LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – In the weeks before students hit the hallways, school administrators were confident this year would go smoothly during the pandemic. In fact, the consistent message from school leaders was that they had a plan and they were much more prepared to handle this school year. Now school districts across the state are changing that plan, but what does that mean for the students?
It’s no secret virtual learning is not going the way teachers, parents, and students thought it would. Many districts are dropping one of their learning options and even dropping classes one day a week. District leaders are worried this could have a lasting effect on a large group of their kids.
Pre-COVID, students were tying their shoes, packing their bags, and getting on the bus all to be in their seats by the time the first bell rings. This year, however, many students are trading the desk for the kitchen table.
“We felt like we were in a much better place than last spring coming into the fall,” Little Rock School District Superintendent Michael Poore said.
Poore is echoing what just about every district leader thought going into this year. After months of planning, districts created three learning options they felt would tackle each student’s needs: traditional which is strictly in the classroom, virtual which is strictly online, and blended a mixture of the two. There was one thing this plan didn’t take into account.
“We had teachers that were staying up here at six, seven o’clock in the evenings. It was just a huge task for them,” North Little Rock School District Superintendent Dr. Keith McGee said.
“They were working late into the night. They were working Saturdays and Sundays to try and plan the best experiences for both students on-site and students virtually,” Hot Springs School District Superintendent Dr. Stephanie Nehus said.
Dr. McGee and Dr. Nehus say all three options created a burden on teachers to try and reach all three groups of students. They found those online students are a bit tougher to connect with, especially when they may not even be logging on.
“That motivation has to be there,” McGee said.
“That is the struggle I think for all of us is how to ensure that the students who might not be as self-motivated stay engaged and get the supports that they need to be successful,” Nehus said.
Because of this, Little Rock, North Little Rock and Hot Springs school districts decided to drop the blended option
“It would be silly if we just said ‘oh yeah we made this decision in August and we’re sticking with it.’ that’s not the world we’re living in right now,” Poore said.
Still, these superintendents say that’s not enough.
“We had to do something that’s why we modified our schedule to go to virtual learning Fridays,” McGee said.
NLRSD implemented one day a week that is strictly virtual.
“To relieve them of some of that time where they can spend just to collaborate, plan the lesson,” McGee said.
Little Rock and Hot Springs school districts only have an early release day during the week, but they are both looking at taking a full day.
“We have to be aware of how that impacts parents’ schedules. We have to be aware that every time we go virtual we also face the risk of possibly having a kid disengaged because the structure isn’t quite there and finally we have to think about our teachers,” Poore said.
From many students just not adapting to learning through a screen, to cutting out an entire day of learning each week, it begs the question: are students getting the same education they did pre-pandemic?
“That’s the goal, but the reality in my professional opinion is I don’t think that we’re there yet,” McGee said.
Until they do get there, Poore believes this could have a lasting impact on students.
“We face the risk of having a pretty significant chunk of student population that falls farther behind and is not prepared for the next transition into a different grade level, so that’s scary for any of us as administrators and should be for our community,” Poore said.
Nehus is confident as teachers get more time to focus on those virtual students the gap will shrink, but ultimately there is only so much teachers can do through a screen.
“We can provide the best when our students are in the classroom with us and that I don’t think will ever change even in this virtual world,” Nehus said.
As the pandemic wears on, district leaders are trying to find the balance between giving teachers a manageable workload while making sure students don’t fail virtually
All three superintendents say they won’t know how far students are falling behind until they do their state assessment. They all listed various resources for their virtual students and parents. They say it’s important to reach out to teachers and the district about any problems students may be facing right now.