website said. “When closure restrictions are lifted by the Governor, (school districts) may consider the appropriateness of holding such gatherings.”
Christopher, of the Cumberland Valley School District, said his heart goes out to seniors whose final year has been derailed and whose dreams of a graduation ceremony attended by family members may be delayed, if not dashed.
“When you see the models, it seems unlikely that the state would feel confident in sending kids back to school this year,” he said. “Depending on how long this is out there, I just don’t see when groups of 500 are going to be able to get together.”
©2020 The Patriot-News (Harrisburg, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.