The Brookings School Board and district administrators on Monday discussed the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on local students, teachers and parents, mostly related to remote learning. 

The school board discussed how certain areas of remote learning could be improved, based upon surveys.

Officials are also looking ahead to the fall, but no decision on how and when school will begin has been made. Superintendent Klint Willert said a plan will likely be ready by the July 20 board meeting.

“There will be a potpourri of responses on how districts handle their start to school. … They’re ranging from a full start to full remote, a hybrid option, and some variations in between, and we will lead, I envision, with the prospect of giving families the option to continue with some sort of remote or digital learning experience or platform. I believe that’s prudent, because we do have families that may not feel safe,” Willert said.

At this week’s meeting, Willert brought up an overarching concern that had been mentioned numerous times at this week’s and past meetings: the district has too many learning management systems (LMS). These are the digital platforms in which students use to submit homework, teleconference, receive homework, parental access to see grades and homework tasks, and to email fellow students or teachers.

“There are more and more assignments being handled directly through the technology rather than the paper and pencil type activities,” Willert said in an interview with The Brookings Register. “I can’t even name them all, different systems that are utilized in the district. We haven’t arrived at a consistent platform or tool.”

With the rise of the pandemic, the district has been looking seriously into developing and establishing one unified LMS platform.

Willert said another serious concern is the impact the pandemic will have on elementary and middle school students, because they will be set back the furthest in terms of retaining knowledge and their capacity for learning. Simultaneously, there was a surge of students who excelled at remote learning.

“We would be kidding ourselves and anybody else if we said this impact with the remote learning did not have an adverse impact on some kids. I’m not going to say all kids,” he said.

Willert said the district is developing ways to best work with all types of learners, even if it is at a distance.

“First of all, I think it really recognizes that our learners … are individuals. No two are exactly alike, and I think it becomes pretty instructive for our system to acknowledge that fact and how this has really illuminated that issue, and it emphasizes – in my opinion – the value of the personalized and customized learning efforts that we have initiated in the school district,” Willert said. “Number two, I think it really points to how valuable … agency is. When I say agency, I mean how people take ownership and the responsibility they have for the outcomes they want to achieve relative to their educational experience.”

The superintendent said over 77,000 meals have been delivered during the school closure. Currently, the district is looking at continuing to provide summertime meals through a different agency since funding from the USDA will end June 30.

“There is the opportunity to continue that service,” Willert said. “However, only one agency can provide those meals in a school district according to USDA law. … So, we started to discuss the feasibility of the Boys and Girls Club taking over the distribution of meals and serving as that entity in the community of Brookings because they have access to many more kids.”

Willert said the Boys & Girls Club receives funding from United Way, and using them would allow a dissemination of funding to continue a meal program.

Hillcrest

Hillcrest Principal Brad Olinger said Monday that the biggest impact Hillcrest has faced was losing the person-to-person interaction and relationships that students develop with teachers and with other students that assist in learning.

“Some of the positives … I did talk with the teachers throughout the remote learning … and just asked them about what’s their percentage of number of kids that were completing all of the activities that they’re putting out there, and it was an average of about 82% at Hillcrest,” said Olinger about an April survey of the teachers. “And it ranged from about 50% in a couple of classrooms and all the way up to 100% in others.”

He said by the end of the semester, all students had made some kind contact with their teachers, so that the overall percentage of those who had not completed all of their assignments was much smaller.

Olinger gave parents a survey as well. He said that 92% of parents felt that staff was readily available for their students, 86% said that the student expectations were reasonable, and 91% said that the level of communication with teachers and their students was good.

“I would say that there was – just because of the situation – less number of activities that the students completed at the end of the year because of the remote learning than what they would have done had they been coming into our school building,” Olinger said.

One of the areas of improvement, Olinger said, was requested by parents for there to be “live or taped direct teaching, rather than having the students be on their own or having parents help.” 

MMS

New Mickelson Middle School Principal Todd Foster said the most important aspects that were missed due to remote learning were the impacts the pandemic had on students’ mental health, as well as MMS staff having the opportunities to respond to mental health issues in their students to get them help.

“I think there’s going to be an increasing need for a social worker within our district. When we look at some of those economically disadvantaged kids, or just anybody that I think there’s a need for a social worker within our district,” Foster said. 

“We had some students that we were not able to contact and we utilized our school resource officers and we had some positive experiences with that, but we also had a couple negative ones where those parents didn’t want to be bothered or felt they kept being hounded, so to speak. But people also need to realize that it’s part of our job that we are trying to educate all of our kids even through this time that we had with the COVID-19.”

Foster said that the expectations for all MMS students need to change if they are to continue remote learning.

Foster also said they had a 93% “success rate” for contact with students and getting homework assignments back.

He said the collaboration his teachers had to develop and teach remote learning classes was a positive experience. But he did say encore classes, such as Project Lead the Way and music, struggled because of how hands-on that instruction is.

BHS

Brookings High School Principal Paul von Fischer said high school staff were able to convert to a remote learning platform very quickly, and overall input from students and parents was that it was a successful change.

He said there were some unique challenges in regard to the students completing their assignments. Some students – about 10%, he said – simply did not want to and chose not to complete their work, and some students were turning their assignments in at 2-3 a.m. 

“The ‘F-List’ – the end-of-term list of students who had F’s in one or more classes – it was within the range of a normal semester,” von Fischer said. “That list of unsuccessful semesters, I guess I’ll say academically, was about where it would be normally, numbers-wise.”

Von Fischer said the list of seniors who would not have graduated this year was much smaller than it has been in past years, meaning more high school students graduated with all requirements met than in previous classes.

He said with future remote learning, there needs to be a greater value and input on agency for high school students. 

“They were checking boxes, but were they engaged in their learning? Hard to say that was the case,” von Fischer said.

Von Fischer also said that some CTE courses and hands-on interactive classes suffered because most of the work couldn’t be brought home.

“I think that some of the community that happens in the school, you can’t do it remotely. It won’t do it justice,” von Fischer said. “So I’m hopeful that if we move forward that we can get to some kind of hybrid event and see each other more often.”

Special education

Director of Special Services Wendy Otheim said her department was worried about how remote learning would go with their students but said that it was incredibly successful.

“The teachers and the therapists were very challenged at the beginning of this. I know that some of them doubted their ability to serve students in this way, but they worked their tails off and I am so incredibly proud of them – we had some working with students at 7 in the morning to 9 at night, we had therapists who do hands-on all the time and had to revamp what they were doing … really to think outside the box to meet the kids’ needs,” Otheim said.

She said the biggest struggle was maintaining the individualized education programs (IEP) over remote learning and maintaining the timeline for reaching each student’s goals.

“We had 603 students on IEPs. I think only about 20 students weren’t responsive or parents did not get in touch. We repeatedly called and emailed. We did what we could to get in touch with them, and there were some who just opted out who didn’t feel that it was a good thing. But we will make sure we will assess in the fall to see where we’re at with progress and goals and go on from there,” Otheim said.

School activities

Activities Director Randy Soma said he and his activities staff are busy working on methods to still have training and practice for sporting activities and how to remain safe amid the pandemic.

“We have three phases coming back. Phase one started on June 1. We’re going to revisit here by the 16th of how we’re going to come back. On June 22, we’re going to open back up a little bit more, which is going to allow coaches to work with their kids more on specialty things with regard to individuals and also team sports stuff where they’re working on skills, but still spacing and getting the groups a little bit bigger.

“And then the second week of July, looking at the moratorium coming back and working with more kids and bigger spaces and still no contact. With that Aug. 1 possibility of contact,” Soma said.

Soma said choirs and school bands are slowly phasing back as well, getting in some socially distant practices.

Soma said the weight rooms are also open for use. But each student is getting their temperature taken and they rotate through students every few days and are constantly cleaning the rooms and weights.

“I think it’s going to be a tough fall. I don’t know whether we’re going to decide on a shortened schedule or start later, or if we’re going to eliminate some things. Are there some sports we can start with right away or other sports we have to wait on? And so those are all things we have to weigh with the state as we move forward,” Soma said.

Contact Matthew Rhodes at mrhodes@brookingsregister.com.

COURTESY OF: The Brookings Register

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