Area school districts preparing off-site learning plans

Sequoyah County public school officials are scrambling to design distance learning plans after learning Monday that State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister will ask the State Board of Education to keep brick-and-mortar schools closed, and implement programs to educate students at home.

The Oklahoma State Board of Education will meet at 9:30 a.m. today (Wednesday) to discuss Hofmeister's continuous learning plan and possibly approve it. The meeting will be live streamed on the Oklahoma State Department of Education's Facebook page. The video will be archived on the Facebook page for view later by the public.

The state board temporarily closed schools until April 6 at its March 16 meeting because of the COVID-19 public health threat.

Monday, Hofmeister proposed keeping the schools closed for the remainder of the school year as the number of COVID-19 cases in Oklahoma continues to grow. Individual school districts would design off-site teaching programs that would meet the educational needs of their students, Hofmeister said.

Hofmeister said off-site learning would be a challenge for every school district.

“We are determined to support our pre-K through high school students as well as English learners, special education students and those who need reinforced skills or additional enrichment,” Hofmeister said.

Central Superintendent Larry Henson, Gans Superintendent Larry Calloway and Roland Superintendent Randy Martin said technology, a student's ability to connect to the Internet from home and the equipment needed for districts to produce online courses would be challenges to overcome.

The Sequoyah County Times attempted to contact other districts in Sequoyah and Muskogee counties, but didn't receive their information by the deadline for Wednesday's edition. Look for additional updates in future editions.

Henson said Central schools will support the state Board's decision once it is made, and gives districts direction on how to implement off-site education programs.

“We are in the process to start toward that,” Henson said. “We do have some small things (we do online) but for the most part this will be pretty new. We received this information yesterday (Monday) just like you guys did and we are in the process of starting to work through the areas and things we may look at and attempt to do.”

Quite a few of Central's students do not have internet capabilities at their homes, Henson said. The district will need to explore ways to get class instruction and assignments to them.

Central will work to develop a plan that will meet state requirements, educate the district's students, including special education and English learners, Henson said.

Gans public schools have offered distance learning at the school because the district didn't have a foreign language teacher on staff. Spanish 1 and 2 have been Skyped to Gans classes for the past several years, Calloway said.

“We are kind of familiar with how that works,” he said. “I also have students that are concurrently enrolled in Zoom classes at Carl Albert State College. We have remote information through concurrent enrollment.”

Zoom is a video conferencing service with cellphone apps available.

Gans also has Chromebooks available for its students, Calloway said, adding he doesn't have enough for every student, but could provide one Chromebook per family for the students to share at home.

“We had a meeting before spring break to start preparing for this to happen,” he said. “We started talking about what would distance learning at Gans school would look like if this came about, and it looks like it's going too.”

The Gans teachers have explored online options, and ways to better use the online tools they already have in place, he said.

“It's doable. One thing I can tell you for certain is you go into the elementary grades it becomes a little more challenging than it does with the older students,” he said.

Most elementary students are tech savvy, he said, but online formats for seventh- and eighth-graders are different than ones for first- and second graders, he said.

The amount of time students are in online classes will be shorter than in traditional classes, he added.

“It will be an abbreviated school day in some form. Class assignments will become smaller,” he said. “I just want to make sure we have an opportunity to get feedback from the parents, are communicating with each other as to how their children are progressing and address any concerns that they might have.”

Internet connectivity also will be a problem in the Gans district. The Gans school complex has a stong internet signal. However, connectivity is not as good in some parts of the district. Some people use internet hot spots in those areas, he said.

“The next two weeks will be a challenging time for us to have that ready to go on April 6,” he said.

The Roland superintendent said the district was in the early planning stages for distance learning.

“We are probably a lot like all the schools in the county. It's a pretty significant challenge to go to that type of format. It's not something that we have the structure in place to make that happen. We are working quickly to figure out how we can reach out to all of our students, and get our staff together. That will have to be done electronically as well.”

Martin said it will be a challenge, but the district will make it work.

“We are determined to do the best we can for our kids,” he said.

One of Hofmeister's priorities is to ensure high school seniors remain on track to graduation through distance learning.

Martin said the district wants to finish strong with this year's senior class, but wants all Roland students to receive a quality education from the district whether it's in the school building or some form of distance learning.

Many Roland students won't have access to a computer, a tablet or the internet, Martin said.

“We are going to have to be creative about how we reach out to them,” he said. “At this point, I don't know what shape that will take. We don't have the ability to supply everyone with a device like that right now. We are like a lot of schools around the state in that regard.”

Roland will look to the state Department of Education for guidance on how to reach those students. Their might be a pencil and paper option available, Martin said.

Hofmeister's proposal keeps school buildings closed, cancels in-person, traditional instruction and all extracurricular activities for the rest of the 2019-20 school year.

Beginning April 6, districts will be expected to provide distance learning for the remainder of the school year. Districts would start distance learning as well as special services for English learners and special education students once they have provided assurances to the state Department of Education that a distance learning plan is in place, according to the proposal.

The plan will present challenges to families and districts. Many districts districts have used online instruction, and should have an easy transition to the plan, she said.

“Other districts have significant technology limitations, while some might opt for instructional materials delivered to students. There will be a wide range of approaches and it will be far from ideal, but necessary as we embrace these changes and even sacrifice to protect the public health of our communities.

The state Department of Education will offer many resources and guidance for districts to pursue digital learning. The agency also is exploring how federal assistance could improve digital connectivity for some districts, Hofmeister said.

Oklahoma's educational public television network (OETN), also will provide help by broadcasting instructional daytime programming for the state's pre-k through 12th-grade students.

Late last week, the United States Department of Education granted waivers allowing the state to suspend standardized testing and Oklahoma School Report Cards for the 2019-20 school year.

On March 16, the State Board of Education closed public schools until April 6 to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.

The waivers mean Oklahoma schools will not administer academic assessments in English language arts, mathematics and science for grades 3-8 or high school juniors.

Sequoyah County Times

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