Schools plans to push ahead with distance learning

BY JENNIFER PALMER
Oklahoma Watch
03/24/2020 01:00 PM
Main Cherokee Phoenix
A view down an empty hallway in a Tulsa school. State education officials are in discussions with school leaders on ways they can restart learning while social distancing. WHITENY BRYEN/OKLAHOMA WATCH
Main Cherokee Phoenix
Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that produces in-depth and investigative stories on important issues facing the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, go to oklahomawatch.org. COURTESY
OKLAHOMA CITY – School buildings may stay shuttered into summer due to COVID-19 but the state Education Department has begun giving school districts the green light to provide alternative instruction beginning April 6.

State education officials are in discussions with school leaders on ways they can restart learning while social distancing. 

Virtual schooling is one solution, but one that presents significant logistical challenges in some school communities. 

Districts could come up with other forms of distance learning, depending on their students’ needs. It’s still unclear whether any educational activities or lessons could be required for students or would just be recommended to keep students engaged.

All Oklahoma public schools are closed – with no teaching, grading or extracurricular activities – until April 6. State tests are canceled and the state will not issue school report cards for 2019-20. 

The State Board of Education was expected to meet March 25 to discuss whether to extend the school closure. But education officials are encouraging district leaders to start planning for that now.

Making a sudden switch to online schooling will be easier for some districts than others.
Nationwide, 41% of school districts could not provide every student with virtual lessons, while just 22% could for as long as needed, according to a recent Education Week Research Center survey of district leaders and principals. 

Virtual schools will more easily be poised to restart their classes and districts that offer online schooling to a portion of students could re-engage them and expand the courses to others.

Norman Public Schools, which already provides students in sixth through twelfth grades a laptop to take home, will start a “distance-learning program” after April 6, if school buildings remain closed. 

Epic Charter Schools, the state’s largest virtual school, announced it will resume virtual instruction and operations to all its students, and teachers will meet with students remotely. 

Providing instruction to the 38,500 students in Tulsa Public Schools will be considerably more challenging. The district was planning to launch a new website with home learning resources and materials on March 23. 

Connectivity is the biggest hurdle facing El Reno Public Schools in providing online instruction to its 2,700 students, 80% of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a measure of poverty. 

Superintendent Craig McVay said the district likely has enough devices for all students in fifth grade and up but many students can’t connect at home. 

“We don’t know what to do with that,” he said. “As a school district, we have not prepared for large-scale digital learning.” 

One idea on the table is a potential partnership with the El Reno Tribune newspaper, which has offered to print lessons and learning activities for students. 

Internet access is a big hurdle, particularly in rural areas with 22% percent of Oklahoma households lacking broadband internet, according to the 2016 U.S. Census. The percentage is lower in many southern and southwestern states, including Oklahoma. 

With schools closed across the country, the Federal Communications Commission is trying to improve students’ home internet access through a program that provides internet in schools and libraries. E-rate funds are currently for classrooms only, but the FCC is seeking congressional approval to use the funds on students’ in-home connectivity, according to Education Week. 

In considering how to provide distance learning, some school district leaders were unsure it could be done without running afoul of federal law, which guarantees a free and appropriate public education to students with disabilities. 

On March 21, the U.S. Department of Education said ensuring compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, “should not prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction.” 

Schools may not be able to provide all services in the same way they typically do, the department said, but certain services and modifications can be provided online, such as extensions of time for assignments, videos with captioning or sign-language interpreting, accessible reading materials and speech or language services through video conferencing. 

In Kansas, schools are closed for the rest of the academic year but education officials there said they will continue to educate the state’s children and were to present a plan to do so on March 25, according to the Kansas City Star.

California’s Los Angeles Unified School District will teach its nearly 700,000 students remotely through a partnership with local public television, the district announced. Three local channels will broadcast content for students in pre-K through 12th grade, providing educational resources regardless of families’ internet access. 

The district is also fundraising to provide meals and supplies to students and their families and bridging the digital divide with devices and digital resources. 

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