Pandemic School: Classroom realities for the coming year - MetroFamily Magazine
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Pandemic School: Classroom realities for the coming year

by Erin Page

Reading Time: 10 minutes 

The question never far from parent — or student — minds right now is: what will returning to school look like this fall? With the COVID-19 pandemic still running rampant and cases increasing in our state, school districts around the metro are planning for contingencies upon contingencies, hoping both to give kids who haven’t been in the classroom since March a sense of normalcy and limit exposure to the virus as much as possible.

(Editor’s note: Though the information here was accurate as of publication on July 31, 2020, metro school plans and the COVID-19 pandemic are rapidly changing and evolving. Check with individual school districts for the most up-to-date information.)

Earlier this summer, the Oklahoma State Department of Education released a 74- page document called Return to Learn: A Framework for Reopening Schools to provide guidelines for public school districts around the state. Built around four categories — School Operations, Academic & Growth, Whole Child & Family Supports and School Personnel — checklists of actions and considerations accompany each section for districts to consider.

Upon its release, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister underscored that each district will determine how to ensure the safety of its students, staff and families based on the extent to which COVID-19 is impacting their local community and what recommendations are feasible and practical to implement.

In late July, the OSDE board met again to vote on additional safety requirements for schools across Oklahoma, including a mandate for all public school students and staff to wear masks in counties where community spread is occurring as designated by a color-coded map of COVID-19 risk levels. The measure failed to garner enough votes to make the protocols required, meaning it will be up to each district to determine whether to follow the department’s recommendations. Hofmeister announced her disappointment in the failed vote as she believes required protocols could ensure a safer environment for all in the school community and urged districts to “do the right thing” in regards to masking and social distance standards.

Districts around the metro began to release return to school plans in July, guided by task forces composed of teachers, parents, administrators and students. Many of the initially-released plans have already been updated based on parent feedback and the ever-changing nature of the virus.

Oklahoma City Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Sean McDaniel said that his district, like all others, released plans based on current circumstances but that the school system will be constantly reevaluating and adapting as needed. That initial statement has already proven true as the district has pivoted from originally-released plans, pushing back the school start date and announcing all students will begin the year virtually, with a few exceptions.

Parents and administrators alike are endeavoring to keep up with changing plans and make the best decisions about how kids will attend school this year.

“We do not need to be ruled by fear,” advises Hofmeister. “We want to provide as much flexibility as we can. We [need to] be nimble and flexible and willing to understand that we may start school one way and will communicate to parents and faculty when it’s time to adjust.”

We take a look at key considerations in several metro public and private schools.

Learning options

Edmond Public Schools will offer students the options of learning in the traditional classroom environment, with added restrictions depending on the current state of the virus, or virtually. In a July 28 board meeting, the district voted to begin the school year with a blended, or A/B, model plan for traditional classroom students. In this scenario, students will only attend school in person on assigned days, receiving in-person learning two days a week and virtual learning three days per week to lessen the number of students in school buildings at a time and allow for social distancing. Deer Creek and Mid-Del Public Schools will also employ a hybrid of in-person and virtual learning for the start of the school year.

Students electing to learn entirely virtually will attend Edmond Virtual with assigned certified teachers who monitor their work and grade assignments. EPS also elected to delay the start of school for all students until Aug. 20 to allow additional training time for staff.

After a July 21 board meeting, OKCPS announced that the original Aug. 10 start date will be pushed back to Aug. 31 and all students will learn virtually for the first nine weeks. Putnam City, Western Heights, Norman and Yukon Public Schools have also opted for all-virtual learning for the start of fall classes.

In OKCPS, parent and teacher surveys, as well as guidance from health officials, drove the decision. Students will have the choice of learning virtually through the traditional learning plan, which is teacher-driven and provides ongoing interaction between teachers and students in a small group online classroom setting, or the e3 online learning plan, which allows students to work at their own pace with access to a teacher as a mentor.

The traditional learning plan will be reevaluated halfway through the first nine weeks to determine whether to continue virtual learning or transition to in-person learning. It is likely that students would initially return to in-person learning via an A/B model and then move to a traditional 5-day schedule when deemed safe. The second, all-virtual option requires a nine weeks commitment for preK through 5th grade and a semester commitment for 6th through 12th grade students.

Prior to July’s spike in COVID-19 cases in Oklahoma, Deputy Superintendent Jason Brown said up to one third of OKCPS students indicated interest in the e3 virtual learning option for the upcoming year. The administration team has sought to provide learning options that work for each of its students and families, with McDaniel noting that some students do better moving at their own pace while others are seeking a more synchronous approach of achieving together.

“In-person or virtual, either way you go, there is some risk involved with the health and safety of our students,” said McDaniel. “We feel an all-virtual model is the safest option for right now.”

If and when traditional OKCPS students can move to in-person learning, if a single student needs to be quarantined at home or out of school for a short stint, that student can also transition to a blended learning option, learning remotely through their typical classroom teacher via classroom technology.

Keystone Adventure School and Farm, an accredited private preschool and elementary school in Edmond, will also begin the school year virtually but will provide small-group opportunities for students to learn outdoors. Students will spend mornings online and several afternoons each week students will enjoy one-hour visits to campus for outdoor projects, PE, art or caring for the farm animals.

“Because we attend to whole-child safety — social, emotional and physical — we knew that even in a virtual model, we had to find ways for kids to be safe and still be together,” said John Duhon, Keystone co-founder and co-director.

Health and safety measures

Upon returning to in-person learning, Yukon students will be encouraged to wear face coverings, and no visitors will be allowed to enter school sites unless deemed necessary by district protocol. Student transitions will reflect safest practices for each site, including divided hallways, staggered passing periods, a one-way traffic flow and desk arrangement in classrooms. The meal service program will be a combination of in-school serving and grab-and-go offerings.

Mid-Del, Deer Creek, Norman and El Reno Public Schools will require face coverings for staff and students.

Norman, which has delayed the start of school for all students to Aug. 24, will remain in virtual-only learning mode until there is sustainable decline in COVID-19 cases over a period of time. NPS is working on plans to phase students back in to district buildings when deemed safe, at which point all students will participate in wellness screenings twice per day, and teachers, administrators and staff will be screened each day. NPS will enact a flexible attendance policy this year, and to decrease students in the cafeterias, mealtimes may be staggered or students may follow a rotating schedule that allows them to eat in the cafeteria, the classroom or outdoors when weather permits.

Trinity School, a metro private school with a focus on serving students with learning differences, will issue masks to all students, though only students in grades 9 through 12 will be required to wear them. Trinity will check temperatures of students each morning, and all visitors will be required to wear a mask.

Keystone has implemented new safety protocols, including touch-less faucets and soap dispensers, daily wellness checks and staggered pick-ups and drop-offs. When indoors, all students will wear face coverings, sun hat face shields for the younger students and masks for the older. The entire school will have a space theme in an effort to help acclimate students to the face coverings.

“Our space theme provides a connection for our ‘space cadets’ to wear ‘space helmets’ and ‘atmosphere masks,’” said Jenny Dunning, Keystone co-founder and co-director. “Infusing lots of fun and redirection is just one of the ways we will attend to their emotional safety.”

Masks will be required for EPS students in grades 1 through 12, with preK and kindergarten students required to wear them in the hallways at all times. EPS will take student temperatures every day and teachers will be trained in recognizing potential COVID-19 symptoms. Superintendent Bret Towne said medical technicians will be assigned to each EPS school site to assist in symptom monitoring. The A/B learning model will allow for more effective social distancing.

“Teachers are arranging students’ learning environments where all students are facing the same direction, avoiding small groups and keeping same classes together without a lot of back and forth,” said Cara Jernigan, executive director of elementary education for EPS.

Preparing for distance learning

Hofmeister says it’s not a matter of if Oklahoma students and teachers will revert to distance learning, but when. Many districts that are planning to begin the school year in person are also building online learning into their traditional classroom schedules so students and teachers can more seamlessly shift to it when the need arises.

“Students will have exposure to digital learning on a daily basis, so if we have to go from brick to click overnight, closing a classroom or entire school, they will have had that practice,” said Jernigan.

Distance learning will focus on continued learning rather than just maintenance of skills already learned as most students experienced in the spring. One major challenge of distance learning is that not every student has access to virtual education at home. Hofmeister says she will not rest until all students in our state have access.

“We have to solve this once and for all,” said Hofmeister. “This is part of a strong, vibrant, competitive public education and should be the right of every child.”

The Department of Education will provide 50,000 hotspots to students who need them, free of charge. Reduced monthly subscription rates can be covered by emergency relief funds.

OKCPS will provide devices to all students. Assistant Superintendent of Academics Tracy Skinner says about one third of OKCPS students will require a hotspot, which the district plans to provide.

Trinity, which provided devices for each student even ahead of the pandemic, experienced a fairly smooth transition to distance learning earlier this year, which included teachers providing live virtual instruction. Lisa Schade, chief operating officer, says the pandemic reiterated the school’s focus on meeting individual students where they are, academically and developmentally, in their learning.

“Our faculty and staff are better prepared to teach on-site and pivot to online for the entire class or for an individual student if necessary,” said Schade. “They have become more comfortable with a flexible teaching platform. They expect change but know that our students will be successful no matter what comes their way.”

Getting kids caught up

Another key component both the Department of Education and teachers around the state have focused on this summer is wrapping the unfinished learning and missed skills from the spring into curriculum this fall. Hofmeister says teachers will embed unfinished learning into grade-appropriate curriculum.

“We don’t want students to feel the stress of trying to pack in too much,” said Hofmeister. “We’re providing teachers with scaffolding, ways to design lesson plans to meet kids where they are and close those gaps.”

Jernigan explains EPS’s strategy as “spiraling in” missed skills, realigning curriculum and rewriting the curriculum calendar so teachers can take a cyclical approach that touches on missed skills but also keeps students moving forward. After researching approaches used by classrooms affected by Hurricane Katrina, EPS realized that going back to missed skills meant students were always behind. With the cyclical approach, students will learn both missed skills and grade-level skills at the same time.

Skinner says OKCPS curriculum coordinators have created a strategic planning guide based on essential standards they know students in each grade must master. Teachers will target the skills they already know will be deficits for students based on where the in-person school year ended in the spring. OKCPS will also be using their content management system for virtual learning to assess and remediate missed skills.

Addressing mental health needs

Families across Oklahoma are experiencing increased stress, in part because, as Hofmeister points out, the unemployment rate has risen from four to 13 percent during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. That stress extends to children in the home, and it can be impossible for children to learn when they are worried. Hofmeister says the Department of Education is offering mental health training as well as grants based on five priority areas for Oklahoma schools to focus on, including meeting students’ mental health needs.

In some of its elementary schools, Edmond Public Schools has already employed Conscious Discipline, trauma-informed, evidence-based, social-emotional classroom management and learning strategies. All elementary schools will make use of these strategies this year, which include teaching and establishing emotional regulations for students.

Trinity’s school counselor provided guidelines to families to help them understand how to talk with children about their fears and uncertainties.

“For students with learning differences, change can be especially difficult,” said Schade.

McDaniel says assessing students’ mental, social and emotional health will be a priority, whether students are learning in person or virtually. OKCPS has added counselors and nurses at every school, in addition to a handful of social workers.

Embrace OKC, a new collaborative initiative that has developed a comprehensive, districtwide mental health action plan to address challenges OKCPS students and families are facing, will help provide preventative education and treatment as needed.

“We will have all eyes on our kids from a mental health standpoint as well as an academic standpoint,” said McDaniel.

Preparing students and supporting teachers

Jernigan encourages parents to have candid conversations with students to explain that school may not look the same this fall but that teachers are still going to make learning fun and help them to grow.

“It’s important to remember ‘my state dictates your state,’” said Jernigan. “However we respond to situations, the children around us feed off that. Although we may be fearful of uncertainties, if we model patience and calmness to children, they are resilient and they will foster what we are modeling.”

Schade adds that honest conversations about the need to be flexible can help prepare students for the potential of changing their learning environments.

“We’ve asked [parents] to help their children understand that even though they will return to school in the fall, there will most likely be adaptations to online, live learning platforms at some point,” said Schade.

Hofmeister encourages parents to equip children with the mindset of being courteous and thinking of others. Extending grace and patience will be key factors for students and parents alike this school year, particularly as school administrators strive to make the best possible decisions for their communities and teachers are faced with new challenges.

“We are not going to get every answer correct for every scenario and we are not going to plan perfectly for this,” said Jernigan. “There will be decisions made that parents aren’t always going to like. Having grace and telling teachers ‘thank you’ will be really important.”

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