Here are some of the top stories we’re following for Tuesday, August 29, 2020.
Parents in Red Clay School District, told they must decide between in-person and virtual learning by Friday, say they are being pressured into making a choice with not enough information.
In a message to parents on Friday afternoon, the district outlined the two options. They could either keep their children learning at home, or have them attend school in person four days a week, with one day of home learning.
Families are also being asked to sign a waiver for in-person learning, agreeing that the district is not liable for anything “resulting from exposure, illness, or injury relating to or as a result of communicable diseases including COVID-19.”
“We have a large population of students with disabilities who have issues that may present challenges in terms of their ability to wear a mask,” Superintendent Dorrell Green said. “There’s a whole host of things that I think are unique to Red Clay that relegated and made it our choice to put that in as part of our reopen process.”
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For parents ready to send their children back to school, the hybrid plans are welcome news. But some parents and students are questioning the quality of the district’s remote learning option, which involves self-directed learning, with little live teacher instruction, through a third-party online education website.
To some parents, being told their child could “continue with virtual learning” came across as misleading and vague.
Before, parents assumed a switch to hybrid learning would mean virtual students would continue Zoom lessons with their teachers as they have so far this fall.
But the district’s online learning option will now be taught through Accelerate Education, a website that specializes in online learning curriculum. The district has used the program in the past for credit recovery and summer learning.
Because the district is familiar with the program, it was the best option to continue offering quality online learning while expanding in-person options, Green said. Over the past month, many elementary parents have said the amount of time students are spending on Zoom has become overwhelming, he said. A more self-directed learning model would cut down that screen time.
RCCSD Superintendent Dorrell Green speaks to the Class of 2019 from Cab Calloway School of the Arts as they take part in the school’s graduation ceremony on May 31, 2019. (Photo: Louis Mason, The News Journal)
The learning platform would still include grading and feedback from Red Clay teachers, and is recommended for students who prefer a “more independent, self-directed learning experience,” according to district plans sent to parents.
“The amount of learning time and individual schedules depend on the student; learning is self-directed,” the district said in its message to parents.
The unveiling of Red Clay’s hybrid learning plans comes as districts across the state piece together how to reenter schools. And after starting the year virtually in September, most districts set goals of transitioning to hybrid learning by mid-October.
Parents have been told they must make a decision by Friday. But for some, important questions still linger. District plans offer few details of what learning through Accelerate Education would look like. It is unclear how much interaction a student would have with a teacher, if any at all.
“Accelerate Education is another tool we would be able to use to enhance, knowing that the way staffing looks currently with everyone being remote will have to change to some degree,” Green said.
Specifics are still “a moving target,” he said. Key decisions are largely dependent on teacher and family preferences, which the district is still receiving. The district is trying to figure out how to supplement Accelerate Education with teacher supports, but is not sure what that would look like yet.
“I was excited to see that there’s something happening; the kids want to get back to school,” parent Zachary Hansen said. “They sent a PDF; I opened that. It probably took me 30 minutes to figure it out.”
Those 30 minutes included back and forth with his eighth-grade daughter and other parents, trying to interpret what the district meant, Hansen said.
Accelerate Education sounded more like “outsourced schooling,” said Diane Baiardi, whose first-grade daughter attends Marbrook Elementary.
“I’ve been raving about how informative Red Clay has been all summer and through this fall, up until this point,” Baiardi said. “Now, we feel like we are being ambushed with two choices that are not clearly defined at all.”
Teachers have also felt left in the dark, wondering whether they’ll be forced to teach in-person, or given the flexibility to teach from home if they or family members have health risks. They also aren’t sure if they’ll have the same class of students once schools transition to a hybrid model.
“I don’t think anybody knows exactly how it’s going to work,” Hansen said. “There’s been no communication about the process, or timing or classes.”
Schools have taken different precautions with returning students as the pandemic continues. (Photo: Halfpoint, Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Since the summer, there’s been a lack of clarity when it comes to “hybrid learning.” The catch-all term covers a variety of learning setups. In some districts, families are given the choice between learning entirely from home or entirely from school. In others, students have split schedules, with students spending alternating days in person or at home.
In districts like Red Clay that opted for a virtual start, parents started the year not sure what to expect come October. Some assumed students could use Zoom to watch live lessons being taught in the classroom, but the district is unable to accommodate that, Green said.
“We have over 1,000 classrooms throughout our district,” Green said. “That might work for some smaller settings, but it’s not as easy as just flipping a switch for us to actually do that in every classroom.”
Families weighing the decision between online and in-person are also having to take into account their child’s classes. Red Clay offers a variety of dual language and magnet programs. Virtual learning through Accelerate Education doesn’t accommodate those specialized curricula.
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Baiardi’s daughter is in Marbrook Elementary’s Spanish immersion program. But she’s choosing online learning because of her father’s health risks, and won’t be able to take part in the curriculum.
Students at Cab Calloway School of the Arts haven’t been told if their arts classes would translate to Accelerate Education. Connor Reagan, a senior at Cab Calloway, worried that online learning would force him to replace Advanced Placement courses with other, less vigorous classes offered through Accelerate Education.
The district is working with the high schools to figure out ways students can continue specialized classes that aren’t offered on Accelerate Education, Green said. But none of that was initially communicated to students like Reagan.
“We know that we have specific courses that aren’t necessarily transferable [to Accelerate Education],” Green said. “It will be a collaborative venture. We have to get creative with scheduling.”
After talking about the two learning options with friends across the district, Reagan and his classmate Reuben Becker-Klein decided to start a petition with the goal of Red Clay continuing with virtual learning as-is. As of Tuesday morning, the petition had garnered more than 730 signatures.
“The online option was not an option. It seemed more like a cop-out more than anything,” Reagan said. “I get that the Phase 1 plan hasn’t been perfect, but I’d rather not go from bad to worse.”
Zoom lessons have improved over time, Reagan said, as teachers have gotten more comfortable with the system and figured out how to adjust lesson plans.
Making students switch to new classes, new teachers and a new learning platform feels like the district is upending an already tumultuous year, Reagan’s mother Linda Reagan said.
“If you don’t read the fine print and go to the program specifics, you might not even realize that in high school, half of your classes are unavailable,” she said.
In preliminary surveys of parent preferences, anywhere from 48% to 75% of families favored in-person learning, depending on the building, Green said at the district’s September board meeting.
So far, the district has not considered any sort of lottery program, should too many families select in-person learning, Green said. Instead, schools will need to get creative and maximize all available space, he said.
“When you have the diverse demographics and geographic region that we serve as a district, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all remedy to this environment that we’re currently in,” Green said. “Unfortunately, what we were used to, may not be for some time.”
Natalia Alamdari covers education for The News Journal. You can reach her at (302) 324-2312 or [email protected]
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