Even with the academic year already underway, educators continue to debate the best approach to learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Should schools use all-virtual learning to protect staff and students as well as their families from the further spread of the virus, or do they pursue in-person classes, which facilitates instruction and strengthens social relationships? Or is a hybrid model of part in-person, part online a better approach?
“We do have imperfect options – all of them have significant downsides,” says Kentucky Education Commissioner Jason Glass.
So far, 49 of the state’s 173 school districts have voted to resume in-person classes before Sept. 28. Gov. Andy Beshear recommended that date to school administrators last month, hoping the current surge in coronavirus cases would have eased. Many districts that have resumed in-person classes are offering students and families with health concerns the option stay home and participate virtually.
With case numbers and positivity rates still elevated, the Beshear Administration announced new guidance this week to help superintendents and boards of education decide the best approach for their communities. Under this framework, districts in areas with high testing positivity rates and hospital utilization are encouraged to move to virtual or non-traditional instruction (NTI).
“You have to look at data not just as an automatic trigger, because this says something, we do X or we do Y,” Glass says. “It’s really got to be based on what are the values in the community, what’s the virus level, are we prepared, are we ready, and then make an informed decision.”
Jefferson County Starts All Virtual
Back in July, the state’s largest school district announced it would begin the new academic year with six weeks of virtual instruction. Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Marty Pollio says it was one of the toughest choices he’s had to make.
“It’s a difficult time to be a superintendent because you’re making difficult decisions and balancing out that health and safety along with student achievement,” says Pollio. “We have to acknowledge that NTI or virtual learning can never replicate in-person learning because that relationship piece [is] so important.”
When the pandemic hit in March, JCPS along with other school districts had just days to switch from classroom to virtual instruction. That was no small task for a district with 101,000 students, many of whom come from low-income families with little or no access to computers or the internet. Pollio says JCPS gave out more than 20,000 laptops to students last spring to help address that digital divide.
Now the district has handed out some 40,000 more laptops so that all students have a computer, not just one per household. Pollio says they’ve also created 10,000 internet hotspots to serve families without home internet service.
Instruction started on Aug. 25 with a few hiccups. After inappropriate content was posted to several class feeds, district officials switched to a different, more secure video conferencing platform. But that meant students and teachers had to install, configure, and learn the new software while keeping up with their class assignments. Pollio says they’ve now resolved most of those issues.
“There are no good, perfect options with what we do right now,” he says. “We are in a world now where so many things are messy and difficult and we have to do the best job we possibly can to support kids.”
Elsewhere Around the State
Internet access is an even bigger issue in more rural parts of the commonwealth. In Christian County, Superintendent Christopher Bentzel has partnered with other local officials to create hotspots around fire departments and other government buildings, and to provide hotspots for low-income families.
“We’re close to closing that [access] gap, but we’re not quite there yet,” he says.
Christian County reopened on Aug. 26 with a combination of in-person and virtual learning for middle and high school students, and in-person classes for elementary students. Bentzel says a majority of parents requested in-person classes, but about a third of families opted for online instruction. He praises the teachers who work with those students through the district’s virtual learning academy.
“They do a great job of working out the problems and the kinks and the barriers for online learning for those students that opted not to return to in person classes,” says Bentzel.
Meanwhile the Covington Independent Schools started on Sept. 1 with all remote learning. Superintendent Alvin Garrison says his staff worked hard over the summer to fine-tune their curriculum for NTI and ensure all students would have the technology they need to participate. But with laptops in short supply due to high demand from schools nationwide, Garrison had to find another option.
“Currently we rent about 700 computers to ensure right now all of our families have at least one device within the home,” he says.
As of now, Garrison says his schools plan to switch to a hybrid model of instruction on Sept. 28. About 30 percent of families have elected to stay with online learning. Garrison says the other 70 percent will be split into two groups that will alternate between coming into school for in-person classes and staying home for virtual instruction. That way only about 35 percent of students will be in school on any particular day.
The Views of Teachers, Parents and Students
The pandemic has forced educators and administrators into making choices that have no easy answers, says Kentucky Education Association President Eddie Campbell. He praises teachers for turning on a dime last spring when schools had to close to in-person instruction, and for spending their summer months planning how to improve learning experiences this fall.
“Our teachers now are learning every single day how to interact better with their students,” says Campbell. “They’re also reaching out through Facebook, they’re reaching out through TikTok, they’re reaching out through Instagram. They want to make sure that their students have every advantage possible.”
KEA has urged schools to pursue virtual instruction as long as testing positivity rates remain above 4 percent. But Campbell understands why parents and students want to return to traditional classrooms. He says teachers and school administrators want that, too, and the best way to make that possible is for everyone to follow the recommended health protocols of wearing masks, social distancing, and hand washing.
“I think if anything, what this pandemic has shown is the importance of public education,” says Campbell. “A place that our students can go, can be nurtured, can learn, can grow, and we all want that to be successful.”
The switch from traditional to virtual methods of instruction also has forced students and adults to adapt on short notice. Parents have had to arrange childcare when schools are closed, and to serve as adjunct teachers and tech support when their children need help with their online studies. Students have endured frustrating technical challenges and being unable to have face-to-face interactions with their friends and teachers.
“It’s been a challenge, but I think it’s definitely one we’re all going to grow from,” says Kade Scott, a senior at Floyd Central High School in Floyd County.
Scott, along with Caleb Bates of Breathitt County and Anna Williams of Anderson County, are members of the Kentucky Department of Education’s Student Advisory Council.
“If I had the choice, I would go to school,” says Williams, whose parents opted for virtual instruction because Anna is diabetic and could be at greater risk from COVID-related complications.
“I know my parents are protecting me and they are doing the right thing,” she says. “I’m hoping that this virus will get under control to the point where I do feel safe, [and] I can go to school and experience my senior year.”
Students in rural Breathitt County have faced poor internet access as well as food security issues, according to senior Caleb Bates. With schools closed, many low-income families have had to find alternatives to the free or reduced-price school meals that help feed their children
“Here in Breathitt County we do have a food pick-up plan that is taking place out of our schools’ cafeterias, and I’m thankful to see that need being met,” says Bates.
Kristen Childress is among the parents advocating for a return to in-person instruction. As a member of a group called Let Them Learn Fayette County, she has grown frustrated with the quality of virtual instruction in the Lexington schools. She says parents want the best for their children, which she contends means returning to classroom instruction.
“As we see private schools and other districts go back to in-person, we want to be part of that choice, too,” says Childress. “We have a wonderful community who is ready and willing and able to do what it takes to get back in-person.”
In neighboring Jessamine County, Sarah Smorstad is a parent of four children and a pre-school teacher. She says she worries about the children who live in homes that aren’t conducive to remote learning either due to technology issues or because of absent or unsupportive parents.
“That hurts my teacher heart,” says Smorstad. “I really am concerned about this widening the gap of opportunity.”
Pandemic Challenges Point to Deeper Issues
School administrators agree that the pandemic could further deepen the achievement gaps that plague poor and minority students. Covington Independent Schools Superintendent Alvin Garrison says he’s heard research that indicates that Blacks are three times more likely to experience a range of harmful effects from COVID; Hispanic Americans are nine times more likely to have negative outcomes, he says.
“This pandemic has really showcased the inequities in public education… “We have to have must have the courage to tackle these issues... because this is just furthering the gap between the have and have nots.”
Achievement gaps among students are especially troublesome in Louisville. JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio says his schools are filled with at-risk groups: Children of color comprise about half of his student population, and about two-thirds of students are on free or reduced lunch. The district also has nearly 6,000 homeless students and about 11,000 children who are still becoming fluent in English.
“This is not just an equity issue, this is a racial equity issue,” says Pollio. “We have to step up and own that.”
Given these challenges, Campbell says state and federal funding for education is crucial.
“COVID has shown a big light on all the inequities in education,” says the KEA president. “The digital divide was already there, the inequities in homework gaps was already there, and making sure we’re meeting the needs of those students [is] going to take a really big investment.”
While many districts plan to return to in-person learning in the coming weeks, state Education Commissioner Jason Glass warns that schools will likely continue to toggle between classroom and virtual instruction depending on how COVID-19 spreads during the fall and winter months. While such inconsistency is far from ideal, Glass contends it also has positive aspects.
“We’re learning in Kentucky... a lot about the importance of agility and adaptability,” the commissioner says. “The world is only going to get faster, it’s going to get more electronic, more automated, more interconnected, and so I think some of the skills that our educators and our students and our parents are learning right now are going to pay dividends for them on the other side of this pandemic.”