Remote learning starts today

USD 257 approves plan for students who are learning from home during the coronavirus pandemic. Three new teachers will teach online classes to elementary students.

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August 25, 2020 - 10:22 AM

Families who chose remote learning for their students because of the coronavirus pandemic will dig into the work today, after the USD 257 Board of Education officially approved a plan Monday night.

The district’s model is unique because it appoints three elementary teachers to instruct remotely, guiding preschool through fourth-graders through the required online hours and holding them accountable for attendance and performance.

The model also is unique because it allows families to switch from remote learning to in-person classes, and vice versa, at any time.

“Parents and the board wanted that flexibility,” Briana Curry, instructional coach, said.

“Student learning is what we’re here for. If it’s not working, they can make the switch,” Jenna Higginbotham, curriculum director, added.

That’s unusual, board president Dan Willis said. Most districts ask families to pick either in-person or remote learning, and stick with it, he said.

“It’s a whole lot more work for you guys, but it’s good customer service,” Willis said. 

Expectations are different for different grade levels, Higginbotham said as she laid out the highlights of the “Rigorous Remote Learning Plan.”

Preschool students will be required to attend two-and-a-half hours of remote learning a day. 

Kindergarten through 12th grade students must attend six hours of instruction. Two hours should be done “off-line.” Attendance will be taken, and the standard procedures apply for notifying the school when a student is absent. 

Three teachers will each teach two grade levels with around 20 students for each teacher.

That includes 11 in preschool, eight in kindergarten, 12 in first grade, nine in second grade, 14 in third grade and nine in fourth grade.

“I really think Iola is fortunate to be able to do this,” Higginbotham said. “We have some fairly new teachers who stepped up for us.”

The numbers continue to change, though, as families make last-minute decisions about what method they prefer, Curry told board members.

The district provides iPads to preschool and kindergarten students, and Chromebooks to students in grades 1-12. It also provides eight hot spots to families that lack adequate internet connections.

Iola Middle School has 41 remote learners, and Iola High School has 32. 

Those students will be expected to take responsibility for participating via Zoom, and each teacher will have an hour during which they will provide instructions or answer questions. Students will be required to keep a learning log. Seminar teachers will check with students about their grades on a weekly basis.

MOST OF the district’s students started classes Monday. It was the first time students had been allowed in the building for instruction since mid-March.

“Finally, today, we had students back in our buildings. We are so thankful to be able to do that,” Superintendent Stacey Fager said.

Students and faculty were excited to start the new school year, teachers and administrators said.

“It was nice to see the kids back,” Laura Caillouet-Weiner, a second grade teacher who also represents the teachers union, said. “I’m very appreciative for the lower numbers and the ability of our new hires to step up and take the lead with remote learning.

“There’s some procedural things we have to iron out at each building, but for the most part it was a good start.”

Building principals reported similar results. 

At IMS, only fifth-graders attended Monday to ease the transition to a larger school. At IHS, only freshmen attended but met with the Link Crew, seniors who introduced them to the school and who will serve as mentors throughout the year. The reduced number of students made it easier to follow social distancing, administrators said. 

All students will attend classes today, either in-person or remotely.

Elementary schools reported a relatively smooth process with the morning drop off and afternoon pickup process, which Lincoln Elementary School Principal Andy Gottlob said were among his biggest concerns. He also was concerned with lunch times, which are staggered to allow for social distancing. That process needs to be improved, he said.

McKinley Elementary School Principal Angie Linn attributed the first day’s success to months of planning. The district started having meetings in June, and met frequently in July to prepare.

Schools also offered virtual open houses to introduce the buildings and teachers to students, and explained some of the changes required by the coronavirus.

“I had some kids come up to me and tell me they recognized me from the video. I wore the same outfit today that I wore in the video,” she said. “I felt like we were ready for this and we thought everything through so carefully.”

THE BOARD also heard an update on the preschool program, which expanded this year to include 3-year-olds and provides transportation thanks to a grant.

The program welcomed 64 3-year-olds and 81 4-year-olds this year. Of those students, 18 of the 3-year-olds and 31 of the 4-year-olds are using the district’s transportation service.

“If you can give a student two years of preschool, they’ll have a much better start in kindergarten,” Fager said. “I’m thrilled we have the numbers we do. We’re working through some things to make it a great experience all the way around.”

Lincoln principal Gottlob commended Curry and Higginbotham for their efforts on both the remote learning plan and the preschool program.

“Without them, our jobs would be 100 times harder,” he said.

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