May 20, 2020 — The successes and shortcomings of distance learning were a major topic of discussion during the May 13 Siuslaw School District board meeting, as the district attempted to plan for the next school year. While the district’s response to COVID has been comprehensive so far — including a newly minted deal with Florence Food share to deliver meals to families throughout the summer — it is still left with many unanswered questions as the district looks to the future.
“There’s been a radical amount of changes the past three months, and I don’t know where we’ll be in four months,” said Siuslaw School District Andrew Grzeskowiak. “If someone has a magic crystal ball of where we’re going to be, I would love to share in that vision. But right now, we’re looking at five potential options.”
One option would be to split students up throughout the day, having some attend full time during the morning, with the rest attending in the afternoon. However, Grzeskowiak cautioned that the first option was “not truly functional with the amount of cleaning and bus runs it takes.”
Another option would be to stagger schedules throughout the week, with students coming to class periodically for instruction which would then be supplemented with online instruction.
But even if the school were to open its doors, Grzeskowiak believes that not all students will come back.
“We’ve got a certain number of our students that won’t be able to attend if there’s not an all-clear because of their health issues, or health issues in their immediate family,” he said. “We estimate that number to be about 25 percent.”
And then there’s the possibility the schools won’t open at all.
“Some universities have already started announcing that they are closing campuses in the fall, so there’s a bit of chatter out there,” Grzeskowiak said.
In many of the scenarios, the district will have to lean heavily on distance education. The district is aware of limitations with this model.
“In general terms, families of K-2 students are struggling with online learning,” Siuslaw Elementary Principal Mike Harklerode wrote in his monthly report. “Each week, we are getting more requests for the [paper] packets that we had planned on only for non-connected students. Most frustrations stem from kids who are not able to work the mobile platform independently. Distance learning places a heavy burden on home support for the primary years.”
Harklerode said that grades 3-5 are faring much better online, but it’s affecting how teachers perform. At the beginning of distance learning, teachers were spending a significant amount of time instructing students and parents how to get online.
Once they do figure out online, teachers are working “well into the evening” because of the need in many cases for parents to get home from work so they can walk children through the online work.
However, Harklerode believes that many of the issues parents and teachers are facing is due to the rushed nature of the rollout.
“We’ve learned what we wish we had in place when we went into distance learning,” he said. “I have organized a ‘future plan’ team that has met twice so far. We are really looking at the challenges we have for next fall.”
This will include vetting different online programs that would be more conducive for younger students.
To help teachers and parents with the issues going on now, the district voted on Wednesday to close the school year early this year. Instead of the second week of June, when instruction generally ends, the board voted on ending distance learning for grades K-11 on May 29. This will give students the time off they missed from spring break, but also allow teachers to prepare for next year.
For the middle school, the problems of at-home learning reside in the paper instructions that are sent home.
Middle School Principal Andy Marohl stated that 80 percent of students have shown up online weekly, and “I’m really proud of the attendance.” For those who do not log in, the district is reaching out to families to better understand why they’re missing online classes.
Eleven percent of Marohl’s students are receiving paper packets and do not receive any one-on-one instruction from teachers. These students have been the most difficult to reach, with many packets sent out never making it back to the school.
“I would say that their effectiveness is probably pretty low,” Marohl said. “There’s no replacing in-class instruction. By sending these out, we are asking a middle-school-aged student to be a self-motivated learner. That’s something that even college students struggle with. They receive a thick packet of paper with math problems that they don’t understand. This is not ideal at all. Despite putting notes in, and teachers being available through reminders and office hours, a lot of those kids have parents that are working and busy and can’t sit with them to do that work — or struggle with the work itself.”
School board members and administrators both agreed that in-class learning was the optimum learning environment.
“I think we have to be back in school this September,” board member Dennis King said. “I think we’re kidding ourselves if we think we can keep academic achievement when kids are coming in and out of a virtual system. Everything I’ve heard, there seems to be an implied correlation between ‘If we get them connectivity, we’ve scored a touchdown’ and having academic achievement. That’s not going to work. We have to hope that all of these requirements from the state will allow us to be back in class in September. That’s got to happen.”
But whether it can happen is still unknown.
“I want to challenge the board to understand we’re heading into some hard times, in a lot of different ways — financially for the district, and the people in the district, as well as health-wise,” said Board Chair Guy Rosinbaum. “We’ve got some really hard decisions coming up, and I’m not sure time is on our side.”
While the district is uncertain about how next year will play out in regard to the COVID-19 pandemic, it has made ground in another issue: food delivery.
Since the pandemic began, Siuslaw School District has been delivering thousands of meals to every child in district boundaries, regardless of their enrollment status. The program has also fed parents and caregivers who lost wages due to the shutdowns.
However, there were questions as to whether or not the program would continue into the summer. Last week, Grzeskowiak announced a partnership with Florence Food Share, in conjunction with an ongoing partnership with Food Backpack For Kids, to deliver meals to children, families and anyone in need of a meal throughout the summer.
“As of last week, food share has raised $32,500 for supplemental food services being coordinated by the schools,” Grzeskowiak said. “Some of the funds will be used to offset the cost of the summer food program.”
Typically, the district only runs four fixed sites during the summer break. But with the Florence Food Share partnership grant funds, the district can maintain all 22 mobile stops over the summer even without knowing the level of state or federal reimbursements available yet.
“We also ran a trial run of an evening meal delivery program in partnership with food share,” Grzeskowiak said. “On May 7, school staff delivered 78 family meals — heat-at-home pasta casserole dishes and breadsticks for four people — out into the community. This additional Thursday night meal run is a combination of the supplemental weekend list, plus families or individuals that staff have met when out during regular lunch delivery. Some are struggling with food availability at home or might be a homebound senior citizen.”
Grzeskowiak anticipated the deliveries to grow throughout the summer as stress on families with unemployment creates issues throughout the state.
“Florence Food Share is committed to looking at other grants or donations to meet this need as it may grow in the future,” Grzeskowiak said.
He also stated the district has already been working with Food Backpack For Kids to deliver supplemental weekend nutrition supplies.
The district also received a donation of art supplies from local artist Nancy Archer, allowing hundreds of students in the district to continue art programs at home.
In other news from the meeting, the board voted to renew Grzeskowiak’s contract for three years, with the superintendent taking a pay freeze for the first year. The board voted 6-1 to renew, with Dennis King as the only dissenting vote.
While King did not give a reason for his vote during the meeting, he told Siuslaw News later that it was a “vote of no confidence” in Grzeskowiak.
In closing comments in the meeting, board member Diana Pimlott spoke on the lengths the district has gone to help the community throughout the pandemic.
“As a parent, watching from this perspective watching all of this roll out, to just how quickly and how professionally everything was brought together for these kids, in addition to all the support our district is providing these kids and the community as a whole — they’re doing an outstanding job,” Pimlott said. “But from a personal standpoint, sitting down [with my son] as he’s working on some of these online programs, I’ve been very impressed with the participation. And also, just the delivery of the education from the teachers, and all they’re doing to prepare.
“They’re really dedicated to achieving education to these kids in this environment that is so new.”
For more information, visit siuslaw.k12.or.us.