How are state schools faring in pandemic? Leaders discuss realities of reaching students

High school graduation ceremonies are among the issues to be resolved by many public school districts in the face of the extended school closure in Delaware.

When students eventually head back to their classrooms, the implications of the unexpected months-long closure could have reverberating effects on their education.

In a press conference Friday, Gov. John Carney clarified that, based on the guidance from national health officials, it would be unlikely schools would reopen before the end of the school year; however, that decision hasn’t been made.

“We don’t have enough information to make that decision today. We have regular communication with superintendents and they’re eager for a decision there and I know parents across our state are as well,” he said. “We will encourage schools, as they are, to remain focused on remote learning and making sure that students are getting as much instruction as possible while our schools are not in physical session.”

For many districts in the state, remote learning is already underway. What each district is doing, however, runs the gamut.

“Each local education agency, district or charter, has decided upon a path that will take students in that particular system forward,” said Secretary Susan Bunting at a state board of education meeting earlier this month. “There’s great variation in the plans.”

The Delaware Department of Education asked each district to provide a description of what they were planning to do to cover their students’ needs.

Some districts, she said, gave plenty of detail. Others were more general, with links to resources already created.

“It varies district by district. We have to trust superintendents that … that particular plan is being enacted in each of the districts,” she said. “The overall idea is that we must be ready for their return to school in September and be ready for the next grade.”

Longterm remote learning?

Gary Henry, dean of the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Delaware, said this long-term break students are experiencing isn’t a one-to-one comparison with learning loss that may occur during the summer.

“I don’t think it will be similar to the summer learning loss, or summer slide, in that there have been dramatic steps taken in the last few weeks by teachers and principals across the state to connect with the students remotely,” he said.

That availability of resources and user-friendly design contrasts to the “very little structured programming for the students” during summer breaks.

The losses that occur during that time are primarily skills that require consistent practice, he said, such as computational skills, grammar and punctuation.

“It’s unlikely to affect comprehension as much as it would the more basic skills, and a lot of writing skills are in that area,” he said.

While there’s been a great push to keep students actively learning while they’re away from school, a variety of circumstances can impact how much a student can engage in the material.

“I think the concern will be whether or not we’ve been able to connect with all of the students, and whether we can make the access to these materials equitable in the process so we’re not just increasing existing disparities,” Dr. Henry added. “But that’s front and center on the mind of educators all over Delaware, all over the country.”

Atnre Alleyne, founding executive director of Delaware Campaign for Achievement Now, pointed to that gap during the state board’s meeting.

“There will be certain students that might be fine and their parents can adapt and adjust, but for the large number of students, specifically low-income students and students of color, this is devastating for them,” he said. “This will have a huge impact on their future outcomes.”

He also pushed back on the reliance of review materials being utilized by many during the closure.

In a separate interview, he said, “I think that is something that is a concern for us, understanding that this is a massive challenge, but we are seeing districts that are figuring it out, how to kind of move forward.”

He said that his organization has looked at the plans put forth by public school districts and charters throughout the state.

DelawareCAN’s report, released Friday, found that of the 19 school district plans that were reviewed, “only 10 expect their teachers to deliver real-time or recorded teaching to support students while learning at home. In contrast, in 17 of the 21 charter school plans DelawareCAN reviewed, there is an expectation of real-time or recorded teaching while schools are shut down.”

All charter schools plan to teach new content, the report continues, while seven of the 19 districts have announced plans to teach new content during the extended closure.

Mr. Alleyne said his organization has been “calling out this idea of anything is better than nothing.”

“We fundamentally reject that, ‘Oh well, we’re giving you something. We’re giving you packets,’” he said. “Our organization, and others that we’re rallying, want the system to say, ‘What are your rights right now? What can you expect? What kind of minimum level expectation, and what does great remote learning look like? And if we don’t believe we can deliver great, what are the constraints we’re dealing with?’”

How to get back on track

Beyond moving to a variety of remote learning formats, the state — like many across the country — applied to the U.S. Department of Education for state test waivers. That could be a double-edged sword, however.

While tests are certainly controversial, “they do provide a very important source of data for many of the teachers that’s comparable so they can look at students in relationship to other students and figure out where the disparities are they need to address,” Dr. Henry said.

He said there are a lot of ways to carry out assessments.

“The decision, I think, school districts will need to consider is whether they want to do more systematic assessment, by grade, across all the teachers or whether they’ll support the teachers in doing assessments for their own purposes,” he said.

For higher education, Dr. Henry said the university is beginning to talk about having a math refresher course at the beginning of the year for college freshmen. He said it would be more involved than usual, as a way to help build up the skills that may be rusty.

“I think it’s going to step down into the K-12 environment, where there will be structures put into place in the first two or three weeks of the year to try to really focus in on key skills that they were previously able to count on or to have good information about individual students from the prior year,” he said.

With that information lacking this year, he said, a period of assessment and support will be necessary to “get students more evenly to the place where they need to be to move on.”

While many schools had a significant portion of their academic year completed by the time schools were moved to remote learning in mid-March, Dr. Henry said many college-bound seniors are likely completing their most advanced courses, “and the skills that they’re gaining are going to be tapped immediately when they get to college,” he said.

“This is similar to the circumstances that go on across the K-12 environment, … but I think we’re going to have to give them some really careful thought and develop plans for how we’re going to address it within the confines of a 16-week semester that we have at the collegiate level,” he said.

Mr. Alleyne pointed to the fact that approximately 41% of Delaware high school graduates require remediation when they enter higher education in Delaware colleges and universities. (That statistic comes from a 2017 college success report, released by the Delaware Department of Education.)

“There are inequities in the system — specifically black and Latino students, those numbers are even worse in terms of college readiness,” he said.

He said an idea that surfaces a lot is the fact it’s only a short period of time that schools are closed.

“That is major for the students that weren’t already maybe getting the highest quality instruction or the highest rigor of curriculum,” he said. “That [41% of remediation] was the status quo. And now we’re saying, ‘Even if you do the best job with online learning, it’s a step down from what you had before.’ And then we know some places aren’t doing the best job of online learning right now. What does that mean for seniors that are graduating?”

Connecting in the interim

Mr. Alleyne commended the districts for proactive steps to close the digital divide for students and families, the ability to get food to families in need and accessibility to counseling services remotely.

He added, though, in DelawareCAN’s review of remote learning plans, they did not see enough plans for educators or administrators reaching out to students and families.

“For all the talk about equity, we know in any setting — college, high school — if you just wait for people to show up, certain people that have more self efficacy, more capacity, more awareness, they’re going to be the ones that take advantage, and the others are going to fall through the cracks,” he said.

He cited a district in Arizona that promised to call all 30,000 students; likewise a district in New York City had a similar goal for its thousands of students.

“Those are the kind of going out and above and beyond in a moment of crisis; we’d like to see more of that in the plans as well,” he said.

Some of those connections are happening; Dr. Henry said that, in talking with those who run the university’s Early Learning Center and Laboratory Preschool, they are finding through technology they’re connecting with a broader group of parents.

“Maybe there are techniques there that can help other childcare settings learn from to create better, more cohesive relationships between the parents, their children and the teachers in these schools,” he said.

The way to do that, he added, is to work together across the state.

“This is an area where having groups like the Department of Education working on this and then making it available across the state, rather than having individual districts, or even teachers, recreate the wheel and maybe not be aware of some of the great things that are going on,” he said.

However, working broadly has its drawbacks — namely, speed.

“We need to make sure that we’re not letting our interest in being broad and national in scope really stand as a barrier to being nimble and quick about getting these resources into the classroom,” he said.

Patrik Williams, superintendent of Smyrna School District, said that principals are working with teachers for daily interaction with families.

The district has approximately 5,800 students, he said. Of those students, the district has engaged 94%, or 5,450, through regular class or small group instruction, video engagement on an individual level, personal email communication or personal phone, he said.

“For the remaining 350 or so, our schools teams of administrators, interventionists and teachers continue to make calls or email or try virtual ‘home visits’ if possible,” he said in an email.

Mr. Williams said a number of things have kept the district from contacting those families: disconnected phone numbers, families have moved without sharing a new address or not accessing online resources or picking up hard copy packets.

He said the district has packets available at each school, outside the entrance. It has also worked to get more than 400 devices to families in need and is working to get extra WiFi access at three schools so families can access it in the parking lots.

Caesar Rodney Superintendent Kevin Fitzgerald said participation and numbers of contact grow each day. As of Friday, the district had had contact with all but 65 students, out of 8,000 in the district, he said.

The district is continuing to reach out to families and students who have not participated in online lessons or picked up paper-and-pencil packets, he added.

“We have provided over 1,200 chrome books to students and approximately 225 paper-pencil packets,” he said.

Like others, the district is seeking to fill the internet void. Administration is working with Comcast and Verizon to provide internet for families in need, and has also turned school parking lots into internet hotspots. Milford and Indian River are among districts that have done the same.

Of its nearly 7,000 students, there are less than 500 families in the Capital School District that the administration hasn’t been able to reach, said Superintendent Dan Shelton.

Within that number, Dr. Shelton said some of those people have been contacted but not at great length.

“We’ve kind of moved beyond: do we know where they are, to who’s actively engaged with us for learning?” he said.

Dr. Shelton noted that the biggest issue causing the difficulty in contact is transiency.

For instance, he said, school officals found that three students had moved to another state hours away to be with their father, while their mother worked in Delaware.

“That’s the kind of stuff going on,” he said.

He added that a lot of families are lacking a solid phone number. While they can get in touch with the district, sometimes the district can’t get back in touch.

As for reliable internet, he said their population is down to 5 to 6% of families without connection.

Other districts didn’t share numbers, but wrote that contacting families was a top priority.

Bridget Amory, director of student learning, said Milford School District is gathering data on who they have — or haven’t been able to contact.

“I can assure you that our staff is diligently working to connect with families whether it is online, via phone, or delivery of materials to their homes,” she wrote in an email.

Lilian Miles, a spokeswoman for Appoquinimink School District, said all students have been contacted multiple times.

“Knowing that our goal was to begin new learning on March 30, we asked teachers to make an initial contact with all their students at least one time before that date,” she wrote in an email.

Through that, the district identified families that didn’t have electronic learning devices, which the district then provided.

“By the end of last week, 99% of our students had a device and could participate in online learning — something we’re proud about,” she said. “And MiFi devices just came in, so we’re hoping to eliminate the internet coverage issues that have plagued the remaining 1%.”

She added that there are “daily virtual interactions between teachers and their classes.”

“At the secondary level, daily activities and/or assignments — one for each class — are linked to attendance,” she said. “Those students who cannot participate in online learning continue to have access to learning packets that mirror the online assignments, and schools have assigned a member of their staff team to make weekly contact with this group of children.”

A time for innovation

Dr. Henry said he’s in the fifth year of a long-term research project in North Carolina. After a hurricane, several schools were underwater and had to move students or deploy remote learning.

“I think there are isolated examples that have come about as a result of extreme weather that we can begin to learn from, to some extent,” he said. “We really don’t have a precedent for the abrupt departure from school and then the period where we have to maintain physical distance between the students and had to use technology to the extent we’re having to now.”

That lack of precedence means a little guess work, but Dr. Henry said people seem to be adapting quickly.

“In discussions with the DDOE, I think these kinds of conversations are already going and people are starting to think about how to bring us out of this even stronger and better than we started,” he said.

Dr. Henry said he and faculty who work directly with teachers and principals at the K-12 level are focused on the use of technology in classrooms.

“We will try to see if there are effective ways to integrate technology into the regular classroom in more creative and substantial ways that may help us to speed up the learning process for students,” he said.

“I’ve been talking with other folks in the state about: how do we spread the word on capitalizing on some of the great successes that we’ll see from the instruction in the online environment during the next couple of months?” Dr. Henry said.

Mr. Alleyne said this is a moment for innovation, and “a perfect time for educators that have greater expertise on online teaching or technology,” he said.

“I don’t know if the system will ever go back to what it was,” he said. “I mean it’s going to go back to buildings, but it’s going to be new. There’s certain things that we can’t put back in the bottle.”

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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