Could Remote Teaching End Snow Days After COVID-19?

While teachers say that online instruction is often not as effective as traditional classrooms — and many students lack access to Internet or computers — it could still be used in place of snow days.

by Mará Rose Williams And Sarah Ritter / April 27, 2020
Cybercriminals have been using the coronavirus to entice victims into online scams. Shutterstock/Song_about_summer

(TNS) — After more than a month of online school because of stay-at-home orders, district leaders in the Kansas City, Mo., area half-jokingly talk about one consequence for the future of education.

Students might not want to hear it, but “remote teaching could put an end to snow days,” said Charles Foust, superintendent of Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools.

“Now that we have experienced virtual learning, I think it has prepared us for educating kids differently, not just for us but throughout the country.”

So next winter, if students can’t get to school, he said, teachers could just deliver classes online. “That would also mean there won’t be a need to make up days at the end of the school year either,” Foust said. “Even though we were nervous when this all started, this is making us think differently about how to do school.”

Because of the coronavirus, educators have reworked how to deliver months of curriculum to students hunkering down in their homes.

But they concede that online instruction is often not as effective as traditional classrooms. Many students do not have access to good internet or computers. Or some just aren’t logging in.

“The biggest challenge that we’re facing is access to technology and kids who are not engaging,” said Heather Mayfield, an eighth-grade English teacher at Trailridge Middle School in the Shawnee Mission district. “We’re trying to help out the missing or lost kids and plan for them, but when you have rules in place about social distancing, you can’t have that normal face-to-face meeting to help them.”

As a result, schools are preparing for an influx of students needing summer school to catch up.

And, if the pandemic flares up again, they’re preparing for the possibility that classes will remain online not only during the summer but into the fall.

If students do return to the classroom, educators warn that school might look different from usual, with fears that students packed in classrooms could lead to another outbreak.

“I think that’s the big unknown and the scariest part,” Mayfield said. “I have no doubt that if we have to start school online, that we’re going to figure it out because teachers are resourceful. But I cannot even begin to think about how hard that’s going to be in this kind of space.”

But like the possible elimination of snow days, districts say they are using the opportunity to try to improve the face of education, perhaps offering students a mix of online and in-person classes, with or without a COVID-19 pandemic.

“Usually, people are pretty resistant to change and slow to allow it,” said Kenny Southwick, president of the Cooperating School Districts of Greater Kansas City. “But if you look at change in a time of crisis, people are more willing to accept the change.”

The need for summer school

Tiffany Price’s oldest will be a senior in the fall at Hogan Preparatory Academy charter high school. She’s concerned about what he may have missed with remote learning.

Making sure her three children kept up with school work at home was hard at first, “but it got a whole lot better as it went on because they got into a routine,” Price said. Still, she keeps wondering: “Am I doing enough?”

What she is sure of: “They definitely need to have summer school.”

At first she was hoping to be done with online learning. “But then I thought about it, and even if they did open up for summer school I’m not sure I’d feel safe sending my kids,” she said.

Kansas City Public Schools already decided to hold summer school remotely, June 1-26, but “details are still being refined,” said Kelly Wachel, district spokeswoman.

The district is planning to enroll 3,500 students for the summer, said Ray Weikal, a district spokesman. “We are almost fully staffed to support this number. If we exceed 3,500 students, we will immediately begin recruiting additional teachers.”

A task force of Missouri superintendents will provide district leaders with direction on summer school in the next few days, including when to offer summer school.

“It does not have to be in June, which is traditionally what many districts do,” said Mallory McGowin, spokeswoman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“Pretty much everyone is planning for summer school,” said Southwick, whose group represents dozens of Kansas City area districts on the Missouri side. “But it’s all over the board. You might see some holding off until the end of June or beginning of July, even until August.” No one, he said, is certain that social distancing orders and limits on group sizes will be lifted by June.

Officials in the Shawnee Mission, Blue Valley and Olathe districts said they are planning for all possibilities as they wait for direction from the state of Kansas.

“No matter what you plan for, you kind of have to know that you have to be prepared for alternatives,” said Mark Tallman, associate executive director of the Kansas Association of School Boards. “I don’t think it’s possible at this point to have clear guidance to say here’s the plan for the summer or next fall. Districts are thinking through different options.”

Crossroads Academy charter school in Kansas City started preparing to stay online for summer school earlier this month. With financial help from local philanthropists, the school handed out iPads and laptops to its needy students.

“A lot of students are not able to access online classwork” or other online tools that would aid in their academic success, said Superintendent Dean Johnson. “Those students who have access receive a fundamentally different level of leaning than those who don’t,” and it shows up in their classwork. “We could see the economic disparities.”

Getting access to all students, he said, is going to make it easier to pull off online summer school.

“We know that this year, because of the disruption and transition to remote learning, the need for summer school is heightened,” Johnson said.

What’s happening this fall

Tony Budetti, a government teacher at Shawnee Mission South High School, said a student recently asked him a question he’s been dreading.

“Are we going to return to school next year?”

Budetti said he told his class the truth: “I don’t know.”

“But I told them that we have to prepare for whatever might happen in the fall and be prepared that we might not get a regular start to the school year,” he said. “And when I said that, I could see the life come right out of my students’ faces through the computer screen.”

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, who was the first governor in the nation to close schools for the remainder of the academic year, said on Thursday she couldn’t offer a clear answer on whether school buildings will reopen this fall.

“We fully expect that there will be a second wave of this virus come in the fall,” she said. “It’s way too early to call whether we’ll actually open school buildings in the fall. I hope that we can. But we’ll anticipate the worst and be ready to continue online, with academic packets to-go, school nutrition packets to-go, if that’s what we need to do.”

“We’re doing dual planning,” Kelly said. “We’re planning to open and planning to close.”

Denise Kahler, with the Kansas State Department of Education, expected clearer guidance after the state school board’s May meeting.

“Even if school buildings are allowed to open in the fall, schools must be prepared for a new normal,” she said.

Missouri education officials said they are following a similar multiple-scenario plan.

Teachers said they are preparing for the possibility of greeting a new group of students over Zoom or Google Classroom this fall. And some worry that even if students return to school buildings, class sizes will need to be limited to allow for social distancing.

“I have 33 students in a regular classroom. We couldn’t get six feet apart if we tried,” Budetti said. “I don’t know how we’re going to do this. There’s the liability of a kid who shows up with a fever. Are we going to have every class in the gym? In the yard?”

Southwick said it’s the uncertainty “that is hampering us.” It’s not, however, stopping educators from talking about possibilities.

“There may be a silver lining to all of this,” Southwick said. “We could emerge from this with a mixture of remote education and face-to-face instruction.” Who’s to say, he said, that students have to log “142 hours of seat time” in a classroom every year. And what defines seat time? Maybe it’s a student interning on a construction site during the day and then, before bed, catching up with a history lecture his teacher recorded online earlier that day.

But, of course, that student would need good internet.

Problems persist

Across the region, some students have had to sit outside school buildings or in McDonald’s parking lots to access Wifi and download homework. It’s just one problem that districts say they are facing in the new age of remote learning.

“From a parent’s perspective, the idea of trying to get all of your kids in the car to go to school and get on the Wifi feels like a heavy burden,” Mayfield of Trailridge Elementary said. “I don’t expect my students who don’t have Wifi at home to go to these measures, although I know families are doing it.”

The Shawnee Mission school board recently approved spending $9 million to upgrade iPads for students. The investment was previously scheduled, but school board leaders said it was important to vote on it immediately, considering remote learning might continue.

“Districts with existing technology infrastructure are considering ourselves fortunate, as the iPads and the Macbooks we’ve distributed to students have allowed access to teachers and lessons, libraries and music instruction,” board president Heather Ousley wrote in a letter to parents. “Our physical distancing while difficult, has been surmountable, in large part, because of the digital tools already in our toolkit.”

But even with new technology, internet access remains an issue across the entire region.

Some organizations and companies have provided free mobile hot spots or other methods of improving internet access. But district leaders and teachers said more needs to be done.

Kansas City and Hickman Mills districts have long been aware of the digital divide and have already invested thousands into getting technology and internet access for all their students.

This week KCPS is distributing Chromebooks and Wi-Fi hot spots for students who are new to the district and for charter school students enrolling in the district’s summer school.

Districts plan to offer other resources in the coming months as well, such as free meals and virtual counseling services.

And grading students, well that has posed yet another challenge.

Some districts have allowed students to maintain the grades they earned in the third quarter. Their grades can’t drop based on the work they complete this spring. Teachers say that’s offered more flexibility.

“We’re inviting kids to engage in learning, but we still don’t know what people’s circumstances are at home,” Mayfield said. “So it’s a lot of relying more on the digital conversation we’re having rather than the product of a test or essay.”

Some teachers worry they can only do so much, especially as older students look to earn dual college credits or pass Advanced Placement tests. And even with fewer requirements during the shutdown, many teachers said they’re struggling to keep students focused.

But the flexibility has worked for Tiffany Price’s son, the one who’s moving up to the 12th grade in the fall.

“I’m proud of him. He is really doing pretty well,” Price said. “He was doing good when this all started so he’s going to be fine.”

But she is worried about what will become of his senior year if remote learning spills into fall: “I don’t want him to miss out on his senior year.”

©2020 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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