Over the course of the spring semester, St. Joseph School District leaders came to realize that significant student advancement would not be possible once COVID-19 shut down in-person education.
Although the district took steps to provide printed learning materials to families without internet access or had other obstacles to the online video presentations for assignments and assessments teachers prepared from March through May, Superintendent Dr. Doug Van Zyl characterized these steps as haphazard on a good day.
Indeed, district leaders largely found themselves constructing the plane on which they were passengers while already flying through the air.
“And that’s not necessarily what you want to do,” Van Zyl said. “But I think our folks responded well, and we learned from that process, that there’s things that we can do better, and they’re seeing that we can do differently in that.”
There is a tremendous sense of relief that the fall semester should take place in a way that is recognizable in some form, but a realization that each day of in-person education to come will, by necessity, be focused on a spring semester do-over, catching students up all together in the hopes that those who struggled with the spring online program won’t be left behind.
J. Eric Simmons, a teacher at Central High School and the leader of the local National Education Association chapter, said his own experiences and input from his colleagues indicates that as many as 75% of students missed out on significant portions of the coursework teachers prepared because they could not, or would not, engage with online content delivery.
Simmons said the situation started out better than that, but even from the beginning, he noticed half or more of his students were not responding to his online content on the level he felt was necessary for them to succeed. The learner engagement problem worsened significantly over time.
“This is an issue that educators across this country are going to face,” Simmons said. “It is for certain that our students are going to be somewhat behind, you just can’t miss a quarter of a school year and expect your students to come back in the fall and be ready to move on from that year.”
Such anecdotal experiences are largely what we have to work with at this time in understanding the scope of this problem, combined with what we knew beforehand, such as via U.S. Census data. Those numbers show that about 18% of Buchanan County households entirely lacked broadband internet service before the pandemic hit. It is safe to presume that this number worsened, as a tide of unemployment struck the state and families opted to trim all but the most essential expenses.
Within the broad pool of the district’s some 10,750 students, it currently is not possible to understand how many families had internet service but found themselves without the technology savvy or time to monitor a given child’s progress. Van Zyl said surveys are being conducted now that the spring semester is over so that the district can produce some hard numbers as to how much learner engagement occurred and which challenges district constituents experienced the most.
He said he expects results to be available in time for presentation at the July Board of Education meeting. That data will be used by a special re-entry committee over the course of the summer to use the hard lessons of the spring to prepare for the fall.
“It really is just practice,” Van Zyl said. “How do we practice to get ready for this, because nobody’s gone through this before.”
Simmons said his gravest concern is the winnowing resources that may be available to apply those lessons. Gov. Mike Parson ordered nine figures of state funding to be withheld from K-12 education for the month of June. A similar action is expected for July, and it could be significantly larger. For the local school district, that caused funding losses exceeding $1.2 million.
“So I think all of our districts across the state need also be worrying and thinking about that, as I’m sure that ours is, because that is going to greatly affect what services we can provide to our students,” he said.