Local schools prepare for 'distance learning'
Schools across Oregon are preparing for the possibility that they may not re-open for the rest of the school year.
Oregon's Department of Education sent information late Monday evening telling school districts to prepare for "distance learning" until summer break, with a comprehensive guidebook requiring schools to roll out a virtual education model by April 13.
"Today we know there is a very real potential that our students, like in many other states, may not return to school this academic year," ODE Director Colt Gill said in a letter to superintendents and principals in the state's 197 school districts.
Gill said the extended school closures mean schools must move from providing supplemental educational materials to real, virtual learning that would count for instructional hours.
The hits keep on coming
Across Oregon, schools have been closed to students since March 16. On March 17, Gov. Kate Brown issued a follow-up executive order, closing schools until April 28, to slow the spread of COVID-19. State officials said that closure could extend through the rest of the year.
Monday's announcement from the state caught some school districts off guard.
In Hillsboro, one of the Portland metro area's largest cities, Superintendent Mike Scott acknowledged the rapidly changing guidance from ODE in a message to parents Tuesday.
"As we've learned many times over the past month: what a difference a day makes," Scott wrote.
Just days earlier, on March 26, the Hillsboro School District announced a plan to roll out supplemental learning materials on April 1 with teachers providing daily lessons online and in paper format starting April 6.
"When we believed students would only lose a few days of school, the plan was potentially to make up some of those days in the summer; when we believed students would lose over a month of school, the governor ordered schools to deliver 'supplemental education and learning supports to students to the extent practical,'" Scott explained. "Now that the possibility of losing the rest of the school year is before us, ODE is calling on school districts to provide Distance Learning for All, which would include new, graded content for students."
The Scappoose School District sent a letter to parents Friday, March 27 announcing its interim learning plan.
"(Our) current plan is to begin providing supplemental learning materials online to students on Wednesday, April 1," Superintendent Tim Porter said. "We have asked our staff to do the following: We are asking teachers to develop weekly resources for students in each grade level and subject area that will provide an opportunity for students to have access to supplemental learning opportunities while schools remain closed."
As planned, teachers would check in with their students with a phone call, chat or email once a week.
The distance learning will require students to have a computer or tablet to use for work assignments, and access to internet. In Hillsboro, district officials said teachers will be reaching out to families to find out what their technology needs are.
Some districts are better prepared
Students in the Tigard-Tualatin School District already have devices, according to Superintendent Sue Rieke-Smith.
"We're blessed in our community because of the bond — every student has access to a device," Rieke-Smith remarked earlier this month, referring to a bond measure voters approved in 2016.
In the neighboring Beaverton School District, staff will be tasked with cleaning and dispensing tablets or Chromebooks to elementary students in need, as well as making sure the estimated 2,500 to 3,000 Beaverton students who don't currently have internet access can get online.
"We're looking at buying hotspots, or equipping some of our buses with Wi-Fi and parking them where (families) could access it," said Beaverton Superintendent Don Grotting.
Grotting said the district will also make a technical support team available to students and families, once virtual learning is officially rolled out.
Beaverton has inspired some of the framework behind the state's new distance learning guidebook. Grotting said his district began planning for remote learning in phases, since schools shut down two weeks ago.
"The Oregon Department of Education actually sent a team up to Beaverton to see what we're doing. Some of the guidance has a little bit of Beaverton marked on it," Grotting noted.
He said the state's rapid move to remote learning is crucial to make sure students don't lose ground.
"We just can't have our students out there floundering," Grotting said.
An 'unprecedented moment'
State leaders say the rollout of remote learning could be rough for many families, especially those with students with disabilities, students on Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), or families whose first language isn't English.
Navigating those issues will be key in making sure students' civil rights are upheld. By law, school districts must prove they can adequately deliver instruction to all students.
That means the race to bridge the digital divide among students will be greater than ever.
Oregon Education Association President John Larson implored the state to recognize that not all students will adapt to online learning. They shouldn't be punished for it, he said.
"In this unprecedented moment — where both students and educators are expected to rapidly transition from traditional in-person instruction to distance instruction — that it is crucial that our elected leaders ensure that students aren't penalized for an inability to thrive under these new circumstances," Larson said. "With some students lacking the proper technology, connectivity, resources, or time to fully engage with a distance learning model, school districts must acknowledge and incorporate that reality into their Distance Learning for All plans."
Schools will also have to figure out what other barriers families have to accessing online content.
"We still have to figure out a way to deliver those services to them," Grotting said. "That's probably going to be the most challenging part I believe for school districts to do."
Last week, the Lake Oswego School District scheduled 10 pick-up times and locations for families to collect computers and chargers for virtual instruction at home. As in neighboring Tigard-Tualatin, Lake Oswego's devices are paid for in part through a voter-approved bond.
"We're really fortunate (that) through the bond, and the support of parent clubs prior to that, we can equip each and every student with personal devices," Lake Oswego schools spokesperson Mary Kay Larson said.
Parents will play key role
With its announcement, the state released a guidebook, complete with a timeline for implementing the new remote learning model.
That transition won't be easy, Gill wrote.
"The vast majority of Oregon educators have not taught online, and some districts have varying levels of experience, capacity, and technology tools," he pointed out.
For many younger students, the pressure will be on parents, Gill said.
"It will be important for parents to know their role to support, including making time outside interactions with their child's teacher to serve as tutors, helping to ensure attentiveness to the instructional time with teachers, providing structure to the daily schedule and helping support connectivity and continuity of technology at home, and more," Gill said.
He added, "Primary students going through the rigors of learning to read requires the support of a teacher 'scaffolding the lesson' minute-by-minute to meet the needs and strengths of the student. This will look different within distance learning, and we have to find ways to partner teachers and parents to nurture learning within this context."
Asia Alvarez Zeller contributed to this report.
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