America’s public education system was largely caught off guard as schools were forced by the sudden onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic to shut their doors and transition to distance learning over the past two months.

With the number of states keeping schools closed through the academic year rising as the projected length of quarantines and stay-at-home orders grow, many administrators continue to grapple with a number of challenges and unanswered questions: How will students in need of meal assistance receive food? What should count in regard to assignments? How can students lacking internet access, those with disabilities, and English learners continue to be served appropriately? Are milestone events like graduation and prom lost?

We reached out to superintendents and principals from several districts nationwide to find out how they’re addressing these issues and more. 

Consider students’ basic needs first

When the order came to shut schools down in Ohio, Middletown City School District Superintendent Marlon Styles said the first concern wasn’t whether staff could come up with educational activities for students. It was whether students’ basic needs could be met.

“It absolutely did shake us up,” Style said. “Our concern in a high-poverty urban environment was not having the daily contact and interaction with our students inside the walls of our schools.”

The district has roughly 6,400 students, with a 100% free and reduced-price lunch rate, Styles said. “For us, the first thing on that list was not to make sure e-learning was being taken care of. It was making sure our kids’ basic human needs are being met. Food was a big deal of that.”

Middletown’s food service and transportation departments are working, along with volunteers, to distribute an average of 4,500 meal bags containing a breakfast and lunch from 30 locations across the city, Monday through Friday. For health and safety reasons, they’ve had to scale back to two volunteers at each location. And while he’s working with health officials to keep the operation flowing, he said he’s losing more sleep every night as the potential for a call to halt due to safety concerns grows.

“That is a tough call for any leader or educator to have to shut down that type of service,” he said. “It’s a blessing right now that the health officials are considering it an essential service.”

In Nashville, Hunters Lane High School Executive Principal Susan Kessler feels similar pressure. Her community was already reeling from tornadoes that destroyed homes and upended lives in March. That “double whammy” has created a trying time for a city where families want to rebuild but now can’t because “the whole world is shut down.”

As a principal, Kessler said, “I’m able to just focus on how we’re going to help kids, because I don’t have the weight of those [larger] decisions [like shuttering or reopening schools] like superintendents do.”

On the meal service front, she said, the district “is offering, in addition to food boxes, two grab-and-go meals a day at select locations” to keep everybody under 18 eating. They’ve also been connecting with families on an individual basis to identify needs.

Grappling with equity and access

The past decade has seen many districts nationwide adopt a variety of tech-enhanced learning models with 1:1 device programs. But a transition to fully online remote learning is easier said than done, given that these models weren’t designed for that — nor were many teachers trained in distance learning.

“You can’t switch an entire way of work overnight and expect that everybody can do it,” Kessler said, noting that much of the assignments students are doing is really review work to try to keep them engaged and fresh-minded. “The business of teaching and learning is not something where you can say, ‘Now you can do this at the kitchen table and it’ll be the same experience,’ because it’s not.”

What “counts” and to what extent is up for debate in districts nationwide, especially when you factor in that even with these programs considered, many students from low-income families also lack home devices or internet access.

“The equity gap that exists in this country between the haves and have-nots is on center stage right now,” Styles said. “We’ve got kids across this country and here in Middletown who go home and don’t have access to Wi-Fi and maybe not even a device in their home. But right now across the country, we’re celebrating e-learning, virtual learning, whatever kind of learning you want to call it. It’s not an equitable model. I think it’s time we stand up and do something about it as a country.”

While internet providers like Spectrum are offering families 60 days of free Wi-Fi, Styles said the demand is so high in Middletown, where 18% of students lack home internet access, that the backlog is about two to two-and-a-half weeks to get the service, which is now around mid-April.

The same goes for mobile hotspots: With lots of people wanting to purchase them, the demand is higher than the supply, creating a logistical problem with inventory and pushing service out multiple weeks.

Access issues can be similarly amplified in rural districts where infrastructure for reliable broadband access still isn’t always completely built out in the community. In Fall Creek, Wisconsin, Superintendent Joe Sanfelippo said his district felt “relatively comfortable” because schools were spent some time ahead of shutdown doing a “remote learning” practice run in classrooms, identifying needs students had and troubleshooting issues. But while 90% of students in his district are now connected through home Wi-Fi or district-issue hot spots, the remaining 10% echoes a pain point felt by many districts in this transition.

With these needs in the spotlight, Styles added he’d like to see pressure remain on figuring out how to provide residential internet access for all students, not just during the pandemic, so they have the same opportunities.

Professional development and communication are critical

In Pennsylvania’s Parkland School District, Superintendent Richard Sniscak has dealt with many of the same remote learning challenges. He said the key to making the transition smoother has been remaining cognizant of teachers’ varying levels of professional development, and to ease into it with plenty of communication between district and school officials, educators and families. 

Up until spring break, which begins Thursday, Parkland educators have focused primarily on enrichment activities. After the break, regular planned instruction will begin, taking into consideration that family dynamics and challenges are different now.

“[Distance learning] professional development to date for us had been sporadic or limited at best, because we weren’t teaching in an online environment,” Sniscak said. “We were using technology to support education, more or less.”

The school day structure now has two meeting times built in for grade-level or content-area teachers to meet. It can be every day if they want, but participating at least once a week is mandatory for pacing and ensuring that everyone’s communicating the same message. Daily PD is also available.

“There are so many moving parts in this transition. No one person can possibly think of all the situations and hoops you have to jump through to make this work in a manageable, digestible form for students and families,” he added, noting also the importance of remaining connected to other superintendents in the state, as well as the state superintendent and governor’s offices in fulfilling continuity of education requirements.

A year of lost milestones

The loss of milestone events, particular those for high school seniors, is one of the most heartbreaking consequences of the pandemic. Sniscak said his district is holding out hope that prom can be rescheduled and take place in line with social distancing guidelines in place at the time. Kessler, however, said she has already had to cancel the event at her school in Nashville due to the logistics of catering, venues and the timetable for when graduates start college.

Graduation remains the challenge. Plans range from trying to reschedule it (which can be more difficult when a larger venue like an arena is used) to holding it in a smaller venue over several nights (making compliance with social distancing guidelines and crowd sizes more navigable) to holding the ceremony online.

“My heart goes out to the members of the class of 2020,” Styles said. “They’ve worked so hard their whole lives to have that magic moment where they walk across the stage.”

As for determining graduation requirements, many states have passed laws (like Ohio’s amended House Bill 197) increasing local control and allowing for flexibility during the pandemic.

“We will be as considerate as we need to be on an individual basis and make sure we’re being as fair as we possibly can,” Styles said, adding that it’s important to remember that it’s not students’ fault their school year was disrupted.

Be mindful of the stress on families

Administrators also urge educators to be mindful not to add to an already stressful situation when making assignments, given that many parents are also dealing with job loss and questions of how to pay the bills and meet their families’ needs in addition to being asked to serve as a direct guide in their children’s learning.

“We need to focus on caring about our kids and our teachers and our families first, and teaching them second,” Kessler said. “Teaching and learning will be able to bounce back from this situation. What we don’t want to do is add to the stress and the pressure families are already facing.”

You can’t ignore the challenges families, as well as you personally, are facing, and it’s normal to need time to adjust, she said. “Life was hard before this event happened. Now it’s incredibly difficult.”

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