Schools Scramble to Design Instructional Options for New School Year

COVID-19 Forces Changes to School Schedules

By Alfonzo Porter

Determining what the opening of schools may look like this fall, as the coronavirus continues to rage, has become the most urgent challenge for school leaders both locally and around the country.

As school leaders scramble to develop plans to accommodate teaching and learning for the upcoming school year, concern over the safety of students and staff remains understandably at center stage. Questions regarding social distancing, while aligning school processes with the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control, as well as, local and state health policies, are being considered carefully.

A few possible schedule designs are beginning to emerge. School system officials are contemplating a traditional opening of school or a hybrid model being touted widely across the Front Range. This schedule would feature part of the instructional time spent online and the other attending class in person; although the exact recipe has yet to unfold.

According to Aurora Public Schools Superintendent (APS) Rico Munn, his teams are working on all contingencies.

“We cannot forecast what the fall may bring as it relates to COVID-19,” he says. “We are working on a variation of models including a mix of face-to-face instruction and online learning. What is clear is that we will need to conduct wide spread assessment of the effectiveness of our online efforts as we close out this school year.”

Munn expressed concern about the impact an online only instructional strategy has had on student learning.

“Online learning is not ideal and academic outcomes will be affected,” he said. “However, I think we responded quickly and effectively to the crisis but there was no avoiding this change.”

The district, like most others, was suddenly faced with a number of logistical challenges in the wake of the sudden need to shutter the school house doors and, almost overnight, implement plans to provide a continuity of learning across its 65 schools with more than 40,000 students.

Given the vast differences in socio-economic conditions of many students in the system, ensuring that all students had access to a computer and high speed internet was one of the primary hurdles.

“We were able to provide more than 18,000 Chromebooks to our students,” Munn says. “It was also helpful for Comcast to launch an initiative to provide free internet access to students in need.”

The Comcast program titled Comcast Internet Essentials was announced on March 13 and extends through June 30 to ensure that students “can finish their school year from home and remain connected to the internet during the COVID-19 crisis.”

“As our country continues to manage the COVID-19 emergency, we recognize that our country plays an important role in helping our customers stay connected – to their families, their workplaces, their schools and the latest information about the virus – through the internet,” according to the company’s website. “The hallmark of our program is to allow for flexibility in adjusting Internet Essentials to meet the needs of low-income families.”

Yet, another obstacle has been communicating to families in the widely diverse languages represented among its students.

“At this moment, we are communicating in the 10 most prominently used languages of our students,” Munn says. “We are using a number of methods from emails, social media, our district website, and through a series of programmed phone calls from the district to all families.”

Although parents have generally been impressed with how quickly schools moved to change course, there are still concerns about student progress and the amount of academic rigor stemming from online learning.

“The school district has been very informative and communicative as they made the adjustments once schools were mandated to close,” says a Denver parent who asked not to be identified. “They did a great job in adapting to the crisis and the grading system they put in place seems fair.

However, she believed that the workload was reduced far too much to keep students engaged.

“I have a 9th grader and an 11th grader and my concerns are that there is not enough teacher/student interaction online. The lessons are largely recorded on video with students asked to complete work by week’s end and summer,” she said. “It’s too much like hitting the easy button. It is certainly not like being in school for a full day. As a parent, I feel short changed and wonder whether my children are falling behind scholastically and not really prepared to move to the next grade.”

While she does not blame the school system, she believes that more could be done to enhance the process if schools move into the fall with virtual learning as a result of the pandemic.

“I would love to see more face to face time with the teacher on the online platforms like Zoom or Microsoft Teams. I think they could abide by a modified schedule where students can interact more with their teachers. It would keep students, like my son, more disciplined and focused.”

In the event that schools open on a traditional schedule, districts may be required to ensure social distancing through flexible schedules, modified one-way hallway traffic patterns and a limited number of students in classrooms. They may also need to consider opening windows to allow for more fresh air or placing limits on sharing supplies and equipment.

Perhaps the greatest challenge may be implementing some type of coronavirus screening procedure and providing PPE (personal protective equipment) such as masks for each student. However, questions remain over whether districts can require students to wear masks, or should it be simply a suggestion?

Still, will there be appropriate procedures for testing students for coronanvirus and what might those requirements look like?

“We are currently working with the Tri-County Health Department to work through potential plans,” says the APS superintendent.

According to Munn, his teams are seeking input from all community stakeholders as the system continues to strategize over the summer.

Nonetheless, for teachers there are even further concerns.

According to classroom teacher, LaQuane Smith, there is a bigger elephant in the room for him.

Smith, who works largely with immigrant students, is concerned that there is little attention paid to the fact that many immigrant students and parents need a lot more support navigating the requirements of online learning.

“As educators, we have neglected to provide the basic training for both students and parents on how to use this technology,” he says. “It’s great that the districts are providing computers and companies like Comcast are providing free internet but who’s teaching them how to use it?”

Smith continued, “In my experience, parents, particularly many immigrant parents, lack the tech savvy to assist their children in following the directions and assignment requirements that are needed to be successful with learning online. If the students have questions about how to use their Chromebook or how to submit, edit, or make corrections to their work, parents are not in a position to provide that needed help.”

He recommends a series of training modules, specifically designed for parents who need a basic understanding of how the technology works.

“Parents are the key to the student’s success online,” Smith insists. “Virtual learning requires self-discipline, time management skills and a meta-cognitive awareness of the academic requirements. If we can figure out a way to provide training for parents, we’ll go a long way in helping families experience more success during this time. There is a steep learning curve that we seem to have failed to acknowledge.”

Smith reports that it is not just immigrant student and parents who are having problems with the technology.

“Some of my best students are not turning in assigned work,” he says. “There are clearly several layers to moving to online learning. We must find ways to fill the gaps moving into the new school year this fall. Along with changing schedules, we need to look at changing expectations.”

Denver Public Schools may be on the right track with a parent technology survey launched this spring. The instrument is designed to help better understand whether families are prepared to implement remote learning at home. It also seeks to determine what additional resources each family might need in order to augment their current in-home technology.

Regardless of the specific path that districts adopt this fall, the pandemic is clearly a turning point when it comes to what role that technology will play in the education of America’s students in the future.

The American Federation of Teachers suggests that learning should continue to occur online while districts institute their scheduling options. The plans must consider that schools will operate both online and in person. This truth means that school systems will need to make large investments in equipment, materials, teacher and parent training programs, as well as, connectivity for students in the long term.

The larger question remains, will all students be able to keep pace academically in this new educational reality? Most leaders might agree that significant assessment of student learning will need to occur. Obviously, students will experience learning loss, social loss and emotional issues stemming from isolation. Additionally, the national increase of reported domestic abuse cases causes concern for student safety while sequestered at home.

Schools are being called upon to help address a myriad of concerns resulting from the pandemic including ensuring that students have enough to eat. Many systems are being used as food distribution centers. Now questions are arising as to whether schools can assist with mental health, housing insecurity, and helping to access social services, as an unprecedented number of parents is experiencing unemployment.

Then there is the matter of transportation. It is an illustration of how completely difficult it might be to re-open schools. It may prove to be impossible to solve issues such as social distancing on a school bus. A system would potentially need to operate two or three times as many busses to accomplish getting students to school.

But the ultimate concern for parents, teachers, and school system leadership is the risk of spreading the virus. The chances of children getting sick while at school is almost a given. With predictions from health officials about a second wave or spike in coronavirus cases right at about the time that schools are preparing to open in the fall, many school leaders are a bit unnerved.

If a child or teacher catches COVID-19 while at school, most will likely place the blame squarely at the feet of the school system. Now, in addition to the barrage of other issues, comes the potential for legal action.

With pressure building from the White House to harried parents all over the country, the anxiety around opening schools could not be more intense.

“While we don’t know what it will look like come fall, we will be delivering instruction come August,” says APS Superintendent Munn.