A survey by the Abilene National Education Association chapter found that teachers are struggling, doing double-duty — trying to instruct students face-to-face in the classroom and online through remote learning.
“The comments that came on those surveys, quite frankly, broke our hearts,” said Superintendent Greg Brown. “We realized something has to happen.”
Brown and Assistant Superintendent Dana Sprinkle addressed parents and school district patrons online through a video posted Friday on the district’s YouTube webpage 5 Star Studios. (A link can be found at www.abileneschools.org)
“Our teachers have always worked very, very hard to provide a first-class instructional setting for our students and their hearts have not changed because of COVID-19,” he explained. “Their work to provide a first-rate instruction not only face-to-face but on Zoom proved to be overwhelming. So some things had to give.”
One of the solutions to solve the problem involves adding five early release (teacher inservice) days to the second semester in 2021, giving teachers time for lesson plan production.
The Abilene Board of Education approved the proposal during its Monday, Dec. 14 meeting. But since that time one component of the plan has changed: Abilene Middle School students will be out of school all-day, along with elementary school students.
“We’ve been continuing our conversation with teachers and we realized there was a communication glitch with teachers at the middle school level,” Brown said, because middle schoold teachers also needed additional time for planning.
“We extended the full-time release day for students in preK through 8th grade,” Brown said.
The early release days are set for Jan. 15, Feb. 10, March 24, April 21 and May 5.
While elementary and middle school students will be out all day, Abilene High School students will attend half a day of school and be released at 1 p.m.
In another change from previous years, school lunches will be served to all students on early release days, whether they go to school half a day or not at all.
“Since the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) is providing free meals for all our students that gives us the opportunity to handle things a little different than in the past,” explained Asst. Supt. Sprinkle.
“So we’re not only talking about these five (early release) days, but also working on all the other days that are no school days during the second semester. It might be an inservice day or parent teacher conference — we’re working on ways we can provide meals.
Sprinkle said information will be distributed to families in advance so they will know how to plan for those days and can sign up for available meals.
Virtual School for some
Another change during second semester will move sixth through 12th graders who have been in remote learning over to the virtual school program.
Because of COVID-19, families this school year had the option to have their students attend school online or face-to-face in the traditional school setting.
Abilene’s Virtual School has existed for many years and allows students to receive instruction through a program monitored by the teachers.
“Our virtual program is unlike other virtual programs,” Brown said. “We will work to maintain a regular adult connection with each of our kiddos.”
The second semester’s virtual program will have some differences between traditional virtual school and that’s something that will need to be discussed with parents.
“We need to have each of our parents for each student contact their principal and talk about what this looks like,” Brown said. “They will need to look at the details to truly understand what the differences are.”
Parents of participating students at Abilene Middle School are asked to contact Principal Jenna Delay by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (785) 263-1471. Participating Abilene High School students should contact Principal Ben Smith by email at email@example.com or by phone at (785) 263-1260.
Brown said he understands that some families are unhappy with the change. He heard from one family that feels the district is turning its back on the remote learners.
“I certainly hope we’re not doing that,” he said. “I can understand what families are thinking, but we need to find some ways to provide some relief.”
Brown and Sprinkle both said the first semester of the 2020-21 school year has been a challenging one with families struggling to balance remote learning, childcare, quarantines and other issues.
Recently, a survey was sent out to parents asking parents about their concerns.
First off, it showed parents want the schools to be open for face-to-face learning as much as possible.
Sprinkle said many parents expressed concerns about their child’s academic progress when they are in remote learning. Likewise, teachers have tried hard to provide remote instruction as well as face-to-face learning.
“We do know a few students really flourished in the remote experience, but know many have struggled and struggled to maintain their level of engagement,” Sprinkle said.
“Add to that the quarantines and sometimes multiple quarantines for some students,” she added, explaining the district is evaluating the relationship between academic progress and the number of days a student was out of the classroom in remote learning or quarantine.
That information will be shared in the future.
Brown said he has heard from numbers of parents who are concerned about finding childcare and balancing those needs with the need to work. Many have missed a lot numerous work days when their children are sent home due to quarantines.
“Several parents, quite frankly, are concerned about losing their jobs,” Brown said. “We understand that it’s very difficult during these times to miss work so much. Certainly our hearts went out to those parents.”
Other parents are concerned because they have had to rely on their oldest child to babysit younger siblings and in many cases the oldest child is still very young when students are sent home to learn in the remote setting— which is yet another concern, Brown said.
Schools typically have been moving to remote learning when a building reaches an approximate 15 percent absentee rate or when 15 percent of teachers are unable to come to work because they are either sick or in quarantine.
“It becomes difficult for that building to stay in face-to-face learning,” Brown said.
Even if the teacher is still able to teach from home while being quarantined or sick, the district has to hire a substitute to monitor the children in the classroom.
Brown noted that last week at Abilene Middle School one teacher was out due to a positive COVID test, but eight others were out for other reasons, “none of them connected to the teacher” who had COVID, he said.
He also noted it’s very difficult to find substitute teachers. Sprinkle commented that school principals have had to find ways to “get very creative” as well to staff classrooms in order to remain in face-to-face learning.
Contact Kathy Hageman at firstname.lastname@example.org