Lost schooling a concern for some parents as Roaring Fork District launches formal online learning
As Roaring Fork District schools set sail into the relatively uncharted waters of formal K-12 online instruction Monday, some parents worry that too much time has already been lost and that the next six weeks won’t involve enough structure to keep students engaged.
A contingent of Basalt parents expressed concerns during an online “office hours” chat with Superintendent Rob Stein late last week. Others across the district have expressed similar concerns in various forums.
On Monday, the district formally rolls out its “distance learning” program for K-12 schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt. It’s very likely the way things will be for the next six weeks.
Schools across Colorado must remain closed through at least April 30 due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but that order could be extended by Gov. Jared Polis at the advice of state public health officials.
Already, some districts have said their school buildings will remain closed for the rest of the school year. Others are expected to follow suit, while some have said they might resume in-person classes come May, if allowed to do so.
Roaring Fork Schools opted last month to take a phased approach to online learning, including two weeks of internal planning over spring break and a period of informal teacher-student contacts and optional learning activities from April 1-17.
Now, it gets real.
But Basalt Elementary School parent Scott Bayens said it doesn’t look to be real enough.
He observed during the chat with Stein last week that, if the informal student activities offered since spring break ended, and the formal plan presented for his first-grade student for the coming weeks are any indication, it falls short.
“These kids need more daily interaction,” he said, expressing a desire for more face time with teachers and classmates and more structure to the daily lessons.
As it is, he said students will be able to complete the work in relative short order, leaving parents to fill in the gaps.
“Kids look at parents and say ‘no’ to doing those things, but they see teacher and say ‘yes,'” Bayens said.
Parents of older students worry about a lost focus on academics and a lack of rigor in what’s being offered for the remainder of the school year.
In a followup email addressed to Stein, and shared with the Post Independent, Basalt Middle School parent Ann Wilkinson-Smith elaborated on concerns she expressed during the chat time with Stein.
“I just hope none of our kids suffer in the end,” she said, requesting some sort of testing at the end of the quarter to determine students’ level of preparation to move on to the next grade, rather than the general teacher comment or pass/fail grading that’s now planned.
“There has to be some sort of measurement other than a teacher’s ‘opinion’ for them to move forward with into their following year,” Wilkinson-Smith said.
She pointed to a schedule sent out by the neighboring Aspen School District as it began online instruction earlier this month, which includes a full seven-hour slate, Monday-Friday, of online class times by subject and times when teachers are available for “office hours.”
Stein said the phased ramp-up to online instruction for the downvalley schools was designed so teachers could develop an effective six-week lesson plan and avoid some of the problems experienced by districts that switched to online learning too quickly.
Also, about 4% of the district’s student population lacked internet access at their homes, which needed to be addressed. The district has been able to do that by working with Comcast and other providers to gain that access, he said.
Structured online learning was also targeted at third-grade through high school, while the plan for kindergarten-second-grade students has been to provide lessons and projects through paper means with limited electronic interaction. All third-through-12th grade students in the district have school-issued Chromebooks to work from.
“Online learning is not as effective as classroom learning, we know that. But we wanted these six-week units to be effective instead of fumbling into it,” Stein said to open the office hours session.
There’s a strong likelihood that some students will fall behind and have to make up for lost time next fall, he admitted.
The formal rollout of phase two distance learning should address parent concerns around student accountability, structure and rigor, Stein said after the meeting.
“It is hard to say what the appropriate amount of time on task is for a distance-learning program, because family circumstances vary so widely, students work at such different rates, and students are so different in their capacity for sustaining independent work,” Stein said. “Unfortunately, the field of distance learning is still in its infancy from a research perspective, and there just isn’t yet an established body of knowledge to give us direction.”
Like other school districts, he said the Roaring Fork Schools will learn and adjust as necessary along the way.
Because many families are struggling due to the financial hardships caused by the economic shutdowns related to the public health crisis, the district also didn’t want to push too hard with the schooling requirements for the remainder of the school year.
“We recognize that there are many families in our communities who are struggling financially or food-wise or just with the challenges of being in isolation,” Rick Holt, chief academic officer for the district, said during the April 7 school board teleconference meeting. “We are trying to manage the volume of work that we’re expecting students and families to engage in.”
School board members indicated during that meeting that the vast majority of parents they have spoken to have been happy with the slower rollout plan for online learning.
A big focus these last few weeks is also to make sure high school seniors are able to complete their graduation requirements in the time remaining, Stein said.
At this point, the district has not been able to make a decision whether to proceed with graduation ceremonies that are planned for the end of May. A special “pomp and circumstance” committee is already exploring alternative means to celebrate graduation, in case the usual commencement ceremonies are not possible.
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