Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - October 2, 2020

Accepting the challenge, making a difference

Discussions about COVID-19's impact on schools has largely been limited to the effect on students and their parents. But little public attention has been given to the effect on school administrators, staff and teachers. Everything from lesson plans to facility operations have had to be reworked in a short time, often including utilizing unfamiliar technology. And schooling is far more than just academics. How to handle sports, extracurricular activities, lunchrooms, busing and a whole range of other issues had to be addressed. Plans implemented often have to be revised quickly because of constantly-changing scenarios.

I received an administrator's perspective from Brad Starnes, superintendent of nearby Wabaunsee Unified School District 329. His original expectation was to go virtual from day-one. But a survey of his district's families found more than 95 percent wanted face-to-face on-site instruction.

A factor I never considered also played a role. Brad said his county's suicide rate is five times the national average. In-person learning seemed the safest choice for his students, as COVID has exacerbated depression, anxiety, drug use and alcohol abuse. To help, the district received a Mental Health Intervention Team (MHIT) grant that provides for mental health professionals in its schools.

He said a $209,000 federal Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas (SPARKS) grant through the county helped purchase:

- electrostatic disinfectant sprayers for classrooms and vehicles
- an Acellus Academy online delivery system
- Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV)-13 air handler filters
- High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) fans
- sneeze guards
- thermal imaging cameras for taking temperatures

The staff had professional development training to help them prepare for the changes. Students and staff are required to wear face masks per the governor's order.

Husband Art and I worked with Brad when he was the superintendent of our district and knew him as a compassionate, resourceful and no-nonsense leader who was always diligent about keeping himself educated. So while I wasn't surprised he was so well-informed, I was in awe of the range of issues he and his staff have had to address. And so far, their planning has paid off as they've had one COVID-positive case and only a handful of quarantines.

Sister Gaila is a librarian at the American Cooperative School in La Paz, Bolivia. When her K-12 school implemented remote learning, a problem was how to encourage students to read books when they can't visit the library.

E-books are an option for older students who know how to read and are tech-savvy. But elementary students have their teachers or Gaila read to them. The school's solution was to create "virtual libraries." The library page of the school's website has virtual "books" on virtual "bookshelves" surrounded by plants, rocking chairs and other items typical of a school library. A mouse click on a book opens it on YouTube. Students have the option of listening to the stories or muting the sound and reading the text themselves.

With Zoom video conferencing software, Gaila "attends" K-3 classes to work with individual students or read books to the whole class using an online guided reading program. She also prepared bags with 20 books each for these classes. She said the youngsters were excited to get "real" books.

Daughter Mariya explained how she is handling the classes she teaches at Kansas State University:

I'm teaching my class partly asynchronously on Canvas [an on-line system of grade keeping, assignment posting, etc. that students can access at any time], partly synchronously with a hybrid in-person or Zooming option on Wednesdays, and Zoom-only on Fridays. All of these modalities are new to me. I also decided to change the content of one course a bit. Needless to say, I've been a bit overwhelmed.

My hybrid classes started with most of the students in-person and has dwindled to less than a third. I'm trying to share my screen and sound, cover the Zoom chat, discuss and answer questions in person, and get the technology in the classroom to work ...

There are times I've missed questions in the Zoom chat, had students log off mid-class because I couldn't see their Zoom windows and they were having their own tech issues, been flustered by a clip not sharing correctly, and spent a solid amount of class time ... setting everything up .... My classes are built around discussions/activities, community building, and depend heavily on student engagement. That has been a real struggle so far.

I'm learning lots of new skills and am getting better at managing the time and the tech. Luckily, one of the core expectations my students and I came up with is that we need to be patient and caring with each other, because this is new to all of us!

Mariya is at the young end of the spectrum, so I asked friend Deb, who is about twice Mariya's age, her experiences:

I decided to teach through Zoom and feel like it is working well. I know how many students are showing up ... , and I often ask the students to let me see their smiling faces rather than talk to a black box with their name on it. This method is less personal than being in the classroom, but I find it necessary to see the students' faces. Their expressions tell me whether they understand what I have told them and whether they are bored to tears or really listening to what I have to say. ... Zoom sessions are the next best things to actually being in the classroom with the students.

Remaining flexible and creative appears to be one key to success in this ever-changing world. Yet change added to the threat of infection is a recipe for stress. A colleague mentioned the high schools he has been in touch with are experiencing high resignation rates.

But many in education have accepted the challenge. So when we salute those who are making a difference, I think our school personel certainly belong in that group.

Top-left: One of the "libraries" on the American Cooperative School's website; bottom-left: USD329 Superintendent Brad Starnes; bottom-middle: Mariya during one of her hybrid classes; right: Mariya's impression of what it is like to teach under current conditions.

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