Continuing to teach through coronavirus closures

What district leaders have done, and can do, to prepare for a shutdown
By: | Issue: April 2020
March 16, 2020
SchoolS CLOSED, LEARNING OPEN—Leaders of Northshore School District in Washington transitioned students and teachers to online instruction in March after closing all schools for two weeks. karen ducey

Ensuring students can still learn during coronavirus-related school closures has become as big a priority for many district leaders over the last several weeks as has disinfecting their buildings.

“The key to this whole thing is communication—this is about overcommunicating with your public,” Ian Saltzman, superintendent of Everett Public Schools in Washington, told District Administration. “You can plan for a hurricane or an earthquake or a tornado, but a virus is a little different. This has never happened before.”

One of the district’s high schools reopened after a three-day closure due to a student testing positive for coronavirus. A week later, the district closed an elementary school for at least two days when a parent of a student, who was also showing symptoms, fell ill.

Nearby, Northshore School District closed all its schools on March 5 as many buildings had been directly or indirectly impacted by people who had contracted the infection. Superintendent Michelle Reid had earlier notified the community that educators were making plans to shift to online and blended learning, and had also held a training day to help teachers make the transition.

Online teaching resources

In early March, the nonprofit Common Sense posted a curated list of top resources—including websites, apps and tools—for helping teachers prepare for and make the most of teaching and learning during school closures.

Many parents who took to Twitter to comment in the days following praised Northshore’s leaders for the thoughtful approach to continuing school through distance learning. One wrote that the district’s response “has been nothing short of phenomenal. They were prepared for this and it shows.”

The district provided computers, and put WiFi hubs on vans that traveled to areas where students needed access to the internet.

Long-term closures subsequently occurred in hotspots around the country. Scarsdale Public Schools near New York City, for instance, shut down for two weeks after a staff member tested positive. The district was planning a shift to online instruction afterward.

But at least one district, Hillsboro Public Schools near Portland, Oregon, decided not to shut down a middle school even though a student had tested positive. Health officials told district leaders that closing might not impact the spread of the virus.

And one of the nation’s largest district, Miami-Dade County Public Schools—which as of March 10 had not yet closed any schools—announced that its educators were preparing 200,000 laptops and tablets to send home so students could work online in the event of closures. At a press conference, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said, “We are ready. We have protocols in place.”

Will home instruction days count?

While districts seem to be figuring out how to get devices and wireless access to students if needed, additional concerns about moving instruction online include how working parents will manage to essentially homeschool their children and how mandated minimum days of school per year will be counted.

States are providing guidance. For example, a March 5 memo to administrators from New Jersey’s commissioner of education, Lamont O. Repollet, stated that local boards of education may move to home instruction provided they are acting on a written directive by the state department of health or the health officer of the jurisdiction.

Acceptable home instruction services would include direct services, online instruction, services provided through contract with another district, or any other means developed by the district to meet students’ needs.

The guidance further clarified that days on which students learned remotely during health-related closures would count toward New Jersey’s 180-day requirement.

Any plan for home instruction, the commissioner added, must address how equitable access, including special education services for students with disabilities and nutrition benefits for eligible students, would be delivered.

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