Iowa Schools Are Working Out Plans To Teach From A Distance

Apr 9, 2020

School buildings will remain closed through at least the end of the month because of the coronavirus outbreak. Now, school districts must decide how they’ll go forward teaching Iowa students while they stay home.

The Iowa Department of Education laid out some basic options for districts to follow. One possibility is a voluntary approach, providing optional learning materials for everyone who wants them.

“They have to make them available to the students either through sending information home physically or providing some way to locate those on the web,” said Iowa State Education Association president Mike Beranek. “Schools need to engage the learners one way or the other.”

Districts can also make distance learning mandatory, which means it must be as close to regular school as possible. Teachers would even grade assignments and take attendance.

“They would be providing the rigorous content covered during a regular school day, and that information, that content, has to be accessible by all children,” Beranek said. “So when a district moves to that plan, then they have to ensure that all students have the capability of participating in that learning.”

In many cases, voluntary and mandatory learning may look similar. The difference may be whether schools can ensure every student has equal access.

Making connections

Linn-Mar, a fast-growing district on the northeast side of Cedar Rapids, is dividing grades so that distance learning will be voluntary for students through middle school, but it will be mandatory at the high school level.

High school students will go to classes in the morning through video conferencing and work on assignments on their own in the afternoon, said superintendent Shannon Bisgard. To do that, every student must have a computer and internet access. That fit with the high school because one of those pieces was already in place.

“Our high school is a one-to-one building, so every student has a laptop or a device they brought home before spring break in anticipation that this may happen,” Bisgard said.

The district is working to help some families connect to the internet, but Linn-Mar and other districts that have provided laptops and iPads are ahead of the curve when it comes to moving classes online. That’s something not every district can match.

Clarke Community Schools, which includes Osceola and the surrounding area, is going the voluntary route for the whole district. Superintendent Steve Seid said online lessons will be available and families can pick up paper lesson packets weekly, which is something many schools are doing. But, Seid said, it became clear that internet access is a barrier to making lessons mandatory.

“Not every student has internet access,” Seid said. “We’re sending out a paper copy survey as we hand out meals to try and get a clear indication of the availability of internet to our families, but we know there are some without.”

Schools and teachers are trying to provide as much as they can as quickly as they can. Des Moines Public Schools, the state’s largest district, is beginning with a voluntary plan but is also working grade-by-grade, starting with seniors, to give out computers and provide internet to everyone who needs it. Superintendent Thomas Ahart said the district has enough devices to give one to every student, but estimated 7,000 of the district’s nearly 33,000 students lack home internet.

“The big challenge, obviously, will be getting all of our students connected to the internet so that they can be actively connected with our instructional staff on a daily basis,” Ahart said.

The current school shutdown will last until at least April 30, but DMPS plans to provide online learning across the district for the rest of the school year, making it mandatory at the high school level as soon as Monday for the senior class and the following week for underclassmen.

Risk of falling behind

Special education students and English language learners face additional challenges connecting with distance learning. If schools take the voluntary route they must provide an alternative to what would be available in school. Under the mandatory plan they have to make sure students receive that instruction in one form or another.

That’s easier said than done, according to Cindy Yelich, the chief administrator of the Great Prairie Area Education Agency which covers southeast Iowa. Yelich said schools choosing mandatory distance learning must review each student’s individualized education plan, or IEP, to make it fit with the shutdown.

Some students may only need small changes to receive extra reading or speech materials, but other students count on one-on-one instruction with a teacher.

“For our kids that are visually impaired, a lot of them have mobility goals that are teaching them how to get around a community,” Yelich said. “Obviously, in this time when we're encouraging people to stay home and not do that, you're looking at a very different kind of goal.”

Another concern is how school closures will impact the achievement gap in Iowa. Ahart at DMPS said the students who are struggling to keep up in school are the ones who can least afford to miss time. He said it’s important for students to connect with teachers to keep from losing what they’ve learned.

“Anyone who thinks that we can have students away from school as they are accustomed to and away from their teachers and that learning loss isn’t going to happen are absolutely kidding themselves,” Ahart said.

When students do go back to school, whether that’s next month or next fall, schools will have to figure out where students are and how to help them catch up for lost time.

The state’s 330 public school districts must report by Friday what kind of distance learning they’ll offer starting Monday, April 13. If they provide nothing, the Department of Education says shutdown days will have to be made up, but as long as they at least offer voluntary options the days will count on the school calendar.