Flexibility is key word as Denison school district plans to return to learn in next school year
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Flexibility is key word as Denison school district plans to return to learn in next school year

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Education has always had to be flexible, providing students with skills for jobs that have not yet been created.

The coronavirus pandemic has taken flexibility to another level - the need for school districts to be flexible in the types of learning modes that are offered to students.

The modes are online learning only, a hybrid of part-time online learning and part-time in-building learning, and in-building learning only.

Right now, school districts, including the Denison district, aren’t sure what mode they will use when the 2020-2021 school year begins, and they aren’t certain if they’ll have to transition from one mode to another throughout the school year. It all depends on the status of the coronavirus within each school district.

School districts have to file their Return to Learn draft plans with the Iowa Department of Education by next Wednesday (July 1), but as Denison Superintendent Mike Pardun pointed out at last week’s school board meeting, the plan isn’t set in stone.

“Whatever we do put in on July 1, knowing that it’s a relatively fluid situation and what the requirements might be, we really have another six to seven weeks before the school year begins to make any final decision,” he told school board members.

The Denison school district put together a district leadership team to develop the concepts and plans to prepare for required learning under each of the modes.

Greg Gunderson, Patti Ryan and Heather Langenfeld were assigned leadership duties for the team, which also involved building principals and staff members from the Denison district and leaders from the Schleswig district.

Gunderson is the district’s director of technology, Ryan is the middle school principal, and Langenfeld is the director of elementary school improvement and director of English and a Learned Language services. Ryan and Langenfeld are also curriculum leaders for the district.

Pardun said Schleswig staff is involved in the development of the initial overall plan and then the Schleswig district will be able to tweak the plan based on the number of students it serves.

The district leadership team began meeting in May and began to identify the strengths and challenges experienced with the voluntary and required learning during the in-building school closure.

The team was also divided into two work groups to look at a number of factors for the distance learning plan, as well as the blended or hybrid learning plan.

Ryan said that the blended mode of learning (part-time in-building and part-time online) is probably going to be the most difficult but added that the school district has a solid group of people to carry that out.

Gunderson said that the process to adjust to new learning modes started with a meeting of the technology team that occurred before school closure was ordered by the governor on March 15.

Addressing the learning gap

Ryan commented on the learning gap created by the school closure in mid-March.

“As we look at plans for the fall, some of the main things we know we need to look at are the unfinished learning pieces that have been created by school closure. We want to make sure that we’re matching supports to the kids as they come to us with a larger time-out of school than typically happens over the summer,” she explained.

“We know that we’re not going to go back to teaching what we missed. We know we’re going to go to grade level expectations and we’re going to need to fill those gaps or spreads for the students as well,” Ryan continued. “We’ll have some conversations, I’m sure, around student services being able to fill those gaps sufficiently and effectively for our students as they return to a learning environment.”

Pardun said that a mentality exists that school districts should use remediation to narrow the learning gap created by school closure.

He said that acceleration in learning is what is needed, however.

“They’re (the students are) going to have to get those skills plus every other skill in a shorter period of time, so spiral teaching and acceleration is what’s really going to have to happen,” he told school board members.

Ryan said it will probably be a two-year process to effectively fill those gaps and get students back on track to where they should be without the school closure.

“I think it’s interesting to be talking about going back to school this fall and starting that process, knowing it’s going take us a couple years, so we’re going to have to give ourselves a lot of grace in that as well,” she added.

Return to Learn a live document

Pardun pointed out that the draft Return to Learn plan is a live document - a work in progress.

“We know we’re going to have to keep adapting as things change,” he said.

“Basically what we’ve been doing is trying to build our ability to respond regardless of what comes our way. And that will be in required, full-blown learning PK (pre-kindergarten)-12, no matter what we’re faced with this fall, whether we’re all online, whether we’re partially online or whether we’re fully in-session.”

By the Denison School Board’s July 20 meeting, the school district should have a better idea of how the coronavirus pandemic will affect the type of learning mode to use at the start of the school year.

The participation in summer activities and whether people are vacationing away from home are two assessment factors.

“If you see some of those things happening, I think we’re going to be able to start to target which one of these (learning modes) is most likely how we’re going to start the school year,” he explained.

“I would say we want to really target the beginning of August to try to make a real direction because we want to able to communicate to the public so they know what to expect in a few weeks.”

The decision of what learning mode will be used will be a local decision, from what the district is being told so far, said Pardun, adding later that it would be the board’s decision, in consultation with local health officials and others.

Some districts could begin the school year with in-building sessions. Some district could be only online, Pardun said.

“You could see us move in and out of those. I think anything is on the table, but I think the decision is going to reside with us,” he said. “That’s why we’re being asked to prepare for whatever is necessary.”

Additional guidance from Department of Education

The Iowa Department of Education provided school districts with additional guidance on the reopening of school.

Denison Superintendent Mike Pardun said the administration team will meet after July 4 and begin to finalize recommendations for the July school board meeting.

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