Schools face chal­lenge of ed­u­cat­ing while closed

The Kansas City Star - - Front Page - BY MARÁ ROSE WIL­LIAMS md­williams@kc­star.com

One day af­ter schools were or­dered closed in Kansas, the prin­ci­pal at Olathe’s Heather­stone Ele­men­tary was al­ready miss­ing stu­dents.

So she got on Face­book and made a video of her­self read­ing a fa­vorite chil­dren’s story, “There Was an Old Lady Who Swal­lowed a Fly.”

It’s the kind of teacher-stu­dent con­nec­tion par­ents are likely to see hap­pen­ing for the rest of the school year.

The scale and speed of the school clo­sures, this week alone, rep­re­sent an un­prece­dented chal­lenge for lo­cal and na­tional ed­u­ca­tors and par­ents.

Schools around the coun­try, and in Mis­souri and Kansas, are rac­ing to ed­u­cate them­selves on how to de­liver dis­tance learn­ing along with how to feed thou­sands of food-chal­lenged chil­dren spread across their dis­tricts.

Com­pli­cat­ing ef­forts is the in­equity in stu­dents’ ac­cess to com­put­ers and high-speed in­ter­net and the re­spon­si­bil­ity of ed­u­ca­tors to meet state stan­dards for test­ing, grad­u­a­tion and class time.

In the Kansas City area on the Mis­souri side, schools are closed un­til April 6, and no one is cer­tain if those clo­sures will be ex­tended.

In Kansas on Tues­day, Gov. Laura Kelly, with guid­ance from the state’s Sec­re­tary of Health and En­vi­ron­ment Lee A. Nor­man, an­nounced that all school build­ings in the state, pub­lic and pri­vate, would close for the re­main­der of the school year. That ac­tion left school lead­ers scram­bling to fig­ure out what ed­u­ca­tion will look like for stu­dents and teach­ers for roughly the next two months.

A task force of about 45 of the state’s best ed­u­ca­tors has been

work­ing on a plan that was set to go to Com­mis­sioner of Ed­u­ca­tion Randy Wat­son on Wed­nes­day evening.

These teach­ers are charged with “re­build­ing what teach­ing and learn­ing will look like; rewrit­ing in three days how we will de­liver pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion in Kansas,” said Mar­cus Baltzell, spokesman for the Kansas Na­tional Ed­u­ca­tion As­so­ci­a­tion. “They are en­gaged in the high­est form of learn­ing — tak­ing fac­tors un­der cer­tain cir­cum­stances and mak­ing some­thing new.”

Baltzell, who is an ad­viser to the task force, said mem­bers are work­ing around the clock to com­plete the new ed­u­ca­tion guide. “I can get up at 2 a.m., and last night I did, and get on Google docs and see them there writ­ing,” Baltzell said.

“It is true in­no­va­tion,” he said. “This new coron­avirus has dis­rupted the ed­u­ca­tion mar­ket­place dra­mat­i­cally. If you think about Kansas ed­u­ca­tion just three weeks ago, well, we will never be back there again.”

He said he ex­pects the new frame­work to “be strong but not per­fect.” It will be used by school lead­ers to cre­ate a plan that works for the stu­dent and fac­ulty de­mo­graph­ics of their district.

In the mean­time dis­tricts are telling par­ents they don’t have an­swers yet.

“We are still work­ing through im­por­tant is­sues re­lated to this clos­ing and what it looks like,” said an email sent Wed­nes­day to par­ents from the Olathe school district.

“We are in un­charted wa­ters,” said Mike Berblinger, pres­i­dent of the Kansas School Su­per­in­ten­dents’ As­so­ci­a­tion.

What is known, Berblinger said, is “se­niors will grad­u­ate but cer­e­monies are up in the air,” be­cause of a na­tional or­der lim­it­ing gath­er­ings to no more than 10 peo­ple. And “un­less that changes, and I don’t see that hap­pen­ing, proms won’t hap­pen ei­ther.

“That is the heart­break­ing part for se­niors; a lot of sport­ing events and other ac­tiv­i­ties are can­celed,” Berblinger said. “It’s pretty rough for se­niors and par­ents. It is a dif­fi­cult loss and it is real.”

As for how teach­ers in Kansas will teach, Berblinger said school lead­ers so far have been given three op­tions for teach­ers to stay con­nected with stu­dents:

Teach face to face in

● small groups of 10 or fewer.

Mail pack­ets of in­for­ma­tion

● to stu­dents.

En­gage in some form ● of on­line learn­ing

“A lot will fall on par­ents be­cause they will have more re­spon­si­bil­ity,” he said, to make sure stu­dents are stay­ing en­gaged.

In dis­tricts in Mis­souri, ed­u­ca­tors say dis­tance learn­ing will vary depend­ing on stu­dent needs and range from high-tech al­ter­na­tives like real-time video classes to a hy­brid of lower-tech op­tions, in­clud­ing lessons sent via email, to pack­ets of work­sheets mailed to a stu­dent’s home.

“It will de­pend on the district be­cause some dis­tricts have lap­tops in every kid’s hands and then there are some dis­tricts where as much as 30% of the stu­dents don’t even have in­ter­net ac­cess,” said Jaret Tom­lin­son, deputy su­per­in­ten­dent in the Ex­cel­sior Springs school district.

The teach­ing, Tom­lin­son said, “is not go­ing to look like you’re in a reg­u­lar class­room ex­cept you are at home.” It will in­stead be more “gen­eral rec­om­men­da­tions, not hard and fast do this on this day at this time.” And in­struc­tion will be geared to­ward grade and abil­ity level of each of the 3,000 stu­dents in his district.

For ex­am­ple, he said, a teacher may send an email or in­clude in a pa­per packet in­struc­tions more like “write a fic­tional story about some­thing in your house,” for a fifth-grade stu­dent. Or, for a mid­dle or high school stu­dent with in­ter­net ac­cess, they might say, “Take an on­line tour of a mu­seum then write a syn­op­sis of what you saw.”

The tasks stu­dents do “don’t count as school days,” Tom­lin­son said. “We are do­ing this to help stu­dents stay cur­rent and to try and give par­ents some struc­ture and sup­port. I’m not get­ting rev­enue for these days.”

And, he said, stu­dents and par­ents shouldn’t worry about whether the work they do is pre­par­ing them to take state stan­dard­ized tests. “I don’t think we will have tests,” Tom­lin­son said.

He’s not wor­ried about how not test­ing will might im­pact how dis­tricts are mea­sured down the road. “I don’t think how kids test has any im­pact on what is go­ing on in the world,” he said, adding that it’s more im­por­tant that stu­dents un­der­stand the civic re­spon­si­bil­ity they have un­der the cir­cum­stances. “Maybe this cir­cum­stance will en­lighten us about ed­u­ca­tion go­ing for­ward.”

While most of the na­tion’s house­holds with school-age chil­dren do have broad­band in­ter­net, ac­cord­ing to a New York Times re­port, many low­in­come fam­i­lies rely pri­mar­ily on smart­phones for in­ter­net ac­cess. Those chil­dren can­not use the kind of learn­ing soft­ware needed to com­plete course work on­line.

“It would be a chal­lenge for us be­cause of eq­uity and ac­cess to Wi-Fi,” said Kelly Wachel, spokes­woman for Kansas City Pub­lic Schools, where nearly 100% of stu­dents re­ceive free or re­duced-price lunch. “We don’t have a way to give all our stu­dents ac­cess.”

Also chal­leng­ing dis­tricts is mak­ing sure the stu­dents are not go­ing hun­gry while they stay con­nected with their ed­u­ca­tion.

Plans are de­vel­op­ing across both states to get food to stu­dents every day that they would have been in school.

In Kansas City, food ser­vice work­ers have dis­trib­uted more than 15,000 meals in the last two days.

Each district is post­ing on web­sites de­tails about how to get food. Schools are hand­ing out sack lunches at des­ig­nated lo­ca­tions so par­ents can pick them up. And in the Kansas City district, some meals are be­ing de­liv­ered right to the doors of fam­i­lies in need.

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