How schools are meeting state standards in a pandemic

Balancing safety, student wellbeing, and education, figuring out what lessons are most important
Published: Oct. 1, 2020 at 7:34 PM CDT
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(WSAW) - Wisconsin law dictates a lot of requirements and standards schools have to meet each year, but it also provides some flexibility given extreme circumstances, like a pandemic, for the Department of Public Instruction to waive certain requirements for schools that apply.

“It’s a different learning environment, so some of the regulations and laws were not constructed for those environments," Mike Thompson, deputy state superintendent said. "So, if something gets in the way of you providing the best educational opportunity for the kids that you have, we’ll get it out of the way.”

There is already some flexibility or room for creative executions of some of the standards in the law (written throughout Wis. Statutes Chapter 115-121), but others, as Thompson said, will not work under the current circumstances. So, DPI has a COVID-19 District Flexibility Application “where a district anticipates or has determined it cannot offer a program or service required under the law during the 2020-21 school year,” or “does not anticipate being in compliance with a statutory requirement by virtue of the design of its plan of instruction.” As of Thursday, 17 districts have submitted applications asking for a variety of waivers, but most center around hours of instruction, attendance enforcement, and the length of school days.

Stevens Point Area School District is one of them and is the only one so far from the NewsChannel 7 viewing area, which covers north-central Wisconsin. The district’s waivers were approved. The first request was for hours of instruction.

“The main reason we did that is we had a gradual start to the school year, so we lost those instructional days and yet that was a really effective way to bring kids back,” Connie Negaard, director of secondary education explained.

She said currently, they are on track to meet the state’s hours of instruction requirements, which are “at least 437 hours of direct pupil instruction in kindergarten, at least 1,050 hours of direct pupil instruction in grades 1 to 6 and at least 1,137 hours of direct pupil instruction in grades 7 to 12.” However, they applied for the waiver in anticipation of something else to disrupt the school year, which 2020 seems to continue to deliver.

“Perhaps if there would be an outage and kids lacked access to the internet, we could not those for our instructional days," she stated. "So, rather than extend our school year, extend our day, cause yet another disruption for families and for kids, we applied for that waiver.”

She noted teachers would end up going far beyond the days they would typically serve if they had to extend the school year because they were working before students came into the picture.

For all schools with full virtual or hybrid models, like Stevens Point, DPI’s administrative rules have “provisions of innovative instructional design to count hours of instruction,” noted DPI’s communications specialist, Chris Bucher. “Under this scenario, hours of instruction should be based on the time teachers are available to students and the school district’s estimate of the amount of time needed to accomplish learning objectives each day.”

“We use that traditional expectation and apply that to our off-days for students when they’re at home," Casey Nye, the assistant superintendent for the D.C. Everest Area School District explained. "Our principals actually are, especially at the middle school and junior high, have actively been trying to establish expectations with students that even when you’re remote, there’s still five days of school.”

That means the projects, student collaborations, research, all count towards learning even if a teacher is not giving a lecture at the same time.

“I think one of the challenges with the idea of the instructional minute requirements is they assume that every student learns at the same rate and at the same pace. And even in our traditional classrooms, we might have had a 45-minute class period, but the reality is, some students take two or three hours to learn that material and it spills into their outside-of-school time and others really could have done it in 20-25 minutes,” Nye stated. “So, we try our best to individualize things when we can and those minutes are really a reference to what the traditional expectations are even though we know that kids learn at all different rates and at different lengths of time.”

The Stevens Point district was approved for one more waiver, a waiver for educator effectiveness.

“Basically that is a three-year evaluation cycle for all teachers and specialists and administrators in a school district,” she explained. “It’s a rigorous evaluation system, lots of components to it, with your summary year being pretty extensive. Our district decided that the most important thing right now is for our teachers to be engaging in creating instruction in this new model, a blended model. They’re creating virtual instruction and engaging kids and families. That’s the most important part and that’s where we want them to spend their time and their energy and the focus.”

She continued, not that evaluation is not important, but focusing on the students with all of the other changes and challenges at play currently, is most important, and the waiver is just for this school year. All of the new staff, per their school board policy, will be evaluated this year, but she said they will be tweaking it to ensure it is doable and not taking away from the instructional focus.

“The waivers that districts ask for and that we grant are not waivers to diminish services to kids,” Thompson urged. “They’re waivers for the district to provide services for a different way of kids in the best possible way due to the pandemic.”

However, Thompson, Negaard, and Nye all recognized this school year is not an ideal situation for students' education.

“School districts are trying to figure out how do they maintain kids' learning environment. How do they keep kids progressing along the continuum and that’s a challenge because they have to diagnose where kids are at,” Thompson said. “We may have had some learning loss even from what happened in the spring and be able to try and accelerate those kids' learning and put instructional models in place that, to the best of their ability, do that and trying to keep everybody as safe as possible.”

In order to make school happen at all right now, some things students and families could expect in a typical year will be compromised, which includes some learning.

“They really have to focus, so specifically, on the quality of that instructional time they have with kids,” Thompson said. “So, they really have to focus on what’s the critical information? What’s (sic) the critical concepts that kids need to learn to continue on their progression? And some of the stuff that they’ve done in the past has to take a backseat. They really have to kind of accelerate the learning around the critical concepts to move kids along."

Having the technology to ensure students have access to learning is the first step all districts have been aggressively working to achieve. Then for educational concepts, think core subjects like math, reading, and writing, and stripping other classes down to the basics concepts of each class and adding in those extra learning pieces when practical. Then, like every year, but especially this year, teachers will have to make sure students are understanding those core concepts and that students have basic needs met in the time they have with students.

“Our staff know that we really need to play an active role in making sure that we’re checking for understanding with students and we’re checking for basic needs and just not assuming that yesterday was this predictable sort of experience whether they were in school or not,” Nye said.

“I don’t know anybody that’s said, ‘This is great! We should continue this,’ and there are pieces that will always continue, but we know kids do better when they’re in school full-time in front of teachers for a lot of different reasons," Thompson said. "And that is just not possible in some cases.”

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