A Tulsa educator feared what kind of impact several weeks away from school could have on her students, so she took matters into her own hands.
Ashley Powell, who teaches prekindergarten at Owen Elementary School, spent spring break preparing more than 20 care packs filled with snacks, art supplies and other goodies. She dropped off the backpacks on students’ porches and left them a note encouraging them to exercise their creativity.
The bottom half of the note was addressed to parents. That’s where she explained the folder of voluntary worksheets she also inserted into the bags to help reinforce the skills the children are learning in class.
Powell normally delivers the care packs after the school year to help prevent summer learning loss. She decided to distribute them early this year in response to the state-mandated shutdown of public schools, which are forbidden from implementing any kind of home-based instruction during the initial two-week closure due to concerns about equity and feasibility.
Despite those concerns, Oklahoma State Department of Education officials say they’re working with superintendents to establish a remote-learning plan in the likely event the shutdown is extended.
For Powell, one issue with home-based instruction is the inability to engage the youngest students to the extent that’s needed for healthy learning.
“I know districts all over our state and our country are working to quickly come up with some kind of distance learning policy, whether that be online or in paper-and-packet form,” Powell said. “But for my pre-K students, paper-and-pencil activities as their primary source of learning is just not developmentally appropriate. That’s why I wanted to provide as many opportunities as I could to continue with play-based learning.”
Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist said Powell’s efforts are just one example of how teachers are encouraging students to keep their minds active while stuck at home.
Although no formal instruction is permitted, the district also began posting learning materials on its website after many families expressed interest in educational opportunities for the extended break.
Local school districts, including TPS, strongly considered remote learning options as they headed into spring break. Many passed out stacks of worksheets to elementary students and prepared virtual coursework for older kids in case a local COVID-19 outbreak forced them to close for an extended period of time.
But when the State Board of Education last week ordered public schools to close through April 6, the directive included the stoppage of all instructional services — remote or otherwise.
“We understand the reason that these two weeks are on hold, and there are a lot of complications around that,” Gist said. “For one thing, school districts need to be ready to be able to deliver instruction, and we also need to make sure we have a focus on equity. There are some real legalities around access to children for free and appropriate public education.”
For instance, she said remote learning makes it difficult to meet the needs of students with disabilities as required by federal law.
When asked why the state directive didn’t include an exception for remote learning, an Education Department spokeswoman referred to an online FAQ that largely pointed to the Individualized Education Programs for students requiring special education.
“The state cannot carve out unique exceptions during a national state of emergency or response to a world pandemic,” the FAQ states. “Moreover, an inconsistent approach would impact requirements for students with IEPs and English learners. If instruction were to continue online, students on IEPs would be required to receive services — including in-person services — when it would be difficult to ensure their safe continuation.”
Significant concerns also have been raised about online learning excluding students who lack access to the internet or technological devices at home.
Rebecca Fine of the Oklahoma Policy Institute called education a civil rights issue and said state officials should explore options that provide equitable education solutions to all students.
“Now is not the time to deepen the divide between classmates who have vastly different resources available to them,” Fine said. “We need to identify and provide solutions that ensure all of Oklahoma students are able to move forward together.”
Jenks Public Schools was one of the districts whose remote learning plan was quashed by the state directive.
Lisa Muller, associate superintendent for teaching and learning at Jenks, said she understands the Education Department’s concerns about equity and believes it was the right decision. She said unequal access to technology only skims the surface in how difficult it is to replicate classroom instruction at home, especially for younger students.
With communities still reeling from the arrival of COVID-19 in Oklahoma, Muller said the current priority should be safeguarding students and families.
“We’re always concerned about unexpected gaps in our provision of educational services,” Muller said. “We’ve been out for similar amounts of time before, like during the ice storm we had a number of years ago and last year’s teacher walkout. We know even short periods of time can affect students, but our priority right now is public health and safety. We can certainly address the educational challenges once we’re beyond this health challenge.”
Owasso Superintendent Amy Fichtner also agreed with the decision despite her district considering remote learning before spring break. She said it’s important for school leaders to be intentional with their next steps to ensure students are served “as exceptionally as possible during this difficult time.”
“After this initial closure, districts can collaborate internally and with other entities to deliver what is needed for our students,” Fichtner said.
Meanwhile, some private schools are proceeding with their remote learning plans this week because they do not fall under the authority of the state Education Department. Students at Cascia Hall, for instance, will begin learning online Wednesday. Teachers will have the option of working from home, while office staff practice social distancing as they return to school, according to a spokeswoman.
Holland Hall also is set to resume instruction Tuesday with virtual coursework. Students in fourth grade and higher will receive daily assignments they can complete on their school-issued devices, while lessons for younger kids will require more involvement from parents and caregivers at home.
J.P. Culley, the head of school at Holland Hall, said he appreciates the flexibility afforded to private schools and stressed the importance of mitigating the student learning loss resulting from lengthy school breaks.
The overall quality and quantity of remote learning may not compare to a classroom with a high-quality instructor, Culley said, but they at least allow students to move forward.
“Children are so curious and so interested in continuing to learn that we cannot just turn that off,” he said. “Granted, there’s a place for spring break and summer, but there’s something to be said about the influence an overall curriculum has on a child over time in terms of what the next steps are in their learning process.”
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