Kodiak Island Borough Superintendent Larry LeDoux announced during a Board of Education meeting on Monday that he will convene a task force to examine possible school reopening plans for the fall.
Options for the fall include a traditional reopening of schools and in-person instruction, a rotating schedule to meet social distancing demands, distance online learning, or a combination of the above.
School buildings in the district have been closed since March 13, the beginning of spring break. When the break ended, students reconvened in online classrooms.
The decision on when and how to reopen schools in the fall will be made at the state level. LeDoux said the district needs to prepare for all scenarios.
“Our first hope is that everything will return to normal,” he said. “But that doesn’t seem to be the case.”
The task force, which will be assembled in early June and will include administrators, teachers, staff and parents, will examine possibilities such as staggered class schedules, increased school sanitation, extended hours, reduced class sizes and online learning.
The district will plan for flexibility, “so we can provide a seamless transition from one form of instruction to another,” LeDoux said, adding that he hopes to report the task force findings to the Board of Education by August.
“The reality is, we have no choice,” he said. “We just need to be ready.”
The Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, in partnership with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, announced on Wednesday that it has developed a framework to guide school districts to restart K-12 classes for the upcoming academic year.
The framework is based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for districts with low, moderate and high levels of COVID-19 community spread.
State medical experts will set parameters for each of these risk levels, and the districts will plan for teaching methods to fall within each risk level’s guidelines, depending on local risk factors for community spread, Dr. Michael Johnson, Alaska Department of Education and Early Development commissioner, said at a press briefing Wednesday.
“What we want to make sure is that regardless of the situation next year that teachers are teaching and students are learning. We want to pandemic-proof our school year,” he said.
As the Kodiak school district prepares for what’s to come, LeDoux said the goal will be to promote equity between student experiences, a difficult task as student home environments vary wildly. Some students rely on parent support, while others lack the basic needs to learn effectively at home, from a desk to a stable internet connection.
“Equity has to be the foundation of what we do. Equity is that every child, regardless of their circumstances, should have the opportunity to learn. That means that to treat them all the same, is to treat them unfairly,” LeDoux said.
The transition will likely incur unexpected costs. LeDoux said that converting all school toilets and sinks to no-touch automatic facilities would cost over $100,000. The district could spend around $22,000 per month on disposable face masks for students. And some expenses are yet unknown.
“I think we are going to need more psychologists,” said Board of Education member Judy Carstens. “The students are tired. Parents are tired. Teachers are exhausted. And they’re not going to get that summer off.”
Carstens warned that depression could impede student learning if COVID-19 related restrictions extend into the summer and fall.
“We’re realizing that our life is not going back to normal. So we are going to bring students back who are not happy,” she said. “I want to look at how we supply help for them, as well as education. I see that as a big problem in our community. I’m surprised right now that we have not had more mental health issues.”
LeDoux said the district’s adaptation after the sudden school closure this spring has been “extraordinary.” But the administration is in the process of surveying parents, teachers, aides and students to get a better sense of what worked and what didn’t.
The spring semester, which has included nine weeks of online instruction, was all about “holding down the fort,” LeDoux said. If online instruction continues into the spring, the emphasis will shift to improving the quality of remote classes and assignments.
Main Elementary School Principal Angie Chervenak said the elementary school team focused their attention in the spring “on providing access to materials and supporting students to maintain skills.”
The result was low student engagement with assignments and classwork. North Star Elementary Principal Kerry Irons said that in the fall, the district will need to transition its emphasis from accommodating students to ensuring that students meet minimum grade level expectations.
“When we first started this whole process, we knew that we were going to have a wide range of families who weren’t able to take advantage of the learning opportunities we are providing to their kids,” Irons said. “If we go forward next year with virtual efforts, it’s going to be really important to clarify expectations for participation and make it much more possible for some of those families to participate. We have work to do on that.”
Middle School Principal Eric Andersen said increased accountability will be necessary if online learning continues in the fall.
“We all know next year can’t continue like we’ve done it this year,” he said. “If we’re going to start with online education next year, if that’s how the cards fall, then we have to have a different approach, with more accountability set in place.”
Both Andersen and Kodiak High School Principal Mel LeVan are leaving the district this summer.
“It’s hard for me to walk away at this time because it is going to be very challenging over the summer to do better in the fall,” LeVan said. “At the high school, what this has exposed is we need to move towards a problem-based, inquiry-based system of education.”
LeVan emphasized the importance of socializing in the classroom, urging the district to recreate that process on BlueJeans, the interactive online video conferencing platform used by the district.
“You walk into a classroom, you set the stage as a teacher. The wonderful things that can happen during that time — it’s not something you can recreate by sitting a student alone by themselves in front of a computer,” LeVan said. “The challenge is to find in the homeschool environment some way to recreate … the social interactions centered around learning that happen in the classroom.”
LeDoux echoed LeVan’s hope for a problem-based learning process.
“It’s a community challenge,” he said. “I hope it’s a chance for innovation. We may be able because of this process to create innovations that last well beyond this crisis.”