By Travis Mounts
Most area students returned to their studies this week, but for the rest of this school year, education will look like nothing teachers or pupils have seen before.
Districts are rolling our their continuous learning plans, put together after hours of hard work in a very short window. It was just on March 17 that Gov. Laura Kelly issued an order closing school buildings to regular classes for the regular school year.
That left administrators and educators less than two weeks to completely redesign how children are educated.
Many of those plans were rolled out on Monday. After speaking with administrators at several school districts, it became clear that local school districts all have one primary focus – making sure their kids are alright.
“Things have been going great with the planning. Our teachers have banded together,” said Jennifer Reed, assistant superintendent for learning services for Haysville Public Schools.
She said the district is taking a “less is more” approach to teaching students.
“We don’t want to overwhelm our students and their families,” Reed said.
Ryan Jilka, principal at Discovery Intermediate School in the Goddard School District, said his district began communicating with students on Monday.
“They main thing we’re doing, regardless of age, is maintaining positive relations with our students, ensuring their welfare, and keeping in touch,” he said. “And we want to provide the essential skills they need…so they can be effective next school year.”
Most districts are taking a student’s final grades after the third nine weeks, first semester or mid-term break, and making those a student’s final grade. From here, a student’s grade won’t go down, but they have an opportunity to improve their grades through various assignments.
That opportunity can be vitally important for high school students, especially the seniors whose grade-point averages and class positions can make a huge difference in financial aid for their post-secondary education.
For schools that started classes on Monday, things seemed to go well, all things considered.
“It went great,” said Cheney superintendent David Grover. “A few hiccups, but all in all, it went well. Everywhere I took a peek, there were tears. People missed each other.”
Grover said the state of Kansas has provided great guidance, giving districts a framework to take and make their own.
“We’re not a virtual school. We’ve never been an online school. We integrate technology into our classes,” he said. “Instruction is being delivered in a blended model.”
Some districts have 1:1 technology, meaning every student – at least at certain grade levels – has some kind of device. That device might be a MacBook or Chromebook laptop computer, or possibly an iPad.
Districts that don’t have 1:1 technology have conducted surveys to see what kind of equipment families have at home. Many have provided computers to families that don’t have them. Schools are doing their best to connect families with internet companies that are offering low-cost or no-cost service to people without home internet.
For families without internet or devices, old-fashioned packets are being prepared and made available to students. In general, districts don’t want those packets back for fear of possible coronavirus spread. Instead, students and their parents can take photos and text or email those assignments to their teachers.
Renwick superintendent Mindy Bruce gave positive marks to her schools, which are spread across four communities.
“It was good. We’re trying to work out a few kinks,” she said.
All districts are providing meal service to students who want or need it. Some, like Renwick, Cheney and Goddard, have some bus service to deliver meals.
“We’re going to serve over 8,000 meals this week. I hope people will remain flexible. It’s all brand new,” Bruce said. “It’s a lot, but I can’t be more proud of our staff, all of our staff.”
Some districts began food service last week. In Haysville, a couple of its four distribution locations ran out of food on the first day. Many schools started lunch service on Monday.
Argonia began serving meals last week, and started giving educational packets to students this week. As of Tuesday, they were serving about 70 meals per day, with a couple of bus drivers helping to deliver those as well as the educational packets.
Argonia is a little less structured on its online time, and will rely more than some other districts on packets given to students. Some teachers have already put together their entire packets for the final nine weeks of the school year. The rest of the teachers will hit that goal late this week.
Students will return some of that work, either physically or digitally.
“So far, so good,” reported superintendent Dr. Julie McPherron about the first couple days of classes. “I think we have all of our families connected.”
Like all districts, Argonia had a number of families either without internet service or without a service good enough for online learning. That’s a common problem for rural areas, where companies have invested less in upgrades.
“We are focusing on the essential things they need at the elementary level. That’s reading and math,” McPherron said. High school students will work on minimum requirements. Seniors have visited the counseler about their required credits for graduation.
Elementary teachers have recorded lessons in Zoom and they can be accessed anytime. High school lessons are being done through Google Classroom.
Conway Springs, coming off spring break last week, began offering meals on April 1. This week is being used as an in-service for teachers, and education will resume on Monday.
Superintendent Clay Murphy said teachers are doing as much learning as they will be teaching.
“You’ve got some teachers who are very tech savvy and some have even taught online. Others are new, they have never even used Zoom,” he said.
Zoom is an online meeting service that suddenly has become very critical to all kinds of business. It also has become a way for families to get together remotely. Google Classroom is already a key component for many educators. It helps with the assignment and grading of assignments in paperless form. Seesaw is another application designed for younger students.
“We have teachers helping teachers, and our tech people have jumped in,” Murphy said. “I have been astounded by our teachers’ attitudes. At every meeting, nobody said ‘I can’t do that.’ They said, ‘Whatever it is, we’ll get it done.’ Our bus drivers, cooks, custodians – everyone wants to help.”
Everyone interviewed for this story said their education plans are subject to change as they learn what works and doesn’t work.
For some classes, going online is much more difficult. Murphy mentioned shop classes, where students have paid money for supplies on partially completed projects, as well as art classes.
“We’re trying to work around those things. For some kids, these are their favorite classes,” Murphy said, noting he was one of those kids.
Grover said critical learning is the focus for the rest of the school year, with the highest priority on students’ well-being.
“Our major concern is, how are we connecting with each kid? And we’re concerned about their well-being through all this,” he said.
Social interaction is just as important as educational interaction, Jilka said.
“We’re trying to give some consistency to our students every day,” he said.
Jilka said teachers are tracking attendance but it’s not an absolute requirement.
“If somebody’s not checking in, we’d pick up the phone. We want to make sure there isn’t a technology barrier or another issue,” he said.
Jilka said he had eight staff members busy handing out Chromebooks on Sunday. They handed out 108, and had 20-30 additional requests on Monday.
In Conway Springs, Haviland Telephone Company has provided internet service to families without it, and Clearwater-based SKT set up drive-up wi-fi hotspots in Clearwater and Viola as well as other service areas.
Jilka said community support has been great, and that it needs to continue. Some families may need help in other ways, such as having somebody step up and mow their lawns.
“Anything we can do as a community is helpful. And do what you can to flatten the curve,” he said.
Grover said while teachers and staff are busy helping others, they also might need help.
“Our educators are under stress, too. They’re revamping their lessons, and have families,” he said.
Reed noted that through everything, educators have maintained a single focus.
“Every single decision we make, we have the students’ best interest at heart. We care about them and their well-being,” she said.