On any given day, Clark County educators are tasked with tending to the unique needs and challenges of thousands of children.
There’s the kid who didn’t eat breakfast that morning, or the kid living in a car. There’s the student who doesn’t speak English, or the student navigating a learning disability.
Many of Clark County’s 80,000 public school students face barriers connected to poverty, disability or family trauma. Put them under one roof, however, and at least there are variables for which you can control.
But throw a global pandemic into the mix?
“Saying this is a big shift is an understatement,” said Denny Waters, deputy superintendent of Battle Ground Public Schools.
Clark County schools will be back in session — albeit from afar — beginning Monday, three weeks after Gov. Jay Inslee ordered campus closures due to concerns over the spread of the novel coronavirus.
In the weeks since, district officials have been piecing together a system of online classes, video lessons and paper packets to return students to some semblance of classroom instruction.
“It’s just new territory for everyone,” said Bill Oman, chief academic officer for Evergreen Public Schools. “We all need to have a little grace and understanding as we attempt to move forward.”
Spring break wasn’t much of a break for local educators, who spent much of the week planning lessons and preparing students for the unprecedented move to virtual instruction.
The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction ordered schools to return to distance learning on March 30. While schools in the Puget Sound and elsewhere started lessons last week, school was scheduled to be out here, giving educators an extra week to plan.
The move toward formalized distance instruction is a shift from previous orders from OSPI, which at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis warned that school districts should be cautious before pursuing online education.
Previous guidance noted that not all students may be able to access lessons from home for a number of reasons, including lack of internet access, disabilities or other issues.
“There are enormous constraints for families to engage their kids in a fully online model,” State Superintendent Chris Reykdal said in a conference call with reporters in March. “There were equity concerns.”
But with time, the state has shifted its recommendation, saying districts need to start creating some options for students, even if “it isn’t full blown basic education,” Reykdal said.
“Don’t hang out at a zero because you can’t do it all over here at a 10,” Reykdal said.
Many teachers have already been communicating with families and providing lessons to their students. Kelcey Burris teaches at Union High School, and has been meeting via videoconference with his students twice a day since the closures began.
Burris teaches Advanced Placement Biology and Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles. His students are still set to take the AP exams, which provide college credit, in May.
“The technology has really kicked in, in terms of what’s readily available for students,” Burris said. “Years ago it was just a phone call, and now you have (video) meetings. It’s as if they’re sitting in your classroom.”
The delay in formal resumption of education gave area teachers a few more days to prepare, as well as time to deliver computers to students who didn’t have them. Battle Ground Public Schools also purchased 200 mobile hotspots so students, particularly in rural areas, can access the internet. Waters estimated the purchase cost about $48,000.
“It’s what we need to do,” he said.
Reykdal acknowledged internet access as an equity issue in his recent address.
“Half of your students might need a (paper) packet delivered to them with the same content,” Reykdal said.
In addition to infrastructure challenges, districts are also grappling with the needs of students with disabilities and English-language learners. Ellen Wiessner, executive director of special services for Battle Ground Public Schools, said district staff are working directly with families to try to replicate classroom activities at home. But challenges remain.
“We didn’t plan for this,” she said. “We have staff who don’t have the experience and knowledge to do distance learning. Some of our students don’t have their devices or specialized equipment.”
Nancy Angarita and Melisa Troche teach first grade at Pioneer Elementary School’s dual language program. Half their students are native English speakers, while half are native Spanish speakers.
The two will be meeting virtually with small groups of their students throughout the week, and are making one-on-one phone calls to parents to ensure everyone has access to the software applications and services needed for lessons. They’re also sending materials home to parents in both English and Spanish, so those parents who may not speak English are able to follow along with their children.
“We’re talking with them, trying to figure out how we can support them and get all of them involved,” Angarita said.
‘Happy to be there’
Bradley Holden, in a way, hasn’t left the classroom at all. The Covington Middle School science teacher has been working at Evergreen Public Schools’ temporary day care for children of first responders and health care workers.
Holden, who was rescued 24 years ago from a frozen lake by Dallas firefighters, jumped at the chance to give back.
“This is so awesome to have an opportunity to help in a practical way,” he said.
Starting next week, he’ll be encouraging his own students to perform scientific experiments at their kitchen table. He’s keeping the expectations simple: come up with a scientific inquiry, such as how fast different types of chocolate melt, figure out the variables, make a hypothesis, and run a test.
The point is to keep kids engaged, he said, rather than throw new material at them for the sake of saying they covered it. Many teachers also say they won’t be giving formal grades.
“It’s not going to be the same, but we want to keep the learning continuing during this school closure,” he said.
For some students, just being engaged might be enough to keep them going. Burris, at Union High School, said he’s been giving his students time to talk to each other at the end of class. For many, it’s the only social interaction they can count on while stuck at home.
“It’s a very trying time,” Burris said. “It’s a way for them to socialize and visually see each other.”
Angarita said her students and families are grateful to see their teacher, and each other — even if it is through a computer’s screen.
“They’re happy to see you,” Angarita said. “They’re happy to be there.”