Educators assess how distance learning has impacted students in the past year
By Tyler Schneider
With most students of the Kansas City Public Schools, Hickman-Mills, Grandview and Center School districts all set to return to full-time in-person instruction on August 23, educators and administrators are looking for ways in which they can assess the unique needs of each student and keep them on par with the rest of their classmates.
“The best way to put it would be that there was definitely interrupted learning. It is our goal now, when students are back, to assess them and figure out what we need to do to continue on and accelerate the process of returning to a more consistent learning environment,” Hale Cook Elementary Principal Julie Lynch said.
Aside from the regular distractions that can occur in bustling households, lower income students were particularly privy to falling behind. With parents, especially those who are raising kids on their own, working to keep the rent paid, some students found themselves having trouble accessing a consistent internet connection.
Each district found a way to tackle this issue as best they could with the resources at hand, with Center and others opting to provide hotspots for students via their devices and HMC-1 opening up facility parking lots and buildings on a limited basis for emergency internet access.
In addition to these more practical snags in the learning process, Center Academic Coordinator Dr. Becky Bien spoke about a handful of programs set to help students mentally as they return to the fold. The transition from being in a distracted learning environment, or even sometimes a less-than-stable home life, can also take its toll on learners of any age.
“Certainly some of the learning gaps that we address may pose a challenge, but we have been planning ahead in many areas to offer services to help everybody come together. For example, we have programs across the board that put an emphasis on social and emotional learning and our teachers are all receiving trauma smart training. Being a small community, last year we were also able to have social workers working with the students,” Bien said.
Bien added that “a robust summer school” curriculum was another important factor in checking to see where students were at.
“Summer school attendance was a little higher this summer than it typically would be for us — more at the middle and high school level, with elementary being on par. This allowed us to check in with students and get a gauge on where they were,” Bien said.
The vast majority of full-time students in these districts are heading back to school this month, but a small percentage of families have opted to continue a full-time distance learning program — further complicating the goal of getting these students on even footing with their peers.
This gap noticeably widens as students age. At the time of publication, KCPS has listed 10 individuals (staff or student) as having tested positive for COVID between July 15 through July 28. That same span featured 26 known cases of individuals in quarantine. Of these cases, just one concerns an elementary facility, along with five of the 26 in quarantine.
“For this upcoming year, I don’t believe I have anybody [in Hale Cook] choosing that option. I think as students get older, they might pick that option because it allows them to work and complete assignments on their own time,” Lynch said.
The process of assessing to what extent each student missed out on the most efficient learning possible due to at-home considerations will continue indefinitely, but standardized test score returns will play a significant role. Center is currently awaiting data returns from MAP and EOC assessments (with students taking the latter in person) once the DESE releases it at some point this fall.
Likewise, Hickman-Mills Superintendent Yaw Obeng has assembled a task-force to utilize this data to pave the next step forward. The district currently has developed two contingency plans for the fall and will be returning to in-person instruction with masks and social distancing considerations in place.
“We wanted to get to three, but we’re going to need to see where the latest data leads us when it is released and go from there,” Obeng said. “I will say that small habits like proper hygiene practices will be crucial coming into the school year, and that’s where the parents come in. The more students we have taking these precautions before they come back, the easier it will be for our educators to focus on the curriculum and getting everybody caught up. We’re doing all we can, but we can’t do it on our own.”
The lengthy list of potential challenges educators will face going forward remain intact, but after a year filled with unprecedented uncertainties, many are approaching this year with a positive attitude and hoping the worst of the COVID fallout has come to pass.
“I think as opposed to looking at it as getting students ‘caught up,’ I prefer to look at it in a positive light. Yes, we had some interrupted learning, but we are looking at it proactively to mitigate the situation as best we can,” Lynch said.