Latoya Jordan expected some of her nearly 300 students might struggle with distance learning.
And not just because of the material. Because of their inability to access it.
Lacoochee Elementary, where she’s principal, sits in a rural corner of Pasco County that’s underserved by internet providers. Eighteen families with children in the school have no connection at all, she said.
Others in the largely poor, heavily minority community lack the means to provide the educational support their children need to complete the academic year curtailed by COVID-19.
“From this point until the end of the school year, there will be a lot of content kids won’t get that they should,” said Jordan, who grew up in the area and still lives nearby. “When kids come back in August, we have to start thinking about it now. How are we going to infuse that content into what they are learning?”
Since schools turned to remote instruction as a way to stall the spread of coronavirus, many experts have spoken at length about access and equity for students, and how it will impact children.
The “summer slide” is a common problem in education — especially among children like those at Lacoochee Elementary. But researchers worry this year’s learning losses could be much worse.
If that’s the case, Jordan raises the next logical question: What are school systems going to do about it?
Miami-Dade County superintendent Alberto Carvalho has become a national leader in the push to prepare for a very different learning environment in the summer and fall. It’s work that should have already begun, he argued.
At some schools in his district, more than a quarter of students have not logged in to their assignments. The prospect of students regressing in the fourth quarter — on top of the normal summer backsliding — will hit already-struggling students especially hard, he said.
“If you don’t begin to plan right now, in my opinion you are actually contributing to it,” Carvalho said.
It’s a topic of conversation across the state and nation. But not everyone has gotten as far down the path as Miami-Dade.
Florida’s rural districts, for instance, clearly see the need, said Donna Garcia, executive director of the Heartland Educational Consortium serving DeSoto, Glades, Hardee, Hendry, Highlands and Okeechobee counties. But educators there are still focused on reaching students now.
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Some only recently received laptop computers to provide to children. Internet service remains a hurdle for families who live country miles from the nearest school.
“Hopefully when we come back, we’ll have some reentry plans for how we address it," Garcia said.
Pasco County school superintendent Kurt Browning said his team always anticipated that some students would not engage in distance learning, for whatever reason. School leaders are tracking those families, he said, and talking with parents to see what they can do to help eliminate any obstacles in the process.
Those are getting handled one by one.
Discussions have begun in Pasco about extending school days and summer programs to catch kids up. But other issues, from weekly meal distribution to budget planning, also demand time.
“We have time to make the right decisions about summer school” and beyond, Browning said. “What does that look like? We don’t know yet.”
Pinellas County schools are farther along.
The district hopes to use its annual Summer Bridge program and related summer camps to both catch kids up and boost those who are already doing well and want to keep going, associate superintendent Kevin Hendrick said.
Everyone is hoping for face-to-face time. After all, if kids already have trouble with computer learning now, how will more of it help?
“If we can’t get kids together this summer, we’re looking at online opportunities that will be different" than what they’re seeing now, said Hendrick, who oversees the district’s teaching and learning division. “We’ll open it to every student that is interested.”
The initiative won’t be a rehash of the final quarter, he explained. Rather, it will offer ways for students to dig deeper on the content, to solidify the lessons.
The district is also contemplating ways to teach kids in small groups.
It’s retooling its curriculum for the first several weeks of the fall, too. Some low-stakes tests aimed solely at determining children’s academic needs would help teachers direct those lessons.
“We are sort of redesigning it to make sure we capture and reinforce the things that students didn’t master in these last nine weeks,” Hendrick said. “We don’t want students to feel stressed, and we don’t want teachers to feel stressed.”
Hendrick did not anticipate starting the school year earlier, or lengthening the time students attend daily. Extra art and physical education could be part of the mix, to keep creativity flowing. And special attention will go to kindergarten and first grade, where children are less able to deal with computerized lessons than are older students.
Hillsborough County school leaders are also working on a plan to tackle the anticipated learning losses. Like the other districts, they are identifying students they expect will be most at risk and are looking at initiatives for the summer and beyond.
Superintendent Addison Davis said the model might include “transitional” grade levels for students who don’t need to be held back, but aren’t quite ready to advance. Teaching programs aimed at bridging curriculum gaps are under consideration, as are other forms of support, Davis said.
Whatever they do will cost money, which could be in short supply as the economy tanks and budgets shrink.
“It’s worth the money to meet the intensity and the need," Davis said. "We can’t afford to let students sit on the sideline between now and when we return, and then address the deficiencies that might exist.”
If that means reshuffling priorities and personnel, “then that’s exactly what we’ll do," he added.
Davis anticipated having a more detailed plan in a week or so. In the meantime, he said, if Miami-Dade has good ideas, “tell them to share.”
Carvalho has not been shy about that.
Miami-Dade has developed a series of safety nets aimed in particular at reaching the students who either cannot or do not connect to its remote system. The approach is by design redundant, the superintendent explained, “so if we don’t catch them in one place, we’ll get them elsewhere.”
Among the components are an extended school year, an expanded summer program that includes a “robust” face-to face-portion if possible alongside an aggressive virtual section led by the most successful remote teachers, and an earlier start time for the fall semester.
The district would focus on students who have fallen behind, historically underperforming groups, and children who did not get all the expected enrichment during the spring. It plans to leave its devices and hotspots in place for anyone who needs them.
“All students will have access beyond the last day of school,” Carvalho said.
Other aspects of his plan include targeted in-person or digital tutoring and other assistance, and a continuation of remote learning for families that have decided they like it and choose to keep their children at home after buildings reopen.
“It’s not brain surgery,” Carvalho said of the district’s plan.
It relies on the best research available, he said. “The concept that when we resume it’s all normal, that’s a fallacy.”
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at email@example.com.
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