The spread of COVID-19 has put the Idaho school system’s emergency preparedness to the test. To some experts, it has also exposed the cracks in the system.
“Going from 30 kids at work to six, it’s pretty huge,” said Amie Heatherton, a teacher and graduate student at Boise State University. “Keeping them engaged in school is hard enough. … I can only speculate if they get some structure at home.”
Schools across the state are struggling to adapt to the necessity of social distancing. The Boise School District and West Ada both have gone to a digital-only curriculum, and the Boise School District is helping students get connected to the web as best it can. But shifting to any online-only school system has its shortcomings, especially when access to the internet is unequal across the student body.
Heatherton is an intern with Idaho Digital Learning Academy. While most curricula across the country have transitioned to online, that doesn’t mean that the students were working from home in the first place. In fact, all of the services offered by IDLA are in completed in a classroom setting. Heatherton has had to completely rearrange the lesson plans, but that’s still not always enough, she said.
“That’s been really interesting because they’re no longer in school,” Heatherton said. “I had to kind of scramble and modify the whole unit. … Now they’re down to two lessons a week instead of four.”
In Heatherton’s case, she and her colleagues have had to decide what it is that they plan to modify. Given the tight turnaround, there hasn’t been time to design an entire new curriculum. What’s more, the programs are no longer graded; instead, the curriculum has shifted to a pass/fail model.
“They’re trying to be super flexible,” she said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to the kids that don’t do it.”
Heatherton, said a potetntial positive change that may come out of this pandemic is conversations about access to the internet, and making sure that students can connect to it reliably.
For Shaura Miller, who is a former IDLA intern and recent masters program graduate, teaching online during a pandemic has effectively eviscerated her class attendance.
“Most parents are concerned with employment and keeping food on the table right now,” she said.
Miller taught an eighth grade class on a reservation in northern Idaho. Her class size was 15 students, but once the school shifted to an online-only curriculum, few students continued to turn in work. Even if there is a way for a student to connect online, a parent might need it for work.
“It’s really hard to do homework on a [smartphone] that your parent needs all day,” she said.
The long-term impacts of this on the education system are impossible to predict, but it does represent an opportunity to evaluate systemic shortcomings, said Kerry Rice, a Boise State professor who focuses on online learning.
“The number one thing is getting those communication lines open,” she said. “Right now, there’s probably very little learning going on, and that’s OK until everyone gets settled.”
The biggest immediate impact, to Rice’s mind, is the uncertainty and confusion about how long the pandemic will continue, and by extension how long the school system will have to remain remote. A major adjustment for the teachers is their role in the classroom.
“It’s more of a mindset shift,” she said. “When you truly move online, the teacher’s role changes significantly.”
It’s impossible to get students to focus on a six-hour web conference. Instead, teachers can only rely on one to two hours of face-time with students; the rest is done remotely. That means for teahcers, enforcing any sort of order effectively goes out the window.
“You find out very quickly that you don’t have the power anymore,” she said. “Our expectations need to be realistic.”
Advocates say the approach needs to be more student-centric, because teachers won’t be able to rely on a classroom setting. Regardless, school officials should be preparing for the possibility of this extending longer than the summer.
“What if it moves into the fall? How are we going to get the cirriculum online?” Rice said.
There is also an opportunity here to evaluate how schools address accessibility. The conversations about how to accommodate students with disabilities haven’t yet behun.
“I do hope they take advantage of this opportunity,” Rice said. “We might have known, but we didn’t grasp the extent of student access.”
Not all of the changes need to happen within school districts, Rice said. Some will have to happen at the statehouse, which won’t convene again until 2021.
“In a lot of states, they’re really struggling with the legislation on teacher work hours,” she said.
With some effort, schools may be able to streamline student services and better meet the needs of all of its students. For now, it’s a simple matter of adapting.
“There are ways to do it. … It’s just getting all of those systems and set ups running,” Rice said. “I think it’s going to be a huge adjustment.”