LEXINGTON, Ky. (April 15, 2020) — Amid school closings to help curb the spread of the coronavirus, educators are grappling with keeping student learning on track. University of Kentucky faculty who direct the Center for Next Generation Leadership at the UK College of Education provide professional development and support for school leaders as they transform schools to better prepare students for a diverse, global economy. Now, their focus is rapidly shifting to support schools facing abrupt changes to how instruction is delivered.
As a former superintendent and chief academic officer, associate professor Lu Young has experienced the need to make swift and tough decisions. She is executive director of the Center for Next Generation Leadership.
With a background in law and school technology leadership, associate professor Justin Bathon, a former high school teacher, focuses on the future of education and helps schools develop innovative models of learning. He is director of the UK Next Generation Scholars program.
Today, they answer some of our questions about the short- and long-term impacts COVID-19 will have on education as the virus impacts the ability to gather in school buildings.
UKNow: As someone who has worked with schools to lead transformation, can you talk about how schools are handling this sudden shift to remote learning?
Lu Young: It has been really interesting to watch how districts are handling the shift away from in-person school. Kentucky has had a nontraditional instruction (NTI) option since an early pilot in 2011. While NTI was not envisioned as a long-term approach to school, my observation has been that those districts that were using NTI (about half of the 173 Kentucky districts) have transitioned to remote learning somewhat more quickly than those districts who had not experienced NTI as an option.
The challenge now is how to make NTI work for extended periods of time beyond the original 10-day limit on NTI work. I have been fascinated by the wide range of learning options that individual teachers, schools and districts are providing, which include low-tech options like paper packets and reading lists to what I think is the most appropriate model of blended, more personalized learning. In the well-designed blended model, teachers are working with their students through synchronous online meetings via Zoom, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, etc., along with asynchronous learning modules provided to students via learning management systems like Canvas, teacher websites, Google classrooms and the like.
UKNow: Will this rapid shift leave any positive impacts in its wake?
Justin Bathon: Yes, I think so. The system of schooling that we are operating has gone largely unchanged over the last century. Schools were designed to prepare students in the Industrial Age. We are a diverse, globalized and technology-rich world. We have an enhanced understanding today of the process of learning. Even though we know better models for learning exist, we struggled to implement those against the inertia of our existing systems. Something like what we are facing today can accelerate that. The inevitable questions on the other side of this should be met with creativity and resolve to offer our children something different and better. Many Kentucky educators know what to do, and I hope their participation in the Center for Next Generation Leadership played a role in developing that Kentucky knowledge base over the last decade. Given the opportunity, there are teachers and school leaders across the state who can build us a better system.
UKNow: If Kentucky schools are closed the remainder of the school year, students will not be back in a school building until at least August. That’s at least five months of not being physically in school. Will student learning start to slide during this gap?
Young: Summer learning loss is always a concern and is especially problematic for students with disabilities and students of poverty. Schools are in a unique place this year to work with individual students and their families to keep remote learning plans going, in a modified, personalized way, over the summer. Either way, schools will have to think very strategically this fall about how to support students when they return to school using diagnostic assessment tools (formal and informal ones) to determine the learning needs of each student moving forward. I imagine that there will also be other important “re-entry” strategies that schools will employ to help students reacclimate to the in-person setting sometime this fall.
UKNow: Can a classroom learning experience be replaced by a digital program?
Young: To an extent, much of what happens in the classroom can be achieved through high-quality blended digital programming as I described earlier. But learning is very much a social construct, so I am still an avid believer in the importance of teacher-to-student and student-to-student interaction as the desired state. Relationships are important for all kids, but they are especially important for our students with disabilities, English learners and traditionally underserved student populations. I still believe that schools are important “places” for children and youth even though I know learning happens everywhere.
UKNow: What can teachers, parents, and students do to (at worst) help keep students from regressing, or (at best) help students make progress?
Young: These have been particularly trying times for families trying to work, care for their children and support their learning in responsible ways. I sense a serious lack of clear expectations coming from the school to home and home to school about what kind of learning should be happening during these extended closures and particularly unclear expectations about the amount of time children/youth should be spending on daily remote learning. Once again, I am advocating for some kind of balanced, blended learning plan where each child in the home has enough structure to work independently (asynchronously) in tandem with some synchronous online work with their teachers via Zoom, Facetime, email, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, or even packets (on a limited basis). I also sense a growing level of stress among parents and guardians as social media pressure leaves them feeling “judged” regarding the level and effectiveness of family engagement with their child’s learning. I am encouraging families to negotiate with their children around self-determined goals for the day and week regarding what they have to learn, what they want to learn, how much time they spend on various learning activities and how they’ll know how good is good enough. I am also encouraging teachers to provide ongoing feedback (not grades) about the student work and to lean into the older students’ own ability to self-direct and self-assess. That is pretty ambitious (some might say idealistic), but this seems like a moment in time when we might really shift the responsibility for the learning to the learner.
UKNow: How crucial is the parental role in nontraditional instruction or distance learning?
Young: I think the role of parents/guardians in this process is to encourage learning, provide structures and expectations about ongoing learning and find ways to make the learning personal and, to the extent possible, fun. I have seen marvelous examples on social media where families are tapping into their children’s curiosity and creativity in ways that look like really good learning and these ideas don’t necessarily cost anything. I would encourage families to make sure their kids are playing, but also observing the natural world around them as spring unfolds around us daily. I would also encourage lots of free reading and inquiry and I would call attention to and make connections between everyday experiences and the kinds of things they learn in school like the science behind cooking and how we could graph daily numbers we hear from the Governor about the virus and, for older kids, what do you predict will happen during the post-pandemic era. I would encourage kids to interview a grandparent about their family tree or their experiences in Vietnam. Intergenerational conversations benefit the child and the grandparent. I just hope families are talking to one another more than ever before.
UKNow: Schools in Kentucky receive state funding through the SEEK formula. Districts also get funding through local property taxes. If this funding declines, what will this mean for our schools?
Young: Superintendents are already bracing for austerity as we move forward under a new one-year state budget. This is a really sad turn of events when, in January, we were seeing the real possibility of funding increases rather than cuts. In addition to lower levels of state funding through SEEK, we should anticipate that post-COVID unemployment will result in more families eligible for free/reduced price meals and fewer discretionary dollars on the part of families to support nice-to-have school experiences like field trips, home-provided technology, uniforms, PTA fundraisers, etc. It will be a very tight year.
UKNow: What will happen to achievement gaps, particularly for students who don’t have a computer or internet access?
Young: Sadly, they will likely be exacerbated. That’s why districts are knocking themselves out trying to find novel ways to ensure that students have access to a web-enabled device and internet access in the home during these extended closures. Jefferson County Schools, for instance, has rallied to deploy 25,000 laptops over the past two weeks to eligible families. They are also providing 6,000 hotspots to support families who do not have home Wi-Fi. I have been encouraging superintendents to deploy Wi-Fi busses to targeted neighborhoods to provide a few hours of internet access to families who could access the Wi-Fi outside in parks or parking lots where there is enough space to ensure social distancing. Those busses could also have library books available for check out there in the neighborhood. Some of that could happen in tandem with the meal deliveries already happening across the Commonwealth. My message here is that schools need to be looking outward to find ways to support their harder to reach families and communities — no stone left unturned!
UKNow: What are you seeing that you are thankful for?
Bathon: Probably a hundred thousand meals are going to homes each day across Kentucky — coordinated, created and delivered by schools. Teachers are using their unfettered ingenuity to create new solutions to communicate with their kids and families. Family Resources and Youth Services centers and counselors are on near-constant call to cope with the socio-emotional toll of the response. School leaders are going into work risking their own health to coordinate the responses across many different fronts and to assure that each kid in Kentucky is accounted for, checked-in on, and encouraged to keep looking forward. The professionals are stepping into voids to protect their kids. They will do these things without really even being asked. When they have time to shift gears and focus on ways to craft innovative systems of schooling, post-pandemic, they are absolutely the people who will know what needs to be done, and we should feel confident we are in great hands.
Young: I am sensing that families across Kentucky and the nation are loving their teachers and schools again. There has been a lot of negative narrative about public education in the past decade, but the shining examples that educators have been stepping up to do whatever it takes to support their students through the crisis, has called attention to how vitally important our public schools are to this nation and how truly incredible, selfless, and invaluable our teachers are to the overall well-being of our children and youth.
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