Coronavirus: Are kids learning right now? And what will school look like in August?

Northmont students (clockwise from left) Reid Harrison, 7, Dane Harrison, 9, Owen Sanders, 11, and Finn Harrison, 8, do schoolwork at their kitchen table at home. SUBMITTED PHOTO

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Northmont students (clockwise from left) Reid Harrison, 7, Dane Harrison, 9, Owen Sanders, 11, and Finn Harrison, 8, do schoolwork at their kitchen table at home. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Local and state school officials work to make sure kids don’t slip through the cracks.

School leaders and parents have few answers about what school will look like in August, but there’s a “very minimal” chance it will be a perfect match for the distance learning happening today.

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“We’re just not entirely sure what ‘different’ is going to look like,” State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria said in an interview with the Dayton Daily News. “And it may look different in different places … as we ease back into a more, well, whatever the word normal means anymore.”

Gov. Mike DeWine announced last week that schools will continue to do remote learning from students’ homes for the rest of the year.

So what questions do they still need to answer about this school year and next? In a nutshell, local and state leaders say the following:

• Are kids really learning well at home? It’s very individual, with some doing fine and others totally disconnected.

• What happens to their grades? It’s up to each school district. Some are using pass-fail while others are grading A-F as usual.

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• Will seniors graduate? The state relaxed the rules, so most seniors who were on track will be fine, but some who were on the edge are rushing to finish.

• What happens this summer? Educators say cataloguing where each child stands and building a plan for Day 1 in the fall is more crucial than ever.

• Will state funding be cut this summer? That’s a clear possibility, with some hoping the feds chip in as they did during the Great Recession more than decade ago.

• Will we be back to normal in August? Fully normal seems unlikely, barring very fast medical developments. So how would you socially distance change of classes or football practice? That’s the hardest piece for schools as they plan.

Still a month to go

Online classes and paper assignments will continue into May, and schools have improved at solving “distance learning” problems in these six weeks.

For Dayton Public Schools, that started at the very basics of finding every student. Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli said if students were not engaging with lessons and hadn’t responded to calls or e-mails, the district made home visits and called every emergency contact on file, sometimes finding that families had not updated contact information.

Ohio Education Association President Scott DiMauro said at-home learning has put a spotlight on long-standing equity problems, where students have widely different levels of support and resources at home.

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School-family communication is critical so schools can set reasonable expectations for the amount of work to be done, the teacher union president said.

Kettering Assistant Superintendent Dan VonHandorf said the district did that communication via parent surveys after the first and third weeks of at-home learning. The schools expect students to log on every weekday, but understand that situations are different.

“One of things we are looking to adjust, probably like a lot of districts, is the amount of work given to kids,” VonHandorf said. “We’re trying to figure out how to give enough work for kids and parents who want a lot of work, versus the basics that every kid needs to get.”

Students are still growing and learning at home, VonHandorf said, but it’s not the same.

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“Learning to the level we hoped they would be if kids were coming to school every day? That’s definitely too high a bar,” he said. “There’s just no substitute for being in class every day for six to seven hours in front of a teacher.”

DeMaria, the state superintendent, encouraged schools to keep their focus on personalizing the school experience for students. Describing students as “falling behind” sends a message that the student did something wrong, he said.

“Or it says society has the expectation that you should be here, but you’re there, and there’s something wrong with that,” DeMaria said. “We have to figure out where kids are, and figure out what do we need to do to help them make progress.”

Report cards? Graduation?

Local schools have always had control over their grading systems. Multiple schools said any decision to retain a student in the same grade next year would be based on discussions with the family that started before the mid-March shutdown, not purely fourth-quarter concerns.

Oakwood Superintendent Kyle Ramey said they’ll do a normal A-F system for the fourth quarter, with room for case-by-case considerations. Kettering is generally doing pass/fail grading for the fourth quarter, although at the elementary school level, it’s called pass/needs improvement.

Dayton is doing a split system, Lolli said, with pass/fail for grades K-8 and regular A-F grades in high school. But she said for any student who is making an effort and turning in the work this spring, they won’t get a fourth-quarter grade lower than their third-quarter grade.

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On graduation, Ohio lawmakers have given each school principal the ability to determine whether a senior completed the course requirements sufficiently to earn a diploma. Students also have until Sept. 30 to earn that Class of 2020 diploma.

The 78 DPS seniors who were “very much in jeopardy of not graduating” are trying to catch up, Lolli said, by working with the Graduation Alliance group, which provides a laptop, a WiFi hot spot and a coach.

Oakwood also has students working with Graduation Alliance, Ramey said.

“The tough ones are the ones who were struggling in third quarter, and normally everybody circles the wagons around them — families and teachers — and we get them to get the job done in the fourth quarter,” Ramey said. “But if they’re not engaging in the off-site learning, what do we do? … We’re visiting homes, we’re reaching out to parents, we’re putting a full-court press on and trying to get all of them.”

Planning for fall

Schools are used to spring planning for the upcoming school year. But that usually doesn’t include moving giant Open House events online or considering scenarios with one Monday/Wednesday group of students and another Tuesday/Thursday group.

And all this is against a backdrop of financial worries — DeMaria said a cut in state funding for 2020-21 is a real possibility as education, health and other departments fight over declining state revenue.

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“We have to have contingency plans. The trick is how much time and effort do you invest in any one plan that may (be obsolete) a week later?” Ramey said. “How would you have school if you had a limit of 15 in a classroom, or you had to do one-way hallways, or you had to serve lunch six feet apart? … There are lots of questions and theories and what-if scenarios. But I don’t have the answers.”

Kettering schools said they’re just starting to think about fall because they’ve been so focused on managing the massive changes of the past six weeks. West Carrollton Superintendent Andrea Townsend said her district will wait to “build our fall contingency plans when Gov. DeWine and ODE give us guidance.”

There’s no way for schools to settle on an at-home or blended model for fall yet, said DiMauro, the teachers union president, because they have no idea what the health and safety situation for the virus outbreak will be by that point.

The Ohio Department of Education has a working group of leaders strategizing, DeMaria said, and will continue to send periodic updates. He said schools will have the advantage of taking lessons from statewide “return to normal” steps this summer while schools are closed.

Specific steps now

DiMauro said schools need to take time at the end of this school year to do a serious assessment of where they stand given the nature of the fourth quarter — which students did we not communicate with well? Where do students stand academically? How do we adjust curriculum to make sure we’re building on the material students did master?

“It’s going to take a lot of time for teachers and administrators to work together to collect and analyze the information and work together to do the planning to serve students,” he said. “If we’re doing this planning at the beginning of next school year, that’s too late.”

The vertical planning that Oakwood teachers do will be more important this spring and summer, Ramey said. That involves working with the teachers in the grade above who will be receiving their students, as well as the grade below who will be sending new students to them.

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“You normally reach back and review, but there are some things that may have gotten missed or have to be made up,” Ramey said. “We’re going to have to do some of that work more intensely or deliberately than in the past.”

Given all these academic efforts, along with a continued focus on students’ social-emotional needs, a greater need may exist than usual for focused educator training this summer, DeMaria said.

Dayton Public Schools’ curriculum team is already working on the “power” standards that are most crucial for each grade and subject, Lolli said, and will work with teachers on how best to review those next fall.

“We’ll compact the curriculum and make sure we teach the fourth quarter’s standards face-to-face with the kids,” Lolli said.

Teachers can’t just skip over building-block standards and move on. But heavy review in the fall also raises questions of whether schools will get through a full year worth of material in 2020-21.

“There will have to be some review next year to make sure kids got what they needed,” said VonHandorf of Kettering. “There’s only so much time in the classroom, so you can’t do it all.”

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