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Indiana Teachers Find Ways to Stay Connected During Virus

With schools in Indiana closed amid the pandemic, the educators, students and families there are learning and improving skills to creatively use technology and the Internet. They are finding new ways to stay connected.

by Sue Loughlin, The Tribune-Star / April 21, 2020
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(TNS) — The coronavirus pandemic has brought changes to K-12 schooling in Indiana that no one could possibly have imagined just a few months ago: Closed schools, remote learning and uncertainty about the future.

On the positive side, educators, students and families are learning and improving skills to creatively use technology and the internet. They are finding new ways to stay connected.

But remote learning has its drawbacks: The lack of in-person interaction with teachers and others students; for some children, school offers a safety net if they face trauma at home; in some cases, parents may not be supporting children with remote learning.

It has created challenges in serving vulnerable populations, including special needs students and those with limited or no access to internet or devices.

Vigo County School Corp. superintendent Rob Haworth has much praise for what local educators have accomplished in a short period of time.

At the same time, “I don’t believe what we’re doing replaces the depth and breadth of what children would get if they were in a classroom,” he said.

One big question mark, especially for the longer term, involves the impact of the economic downturn on school finances.

Finances

“These are difficult times,” said Dennis Costerison, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Business Officials.

“We don’t know when this [uncertainty related to pandemic] is going to end and what will be the true impact on the state budget.”

So far, the governor’s office has indicated the state’s intent to maintain tuition support through the end of the current biennium, or June 30, 2021, Costerison said. “We appreciate that public education is a priority for them.”

But Cris Johnston, director of the state’s Office of Management and Budget, cautioned Wednesday, “As it represents over 50% of the general fund budget, K-12 funding is a priority for the state. The duration of the adverse economic impact from the public health emergency is difficult to predict. Actual funding levels will be influenced by the availability of revenues from these future, uncertain economic conditions and the flexibility afforded with any federal assistance.”

Schools are funded primarily through state support (education fund) and local property taxes (operations fund), and it’s expected both will eventually be adversely affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

“I do not anticipate any immediate funding loss or cuts for school corporations as they conclude this school year and close out fiscal year 2020,” said Terry Spradlin, executive director of the Indiana School Boards Association.

But state revenue already is affected.

Indiana’s monthly revenue missed projections by $70 million for March, though year-to-date the state still exceeds projections by $30 million. It’s anticipated the decline will be even greater this month.

According to Spradlin, projected state revenue losses, which are significant, “will surely drain a good percentage of the state’s rainy day reserve fund.”

Larry DeBoer, Purdue University professor and economist, says that “perhaps a quarter of the Indiana economy has shut down. If the state experiences revenue losses at that rate, revenues would fall short by $1.1 billion by the end of fiscal year 2020, and $2.2 billion over the next six months.”

Federal stimulus and recovery funds will help schools in Indiana in the short-term, Spradlin said. Schools will need state guidance as they prepare their 2021 budgets later this year.

Despite the challenges ahead, school districts continue to pay employees, both teachers and non-teachers. “I have yet to hear of a school corporation not doing so,” Costerison said.

Among concerns he hears from association members is that some parents are saying even if school resumes in August, they won’t send their children back to school; instead, they will home school or use virtual education.

Because districts depend on enrollment for state support, that would hurt schools financially.

Many school districts may have to do some borrowing, such as through tax anticipation warrants, something the Vigo County School Corp. anticipates doing, Haworth indicated.

Under an executive order signed by the governor, all 92 Indiana counties have been ordered to waive late payment penalties regarding property taxes for 60 days after the May 11 deadline.

Many people may delay property tax payments, which means schools could come up short at the June 30 distribution of funds and have to borrow to meet cash-flow needs.

“There will definitely be fiscal issues, but at least we are encouraged the governor’s office, Office of Management and Budget and Department of Education are working together to chart the course here and see where we need to go,” Costerison said.

Indiana also is delaying the deadline for state income tax payments from April 15 to July 15.

A future financial hit could come in two ways, Costerison said. One would be an impact on property taxes. The concern is if assessed valuation falls due to business closings, “You won’t be able to collect as much,” he said.

A recession, which many economists say has already begun, also would hurt state funding, with revenue sources primarily the state income tax and sales tax. State revenues are “really vulnerable” to a recession, DeBoer said.

Schools faced cuts during the Great Recession of 2009. “There were some lean times there,” Costerison said. But with the pandemic, “We’ve not faced something like this before. We just don’t know how soon ... the economy will kick back in.”

Teacher pay

One question surrounding the economic downturn is the impact on teacher pay.

Teachers have strongly advocated for better pay, which the governor said would be coming in the next biennial budget cycle. That budget will be developed in the 2021 legislative session. How that process plays out with the pandemic fallout is also an unknown.

“There was great hope there would be a real emphasis on increasing dollars for teachers next budget session,” Costerison said. “Until we see the true impact, we don’t know where that is going to go.”

State Rep. Tonya Pfaff, D-Terre Haute, also a high school math teacher, said the quick transition to remote learning shows the “extraordinary lengths teachers have taken” to quickly change their method of delivery, using new forums and formats.

Their expertise and adaptability have “proven essential” as society responds to the coronavirus pandemic and school closure.

“I think that more than ever, parents understand the skills and abilities that a trained teacher brings to the learning environment every day and the difference it makes in the lives of their children,” Pfaff said. “I believe this will only enhance the calls to fairly compensate teachers for the extraordinary work they do every day, whether in a crisis or on a normal school day.”

Spradlin believes that while meaningful progress has occurred this year to improve low teacher pay in Indiana, continued progress will be “immensely challenging,” given the financial impact of the pandemic.

Student impact

The closing of schools and transition to remote learning has “upended the school year,” impacting testing, attendance, instruction and other factors, Spradlin said.

Also affected is service to vulnerable populations in such areas as food service, education plans for special needs students, equity of access issues and limitations to wireless internet and broadband access.

The abrupt change “has tested the capacity of school corporations to provide remote or e-learning,” Spradlin said.

“While school leaders and teachers are demonstrating timely and extraordinary leadership, prolonged or extensive remote or e-learning is a situation that was unimaginable and we are learning a great deal as we progress with our response to the pandemic,” Spradlin said.

Adam Baker, state Department of Education spokesman, said, “Our entire learning environment has changed across the state. Every school has transitioned to remote learning,” and that does pose challenges.

The state IDOE’s mission “is to ensure schools are prepped and ready to the best of their abilities ... and that they have the resources they need from us,” he said. IDOE has resources on its website.

Also, the state and federal government have provided flexibility to assist schools in their efforts. “We’re all learning together how to navigate this new environment,” Baker said.

Terry McDaniel, Indiana State University professor of educational leadership, said the pandemic and e-learning/remote learning have had positive aspects as well.

Educators have the opportunity to try new and creative ways to reach, and teach, students. They are using such tools as Zoom, Skype, YouTube and social media.

Many principals are posting videos giving students day-to-day updates and offering words of encouragement.

As a result of school-at-home, parents have a greater understanding of what a teacher’s job is like, McDaniel said.

But he has concerns, including parents who won’t support children with their remote or virtual learning.

Another is the loss of social contact and the opportunity for students to practice communication and social skills with teachers and other students. “Kids learn to get along with others” in school, he said.

Also, school is a safe haven for children who deal with trauma at home, such as abusive parents or other problems. “That’s what really scares me,” McDaniel said.

Students have missed out on spring extracurricular activities, and for high school seniors, that includes all the special activities that take place their last year of K-12. “There is a lack of closure,” McDaniel said.

He’s not as concerned about lost learning, although some high school students in more advanced classes might not get some of the instruction they otherwise would have received in school.

But at the elementary and middle school level, “I don’t think much is lost, just a little more catch-up for teachers as they start the next school year,” McDaniel said.

In Vigo County

The Vigo County School Corp. had no experience with remote learning until the pandemic forced curriculum leaders to come up with a plan, quickly.

“Our learning curve was steeper than those districts already engaged in some form of e-learning,” he said. The district does not yet have a 1:1 program, in which it provides each students with a device — although it will in future years.

Learning packets that went home with K-8 students do not require access to devices or internet, although students can do optional activities using devices.

“I think our folks did an outstanding job of preparing our district” for remote learning, Haworth said. The district has learned a lot, and May packets will be even stronger.

Long term, Haworth has questions about the pandemic’s implications for education. “Where does this somehow end and we get back to what is normal, if we will ever get back to a true what is normal,” he said.

Among the positives is witnessing the creativity, imagination, hard work and tenacity of district administrators, he said.

Also, area superintendents have worked closely with each other to share ideas and best practices, he said. He’s been in regular communication with about 20 area superintendents.

As the pandemic crisis has risen to the top of the priority list, others have taken a temporary backseat, including the timeline for a building program to address high school needs, Haworth said.

©2020 The Tribune-Star (Terre Haute, Ind.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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