Monday, May 20, 2024

Two School Districts’ Adaptations to COVID-Era Realities: What We’ve Learned

Recently we at Cognitive ToyBox interviewed Dr. Melissa Mendoza-Thompson, the principal of the Marycrest Early Childhood Center in the Joliet Public Schools District 86 in Illinois, and Chandra Youngblood, director of elementary education at the Battle Creek School District in Michigan. We wanted to find out more about how their summer planning has prepared districts for remote and hybrid learning during the pandemic, and what we could learn from it.

More specifically, the product team at Cognitive ToyBox is prioritizing our 2021 product roadmap. As part of that process we conduct field research to make sure that the feature and user interface improvements on the top of our list are also on the top of our customers’ list. We found for the most part that our plans are aligned to their needs — with a few slightly surprising differences.

Cognitive ToyBox’s recent reviews of teachers’ struggles, and students’ experiences during COVID has shaped its product planning.

Below are takeaways from our conversations with officials in those school districts on how they’re trying to overcome challenges posed by COVID-19, as well as the support they’re looking for.

Joliet Public Schools District 86

District 86 began proactively planning for this fall’s hybrid and remote scenarios as early as June. The early childhood team was invited to the district planning meetings, which doesn’t always happen because early childhood sometimes gets overlooked by K-12 district leaders.

A cross section of technology, curriculum, administration, and other representatives from the district met weekly to discuss both hybrid and remote options, with the goal of being able to flip back and forth if necessary.

Over the summer, the district sent each parent a survey, called each of those parents, and also surveyed its teachers. Ninety-one percent of its teachers answered the survey, and of those, the vote was about 50/50 between those who favored hybrid learning, as opposed to solely distance learning in the fall. In early August, the district notified parents that the start of the school year would be fully virtual at all grade levels, with the exception of the district delivering in-person instruction to some special needs children.

It was not an easy decision. Mendoza-Thompson and her teachers have been cautious about increasing screen time, given a growing body of research that indicates that our youngest learners can especially be adversely affected. Distance learning poses a balancing act for preschool parents because they and their children need to be online to interact with their teachers and classmates, as well as to access recommended activities, yet there is also pressure to stay offline. In response, the district has provided educational products that emphasize offline activities for caregivers to do at home with their children. This was one of the areas in which our thinking aligned strongly with the district’s. We had already made sure that the daily activities we curate for at-home use were mostly offline rather than digital experiences, and this confirmation renewed our commitment to that policy.

Another important data point for our assessment product that we learned is that teachers have been creating activities that they can use to assess children when they are on live instructional time, via Zoom. We had already been thinking about ways to make the process of capturing observational data via Zoom easier for teachers.

Hearing more precisely about some of the successes and challenges that teachers encountered as they braved the world of remote assessment for the first time sparked a bunch of ideas for our product team.

One more creative partnership is with their local park district and YMCA. They are assisting teachers in their childcare programs and Joliet students in their care with logging into remote learning, feeding school lunches, and troubleshooting technology (for instance, having extra power cords on site in case students forget to charge their Chromebooks).

Instead of collecting a high volume of assessment data, the district is going deep on the data that it is able to collect. This shift evolved out of necessity, due to the difficulty of evaluating their preschool students remotely. However, now they are thinking that approaching assessment with more focus and intentionality will continue as a positive offshoot from this pandemic-enforced virtual learning situation. This finding was more unanticipated, as we had previously assumed schools would still place an emphasis on collecting the myriad of mandated assessment data points at the preK level. As some states are relaxing the data collection requirements that some have long argued are overblown, we are watching to see if this is a trend or simply a short-term blip.

Battle Creek School District

Virtual learning has made it necessary for educators to ask parents to take on a lot more academic responsibilities at home, said Chandra Youngblood, the director of elementary education at the Battle Creek School District, in Michigan. She made this observation this spring, as part of a panel discussion moderated by Mort Sherman from AASA — the School Superintendents Association —  at the Young Child Expo and Conference.

Youngblood highlighted a number of developments in her district that reflect the changing role of parents. She said the district’s elementary education team was planning to survey parents to determine interest in educational programs and support over the summer. The school system’s literacy tutors were poised help kindergartners with learning loss at the beginning of school.

This fall, the Battle Creek district’s pre-K-5 children returned in person, while students in upper grade levels all started virtually.

The elementary schools are utilizing a face-to-face cohort system, in which kids remain in one classroom except during recess. Specialized instruction such as art is provided by teachers who rotate into the classroom rather than having kids move into an art room. The district can then contact-trace more effectively if necessary. Their class sizes are 21 students or fewer with some as low as nine per class.

Youngblood recently updated us how different aspects of the Battle Creek district’s learning model have evolved during COVID.

Teachers Were Nimble During Summer Learning

A survey sent out by Youngblood’s team revealed that most parents did want a summer program. Battle Creek ended up providing a virtual summer program focusing on literacy for K-5 students. The program was very well-received, although one unanticipated glitch occurred when the district did not receive their hard copy materials due to the vendor’s NYC distribution center being shut down due to COVID restrictions. Teachers stepped up and adjusted as needed. They taught the lessons and substituted other books that families already had on hand until the book shipment arrived during the last week of the program.

Youngblood noted that the supply chain for various products including digital devices was a problem over the summer, and that’s a lingering issue this fall. The district did not run their usual summer Pre-K program because the state’s licensing rules were too difficult to meet. Instead, they created a program for the preschoolers by placing Pre-K and K resources and activities into backpacks that were distributed to the Pre-K families.

Elementary School Classroom at Battle Creek SD
Battle Creek, MI, Elementary Classroom, fall 2020

Literacy Tutoring Was Set Back

The district’s literacy tutoring program has been negatively affected by COVID-19. The 25-hour per week positions were mostly filled by elderly adults, many of whom are now caring for grandchildren or spouses at home.

There are currently 14 vacancies in the program. Unfortunately, the assessment data are showing that the children educated through virtual learning are not scoring as well as those who are in-person, even part-time.

Teachers’ Roles Changed

Youngblood noted that a good deal of the teachers’ energy is focused on sanitizing and cleanliness. The district brought an expert health official to meet with the teachers to establish a collective understanding about how contact tracing works and to help support the district’s sanitation process.

Unanticipated Tech Support Requirements

Providing tech support for families has been an unanticipated burden on the district. Many parents and caregivers who know how to use apps on their phones are struggling with more unfamiliar yet basic computer skills such as turning on a Chromebook and logging into and navigating a website. The district has needed to hire additional personnel to answer the increased demand for tech support. Learning about this gave us advance warning so we could put additional support in place.

One positive side effect that Youngblood shared is that even though they are back in the classroom for now, kids are being taught using the district-provided digital devices. Their hope is that this will lead to students and their parents being more comfortable with virtual learning and technology in the future. She believes that the district will only increase its use of technology as time goes on to account for when children may be unexpectedly homebound for various lengths of time.

Both of these districts have made broad adjustments in the face of challenges posed by COVID. Hopefully, their experiences can help other other school systems adapt during these difficult times.

Post-publication update: Due to the rising cases in the county, it has been difficult to maintain an appropriate level of day to day staffing. As a result, Battle Creek went remote on 11/23 and is expected to return in-person on 1/18/21.

Image courtesy of Chandra Youngblood, Battle Creek School District

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