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Online Learning Will Be Big Part Of The Upcoming School Year

With schools closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, students have had to adapt to trying to keep up with lessons remotely, from living rooms, kitchen tables and bedrooms.
Nat Thomas | St. Louis Public Radio
Schools will offer students an option for fully online learning for the next school year. Even the alternative may include a lot of virtual education, with districts creating blended curriculums to keep class sizes small.

Updated at 5 p.m. 

Don’t put away the kids’ laptops yet.

Thousands of St. Louis-area students will still be learning either fully or partially online when school resumes Aug. 24.

School districts began releasing back-to-school plans Monday and in them, many are offering families a choice:

Have their students continue to learn fully online from home, or send their kids to school at least a few days a week.

“We know that you want options,” Kevin Beckner, Parkway School District’s assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, said https://youtu.be/wEVdjLhBQ64" target="_blank">in a video to staff and families. “We’ve heard from families that they want their students back in school and we’ve also heard from families and staff that we need more robust learning options.”

In their on-campus offerings, which have already been dropped in one case and appear increasingly shaky in recent days because of the widening spread of the virus for others, districts are offering a range of possibilities, from allowing students to come for two days a week with online instruction to five days a week in the classroom.

Families in the Ferguson-Florissant district were split roughly 50-50 on preference for in-person versus online learning in an early July survey. Nearly a third of St. Louis Public School’s families previously stated a preference for online instruction in a survey. Officials anticipate an increased preference for online as the pandemic swells.

Administrators, in discussing their re-entry plans, stressed that scenarios could change quickly and dramatically based on the path of the pandemic, and that school could still start fully online for everyone or shift all-online at some point during the fall term.

“It’s a very fluid situation,” Lindbergh Superintendent Tony Lake told school board members July 14. After going down a certain path most of summer, he added, "conversations have begun to take on a different feel.”

The release of restart plans was almost delayed, but superintendents decided to stick with the original date during a conference call Thursday.

Ritenour, in north St. Louis County, became the first district to pivot and keep buildings closed, saying it'll start school in a fully virtual format.

At least two other districts — Maplewood Richmond Heights and Ferguson-Florissant — are “strongly considering” following suit for at least the start of the year, after first developing in-person options to coincide with virtual ones.

“We aren’t ready as a nation to get back together,” said Ferguson-Florissant board member Leslie Hogshead. “I don’t think it’s safe to open up the schools yet.” 

A final decision for the north county district has not been made, according to a Ferguson-Florissant district spokesperson. Maplewood Richmond Heights’ board has scheduled another meeting for Thursday to continue the discussion after debating for several hours last week.

“This is going to be the most important decision that we possibly ever make in the history of the school district,” MRH board member Maria Langston said during the meeting.

The school districts of Los Angeles, Austin and Nashville are among those that have decided to start school completely online, an increasingly common move around the country. New York City students will attend in a hybrid model. 

In St. Louis County, Hazelwood, Parkway and Lindbergh are among districts that will offer their families a choice of a wholly virtual school option or to sending kids to school part of the week.

Five days spent in school will be a more common option in St. Charles and Jefferson counties.

In the city, SLPS will offer a brick-and-mortar option along with a fully online option. Children will come to the building every day if they select in-person learning. 

Districts are working on how to best accommodate younger and more vulnerable students, such as English-language learners and students with disabilities, who have had a harder time with remote learning. In Jennings, the plan is for students in pre-K through third grade to attend every day while fourth graders and up attend school two days per week and spend the other three online.

Young children are less likely to contract or spread COVID-19 or suffer from severe symptoms, public health research shows, but cases among younger people are increasing. Teachers broadly are concerned about their health and that of coworkers, as well as their students, without proper health protections and low community transmission rates.

President Trump has demanded that schools fully reopen and has threatened funding cuts if they don’t. Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, also a Republican, has said schools should reopen. Democratic St. Louis County Executive Sam Page on Thursday called on school districts to offer virtual learning.

School leaders in St. Louis and St. Louis County worked with public health officials and doctors to map out guidance on safely returning to schools, but specifics on academic models and health requirements were ultimately left up to districts. The guidance includes mask-wearing for staff and most students, assigned seats on buses, daily health screenings, spacing out desks and limiting inter-class mingling.

“I have assumed there’s COVID in the building,” Jennings Superintendent Art McCoy said during a trial of in-person school last week in explaining why students and staff have to take precautions.

The combination of alternating school days and a portion of kids learning remotely will allow schools to keep class sizes smaller and students more spaced out, administrators said.

Online school curriculums will be more rigorous and robust, administrators said. They’ve spent the summer designing online courses and improving technology access so that distance learning will be smoother in August than it was during the scramble of March. Schools have designed full curriculums and laid out lesson schedules, and they'll have teachers dedicated to online instruction.

“It does not look like what we had virtual learning look like in the spring,” said Tara Sparks, Lindbergh schools’ chief academic officer, explaining the new program to board members. It “is a structured school environment.”

But educators teaching children remotely still face challenges.

Studies show between a quarter and a third of Missouri students weren’t able to successfully complete online learning last spring. And Kelvin Adams, superintendent of SLPS, said research shows fourth grade students will have slipped six months back in reading and 14 months in math after being out of school since March.

“The data is indicating this is going to be a challenging time academically for the most needy students,” Adams said.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

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