Umatilla School District staff have been working on rotating four-hour shifts to prepare supplemental learning for students while maintaining social distancing guidelines. (Photo courtesy of Umatilla School District)
Students may be finishing this school year at home, the state schools chief warned late Monday while releasing an awaited guide for providing education during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We ...foresee the strong possibility that our students may not come back through our school house doors this academic year,” wrote Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Colt Gill in an email to superintendents and principals. “This calls for a shift from providing supplementary education to a formidable effort to provide Distance Learning for All.”
The guidance lays out shared expectations and provides tools and sample plans for distance learning. It directs schools to have a plan in place by April 13. Questions from concerned parents and teachers far outnumber answers right now, but ODE said this is just the first in a series of updates. Many decisions, from technology choices and grading options to senior graduation ceremonies, will depend on just how long schools stay closed.
On March 17, Gov. Kate Brown ordered schools closed through April 28. Executive order 20-08 said continued state school funding was dependent upon providing supplemental student education.
ODE has been working with administrators and education advocates, including OSBA, to define what that looks like.
Oregon’s school districts have widely varying capacities for offering distance instruction. Some schools can easily reach every student while others face hurdles of poverty, wide geographic areas and limited internet access. Some districts have been planning to set up supplemental activities by this week, while others are well on their way to offering schoollike lessons.
Even the best-prepared schools face serious logistical hurdles to go from homework packets and online activities to remotely teaching lessons, and they have been waiting for ODE to tell them what they can and should do.
“We’re working closely with ODE and our other education partners to ensure that students are receiving equitable learning opportunities this school year,” OSBA Executive Director Jim Green said. “Even with buildings closed we need to find ways to keep our kids from falling behind.”
The guidance says distance learning is not just about online education and may, in fact, include a blend of other modes, such as phone calls and paper packets. The state emphasizes that the new approach depends on teachers directly interacting with their students.
Educators and parents have especially worried about how schools will be able to provide equity for students who need language supports, special education services or other accommodations.
ODE advises schools to provide a Free Appropriate Public Education and to implement individualized education programs “to the maximum extent possible.” Schools must still comply with federal and state civil rights laws, the guidance says.
Educators will need to work with students and families to create routines and set up learning environments. Adult participation in the home will be crucial with the youngest learners. Loss of school experiences shouldn’t mean students lose connections, relationships and a sense of belonging, the guidance says.
The guidance reminds educators to be mindful of the stresses students and families are facing. The guidance includes maximum suggested teacher-led learning times, ranging from 45 minutes for K-1 to 3 hours a day for grades 6-12.
Teachers will be expected to track students’ progress, and schools will be able to offer flexible opportunities to earn credits. ODE said it plans to seek an instructional hours requirement adjustment. Oregon has already received a waiver for federal standardized testing requirements.
Credit-earning options for high school students can be the same as in brick-and-mortar schools, including completing coursework, passing exams, demonstrating skills and offering work samples. ODE said additional guidance for pathways for graduates in 2020 and 2021 is “forthcoming.”
Tigard-Tualatin Superintendent Sue Rieke-Smith said earlier Monday that schools and ODE will need to examine the state standards and define the core needs at all levels.
“You basically strip down the Cadillac lesson you would have taught between now and June and get down to the bare bones,” she said.
Schools will also need to prep teachers during the summer to help students catch up in the fall, Rieke-Smith said.
She said shifting from supplemental lessons to distance education will require particular care for students with special education and accommodation needs.
“We believe if people give us a certain amount of grace in these … unprecedented times, we can do some compensatory work potentially this summer,” she said. “We may be able to thread the needle for most of the special ed students, even online.”
The technological hurdles to increase online learning run much deeper than issuing Chromebooks to students. Wi-Fi hot spots to help students who don’t have internet access are nearly impossible to buy now. Networks all over the country are overloaded as people work and entertain themselves online.
Schools also must train teachers for an online environment and purchase software to manage school lessons, which can be a significant expense.
Umatilla Superintendent Heidi Sipe said earlier Monday her staff would be ready to support students with extended learning activities from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., beginning Wednesday. Setting up lessons that advance learning will be more challenging, she said.
Students, parents and staff are all learning together what the new model will be, and Sipe said her district is trying to view it as an adventure rather than an obstacle.
“Teachers are working hard to do the best they can to serve students,” Sipe said, “but we know this is a much different time, and we're all being flexible and learning together.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA