District’s ‘flexible’ plan too taxing

USD 257 reverses course and asks families to pick between in-person or remote learning, and stick with it until the semester ends. Frequent switching back and forth has been difficult for teachers.

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September 29, 2020 - 10:37 AM

Jenna Higginbotham, curriculum director for USD 257, talks about the challenges for teaching remote learning. The district has allowed students to switch between remote and in-person learning but will soon ask them to stick with one or the other. Photo by Vickie Moss

Families in USD 257 will need to decide soon if they want their student to learn in-person or remotely.

In a reversal of the school board’s previous coronavirus policy, families need to make the choice by Oct. 9 and stick with it until the end of the semester in December. Then, they can choose again.

Until now, students could switch between in-person classes or online only. The idea was to give families flexibility between the two types of education, as they weighed the possible health risks and adapted to different learning styles. 

It was convenient for families, but very challenging for teachers who had to adapt to a constantly evolving classroom roster. Students have come in and out of the classroom on a regular basis, forcing teachers to adjust their plans and making it more difficult to get to know their students. 

It’s been more difficult for teachers in middle and high school, where teachers have to juggle both in-person and remote learning responsibilities. The district has appointed dedicated “remote learning” teachers for preschool through fourth grades.

The number of remote learning students has stayed somewhat consistent but the students have changed, Jenna Higginbotham, curriculum director, said. 

“In kindergarten, for example, we started with eight students and we still have eight, but they aren’t the same eight,” she said. 

Remote enrollment varies between a high of 15 students in eighth grade to a low of five students in 12th grade.

When the new semester begins, families will be asked to decide what type of learning they want for the third nine weeks. 

The coronavirus has forced the district to be flexible, Higginbotham said. They may have to make even more changes during cold and flu season, which is likely to increase absences.

Teachers, especially at Iola High School, are also considering ways they can adapt their schedule for next semester, after learning more about what works and what doesn’t, principal Scott Carson said. 

Superintendent Stacey Fager said he didn’t know how many districts allow students to switch between learning plans, but believes most asked families to make a decision before the school year started and stick with it.

“We tried to accommodate the wishes of parents,” he said. “There was so much unknown in August. We do know a little more in September.”

USD 257 Board of Education member Doug Dunlap reviews a report during Monday’s meeting.Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

THE CORONAVIRUS also has affected enrollment and parent-teacher conferences, Fager and board members discussed.

Enrollment likely would have dropped this year because of declining population throughout Southeast Kansas, Fager told the board, but the coronavirus made things even worse.

The district lost about 57 students this year, compared to the same time last year.

But even worse, Fager said, is that this year’s kindergarten class dropped to 69. Last year’s class had 82 students.

Last year’s graduating class had 104 students, so the difference is quite significant between how many students left the district and how many entered.

Upper grades have many more students than lower ones, which means enrollment likely will continue to drop year after year.

This year’s graduating class, though, and the 11th grade each have 108 students, the most of any grade.

The smallest classes are fifth, with 67 students, then kindergarten and third grade, each with 69.

The total enrollment this year is 1,084, compared to 1,141 last year.

THE DISTRICT expects to offer parent-teacher conferences this year, at the end of October, in spite of the pandemic.

Parents will have the option to appear in person, via Zoom or by phone, Fager said.

It’s important to give parents and teachers the opportunity to meet, he said, especially with the challenges of remote learning, quarantines and the possibility that classes could be canceled if illness spreads.

Conferences could be scheduled to allow extra time for cleaning between visits, and would restrict families to just one classroom.

IN OTHER news, the board:

• Heard an update on the district’s long- and short-term goals. A few changes were noted, such as changes to curriculum support services and partnerships with colleges at the Regional Rural Technical Center at LaHarpe. Career pathways have been expanded to 20. A grant allowed the district to update all doors so they lock from the inside. 

• Learned a new district website will be unveiled Wednesday. The site will include a calendar that combines all district activities.

• Heard that a house built by last year’s construction trades class has been sold. LaHarpe businessman Ray Maloney purchased the materials for the house and recently sold it.

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