As the unprecedented and distasteful final chapter of the 2019-20 school year comes to a close, district leaders now must turn their attention to what school will look like in August.
Tulsa-area superintendents have started preparing for the likelihood of more academic disruptions in 2020-21. The State Department of Education is urging schools to consider adjustments and plan contingencies for day-to-day operations in the event that distance learning must return in some capacity.
For Bixby Superintendent Rob Miller, there’s “very little doubt” that learning will be disrupted during the fall semester. He believes COVID-19 will inevitably pop up in schools without a vaccine or even a widespread treatment for the disease.
The question, Miller said, is how districts will plan for that disruption.
“We are definitely not out of the woods with this. We have finished up the school year, but from everything I’ve heard, COVID’s not going anywhere between now and August,” he said. “So we have to be responsible and proactive and do as much as we can to study the issue and make decisions for the start of school.”
Miller doesn’t know what Bixby’s plan will look like yet. That’s ultimately the decision of the school board. But he has suggested having a framework established by the middle of June. If distance learning is going to be involved, then teachers and administrators will need plenty of time to prepare.
The only certainty is that the distance learning model used to finish out this school year will not be acceptable next school year. Districts likely won’t have the luxury of ignoring grades and attendance. The goal can no longer be to stave off student learning loss.
“Looking ahead, the model would have to be dramatically different in that we would have to be focused on helping kids move forward academically and not just maintaining where they were,” Miller said.
The State Department of Education intends to issue detailed guidance and frameworks for schools to consider in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, the agency has released five potential calendar options that districts can implement to protect themselves from intermittent short-term and long-term disruptions in the fall.
One option calls for starting the school year early to minimize summer learning loss and maximize instruction time before a possible virus resurgence. Another involves developing an “intercessional calendar” with longer breaks through the year for additional flexibility.
The other three options are to extend times that schools are open for instruction, such as offering night or weekend classes; implement “distance learning days” and staggered or rotating in-person attendance; and adopt incremental start dates based on school sites or grade level to maximize social distancing.
Districts are advised to select multiple calendars for 2020-21, including one as a primary and others as contingencies.
Some districts, including Union Public Schools, are committed to begin the year with a parallel learning system, meaning they start off normally but quickly are able to transition to distance learning if needed.
Union Superintendent Kirt Hartzler said the idea is to prepare students and teachers for alternating between classroom and remote learning and enable them to succeed in either setting.
To make this possible, Union has purchased enough laptops to expand the district’s one-to-one technology initiative to kindergarten through 12th grade. Only high-schoolers previously received laptops to take home.
Hartzler considers this kind of preparation to be the new normal for public education.
“I think it’s shortsighted to say we’re going to start school in August and not have any disruptions because of COVID-19,” he said. “We don’t want there to be any learning loss, but we think we’re going to be in a better position with our staff members and teachers to have a plan in place so that if school is out for 10 days, we can do that. That flexibility, to me, is the benefit here. Is it ideal? No way. But it’s a viable option.”
Owasso Public Schools also is preparing for a traditional start to the school year with a backup plan in case of disruption. That could mean shutting down schools for a week or two. It could mean shutting them down for a lot longer.
Another possibility is to allow students who have COVID-19 or may be infected to continue instruction from home while everyone else continues from school.
The district will need to be ready for several scenarios to prevent a breakdown of instruction during the semester, Owasso Superintendent Amy Fichtner said. Teachers will be equipped with the skills and tools needed to implement distance learning at a moment’s notice.
“If we aren’t nimble, then we won’t be able to respond if and when that situation comes,” Fichtner said. “If it doesn’t come, if we go through all of the 2020-21 school year in a traditional mode, then we will still have enriched our instruction, and it’s a win-win for students.”
Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist said her district isn’t in a place right now to make decisions about the fall. Administrators hope to gain valuable insight in the next couple weeks on the future of COVID-19 in Oklahoma as businesses continue to reopen.
Additionally, TPS is studying what’s happening in other countries where schools have begun to transition back from remote learning, such as Denmark and New Zealand.
Gist assured that district officials are considering every option to come up with a comprehensive plan in addition to contingencies in anticipation of unexpected outcomes. At minimum, they must be prepared to close schools again and return to distance learning. She said it may be possible to shut down only the sites where cases have been confirmed instead of a district-wide stoppage.
“We hope to have our students back in person,” she said. “But we know even that will need to look different because we’ll need to have all the different kinds of health guidelines implemented.”
Jenks Public Schools also still is working on its framework for the fall, but Superintendent Stacey Butterfield said she wants to start the school year with as many as students and teachers in classrooms as possible.
Butterfield said it’s important to begin practicing guidelines and forming habits at the beginning so everyone is better prepared for switching to remote instruction later in the semester.
“Our idea is that if we are doing distance learning at different times during the school year,” she said, “then we will be able to continue to introduce new content and continue to advance through the curriculum and keep students moving forward.”
At the same time, Butterfield said she knows some families won’t be comfortable sending their kids to school due to the ongoing pandemic. Research surrounding COVID-19 constantly is evolving, she added, and officials still are learning new information about the disease every week. These factors and unknowns make it difficult to create definitive plans at this point.
But it’s clear that school in the fall needs to look a lot different than it did in the past two months, she said. It’s up to educators to figure out how to make that a reality.
“This is a heavy lift,” Butterfield said. “In an ideal world, you’d take a year to two years to build your framework and build your learning model before you launch virtual learning for an entire school, let alone an entire state. We don’t have that luxury of all that strategic planning and doing the research and identifying all the different practices from around the world. We’re having to work at an unprecedented speed to develop these models.”
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