The approach to home-based learning in the Yakima School District will vary from teacher to teacher — and in some cases from student to student.
The state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction has asked that all districts statewide begin education support this week, which marks the third of a six-week mandated school closure expected to end April 24. The statewide closures were ordered by Gov. Jay Inslee in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Education support could mean anything from lesson planning to calling each student, according to OSPI.
But the goal is to keep students learning so that education doesn’t come to a complete standstill, even if campuses are closed.
There is no mandate for teachers to grade distributed materials or for districts to make them mandatory. For districts that grade distributed materials, OSPI recommends implementing a pass/fail or no-credit model.
Beyond that, what happens now is largely up to each school district.
That flexibility has allowed the Yakima School District, the largest in the county with 16,000 students, to leave details up to its teachers.
Some teachers have had paper learning packets mailed to students to finish by hand. Students might then take photos of their work, make voice memos or video chat with their teachers to show their progress, said Robert Darling, the district’s assistant superintendent of teaching and learning. Others are creating video lessons for students or plan to use virtual classroom platforms.
The approach will be determined by each teacher’s preference and student need. Some teachers are more computer literate than others. Meanwhile, some students will require special support or analog learning opportunities if they don’t have access to the internet or an electronic device, Darling said.
District seniors have been provided devices for home-learning to help them reach graduation requirements, many of which the state is allowing districts to adjust. If the school closure is extended, electronic devices will also be distributed to students at lower grade levels.
As teachers begin reaching out to students this week, they will be assessing individual needs and how best to help each student.
“The tricky part about all this is we have teachers who are being asked to do something they’ve never done before, and to deliver it to students who have never learned this way before,” Darling said. “Like it or not, we’re making history.”
Some expectations have been standardized across the district:
Teachers will be required to have two-way communication with every student at least once a week, starting this week, Darling said.
While grade-level teachers have roughly 20 students to keep up with each week, this will be a greater challenge for high school teachers, who might have 150 students across their classes, Darling said. So there is flexibility in what the check-in entails. It could be a phone call, online engagement in a virtual classroom, or email exchanges, for example.
“Whatever we need to do to make sure we’re reaching every student,” Darling said.
Connecting consistently with students will be one of the greatest challenges of remote learning, especially among older students, Darling said.
“We have a hard time getting kids in the building as it is. The Valley struggles with attendance and truancy, so we don’t know how students are going to respond to being required to do academics (at home),” he said.
But teachers will have help reaching students from counselors, grant specialists and bilingual advocates, he said.
Home-learning will include new learning material.
“We don’t want it just to be review, because a lot of our students are below grade level and we have a lot of work to get them caught up,” Darling said.
Students in the Yakima School District score nearly 1.5 grades below the national average in annual testing, according to Stanford University’s Educational Opportunity Project, a national K-12 database. But the district provides a higher level of educational opportunity than the national average when kids are in school, learning 11% more in each grade than students across the county — meaning they are more likely to catch up to national scores, according to the research.
That also means that every year counts.
Darling said the district is working to ensure students learn at least the minimum they will need to be prepared for next school year, since there is no plan to hold students back.
“There will be ground to make up next year,” he said. In the meantime, education materials will gradually expand to include new content.
School work will be graded.
As a district, it was decided that elementary students will receive a “pass” grade or “NA” for not applicable. At the middle school and high school level, teachers can give grades of A, B, pass or no credit for home learning.
“We don’t want to water things down, but want them to know it’s about the learning, not the grade,” Darling said of students. The intent is for teachers to measure student progress. At the same time, the district doesn’t want to hurt the GPA of high school students because of something no one can control, he said.
As home-based learning rolls out and information continues to be passed down from the state level, Darling said the district would make adjustments to better reach students. Already, elementary teachers are video conferencing with students and PE teachers are sending workout challenges for students to do at home.
“It’s really one of those situations where it couldn’t be more challenging, but I also couldn’t be more proud,” he said. “We’re just taking it day by day.”