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Rebuilding America: Sudden shift to distance learning prompts area schools to address new needs, challenges

Michael Smith
msmith@ardmoreite.com

After a mad dash to finish the 2019-2020 school year, educators are already gearing up for a busy summer as they prepare for a new school year while society continues to deal with the effects of a COVID-19 pandemic. Lessons from the shift out of classrooms have taught area schools to expect more technology-based education, but concerns remain about how students will be impacted by such drastic changes.

Many schools had already invested in resources that are proving beneficial during the global shutdown, but none were entirely prepared for the challenges that ensued with the spread of the virus in Oklahoma. While students are able to deal with the rapidly changing world without the added responsibility of regular classes this summer, their teachers will likely be doing extra preparation for the upcoming school year.

TECHNOLOGICAL RESOURCES

One important lesson from the recent school closures has been the necessity of technology and connectivity. Administrators from area school districts have said that reliance on internet resources was highlighted in the final weeks of the school year.

Catching up with technological needs was relatively easy for some schools. Plainview Public Schools has been issuing laptop computers to middle and high school students for several years. Plainview Middle School Principal Tim Parham said his school system was very proactive in acquiring technology even before the pandemic, which resulted in an education culture that utilizes digital platforms like Edmodo or Google Classrooms.

Plainview Middle School students go through what Parham called a “little boot camp” during the second week of each school year to get set up on the platforms. As a result, Plainview Middle School students are very familiar with how to connect with teachers and fellow students in a given class.

“Every year during our faculty meetings, especially when we have new faculty members, we really talk about the importance of engaging our kids digitally and using Edmodo or Google Classrooms,” Parham said.

Other schools will have some catching up to do technologically but not for a lack of wanting. Dickson Public Schools Superintendent Jeff Colclasure said growing the distance learning method of education was something his staff had already been exploring even before the pandemic.

“We wanted to look at blended learning, particularly at the secondary level, so we’ve used this as an opportunity to do that,” he said.

The rural setting of Dickson schools means students and even teachers live in areas where high-speed internet access is limited. The district in May was allotted more than $200,000 in federal aid to help offset costs incurred with implementing distance learning in response to COVID-19. Colclasure said connectivity for students and teachers would be a top priority with the additional resources.

Even though technology can directly help connect students with their teachers outside of a traditional classroom, Lincoln Elementary School Principal Lacy Barton said technology was vital in keeping up with students and parents during the closure. Text messaging apps, emails, social media and the school’s website all became vital tools of communication.

Barton said that regular communication was an important part of distance learning so parents could pick up the education where teachers had to leave off. “We didn’t want our families to feel like they needed to teach new information, (we) just wanted to keep the momentum,” she said.

EXTENDED SUMMER SLIDE

A student’s momentum as they move through their education is always expected to slow during the summer months, something often referred to as the “summer slide” for students. Educators seemed to know early in the school closure that students this summer would experience an extended slide.

“They’re going to typically lose a little bit over the summer, but this is somewhat of an extended summer,” Barton said. “We planned short-term of what we need to do to finish out the year, but we’re looking long-term, too.”

At Dickson, staff also knew they would have to act fast if they wanted to contain the extended summer slide and Colclasure expected formal planning among teachers and principals to begin in mid May. Teachers are already accustomed to catching up at the beginning of each school year, but Colclasure said a challenge will be catching up from the two months after spring break.

“We’ve already started talking about defining what skills we think they will have missed completely in the last parts of this year and making sure we’re working on those as we transition forward,” he said.

Student engagement is something educators have tried to maintain even before distance learning. Barton said participation with her elementary students in the final weeks of the school year was actually higher than expected. Where colleagues had told her of other elementary sites experiencing 80% to 85% engagement rates, all but two of her students were in touch with the school early in the school closure.

Parham was fairly pleased with his middle school students’ engagement and estimated about 89% of students were actively engaged in most of their classes. He said another 11% were barely engaged, if at all, and worried those numbers would slip as summer neared.

“We knew that we needed to become more engaged just to maintain that 65% we already have, try to gain back that 24% that’s hit-or-miss, and then that 11% has been very difficult for us,” he said. “That one’s been tough. I’m kind of discouraged.”

MOVING ON UP

The final weeks of a school year are important not only for students but for parents as well. End-of-the-year tours normally provide the opportunity for families to learn what the following year will hold for students moving from elementary to middle school, or middle to high school.

For Lincoln Elementary School fifth grade students, a field trip to Ardmore Middle School and a parent orientation night were canceled. Barton said families that have already sent a child to Ardmore Middle School should be fairly prepared but first-time middle school families may have a difficult time with the transition.

Transitioning students at Dickson schools are also being considered as preparations for the next school year get underway. Colclasure said he has already been fielding suggestions from staff members, including one possibility of students returning briefly to classes that were abruptly moved out of the classroom during spring break.

INDIRECT EFFECTS OF CORONAVIRUS

Beyond the academic side of education, administrators are also concerned about the social and emotional toll that the coronavirus-related closures have had on students.

“I think at the middle school, it’s more than just A-B-Cs and one-two-threes. I think that we have to learn all those social skills as well,” Parham said. “I believe that we need to maintain teaching them proper social interaction and keeping them engaged socially with one another.”

Dickson schools started investing in the mental wellbeing of students months before classrooms were closed. Last year the district hired a behavioral interventionist and launched a pilot program to address childhood trauma among students.

Along with the targeted resource, Colclasure said the Dickson community of teachers, parents and students has rallied to look out for each other. Not only are teachers concerned about some students, but students are contacting teachers if there are any concerns about a fellow classmate.

“That’s caused those teachers to then reach out to the parents or reach out to the kids directly,” Colclasure said. “This has thrown everybody off their game … this has affected teachers, it’s affected the adults in the process. It’s affected us, so you can imagine what it’s done to the kids.”

According to Barton, the youngest students are having a hard time dealing with the odd changes to everyday life. She noted that entire families have changed routines that could be adding stress, but said a balance between honesty and protection is important.

“You want to teach them but you don’t want to overwhelm them,” she said.