School administrators are scrambling to figure out how to move K-12 education fully online as schools throughout the region close their doors and tell students and staff to stay home to try to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
All public schools in St. Louis and St. Louis County along with Archdiocese schools announced Sunday evening they’ll close through April 3. Schools in Jefferson and St. Charles counties followed shortly after. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker has ordered all schools in his state closed.
Public schools in this day and age do much more than teach the “three Rs.” They now are also heavily relied upon to provide up to three meals a day, health care, clothing, mental health and a safe space away from gun violence.
Schools will do their best, officials are saying, to provide even a fraction of those supplemental support services over the next three weeks, and possibly longer, along with trying to keep instruction and learning happening.
“We do not have the answers,” said University City Superintendent Sharonica Hardin-Bartley. “This is unprecedented. And it's going to require us to be very innovative and really work collectively as a region and really change the siloed approach to support.”
University City and many districts are currently on spring break, giving them a week to get procedures in place. But in other schools, such as the Ferguson-Florissant district, plans were changing every hour, if not by the minute. Superintendents are holding calls with nonprofits and department heads. Teachers are photocopying lesson packets and going through training to move lessons plans and instruction online.
FergFlor held a half-day Monday to provide staff training and prep time. Tuesday will be its last day of school before the three-week closure and largely will be spent distributing laptops and internet hot spots to students.
Staff at Cross Keys Middle School gathered in the library Monday afternoon to learn how to use all the features of Google Classroom. Middle and high schools students are more versed in online school components.
“They’re already somewhat familiar with it, so, for math, it does kind of come a little more natural,” said David Kruszka, the eighth grade math teacher at Cross Keys Middle School.
Kruska already records lessons for students to re-watch online, but he’ll now try to use text and video chats to check in with students. The district’s plan is that students will still follow a class schedule, just from home, shifting subject focus every hour or so during the day.
But at the elementary level, instruction is visual and hands-on.
“Our teaching is interactive with students, so that will be greatly impacted,” said Karen Caguin, the instructional support leader at Combs Elementary in Ferguson-Florissant.
Caguin is working with teachers to design virtual hands-on tools for kids.
“Not quite impossible,” she said.
In University City, middle and high school students will also use Google Classroom. Setting up younger grades will be harder because elementary students don’t have school-issued personal computers.
“We are working to have a plan to provide devices to grades three through five. We’re also working to provide hot spots to families we may have the need,” Hardin-Bartley said.
Children in second grade and younger will get paper lesson packets.
Students with special education needs or English-language learners provide additional challenges. Those students are required to have a specific number of targeted instructional minutes each week.
“Without a doubt, we will be working with the Special School District, and we recognize that our educational services are going to need to be differentiated,” said Rockwood School District Superintendent Mark Miles.
The state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education briefed school leaders late last week on the waiver process if the mandated schooling hours are not met. Under state law, schools can ask for waivers to not meet a full school calendar in extreme circumstances, such as natural disasters.
Feeding students could pose the largest tangible logistical challenge. District officials said they’re having conversations with their food vendors and transportation departments, as well as regional food banks, to set up drop points for meals or to deliver them to families.
“A very collaborative community network is being put in place to provide food distribution at various sites throughout the St. Louis region,” Miles said.
If in-person classes resume April 3 as currently planned, many students will return to school just a few weeks before state standardized testing begins. Caguin wonders how many students will have fallen behind by the time they return to Combs Elementary.
“Hopefully they really have been working hard,” she forecasted, “but what they do online is not going to take the place of that student-teacher interaction at this critical time in our school year.”
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