"A fast pivot."
That’s Rich Polkinghorn’s term for the change, in the past week, to a two-pronged plan for distance learning in Hood River County School District this fall.
Superintendent Polkinghorn, a month into the job, announced July 28 that schools will not be open to students until at least early November, in light of the COVID-19 crisis.
The district had planned to formalize its choice between distance, on-site, and hybrid models in the School Board meeting on Aug. 12, but the message from the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) and Gov. Kate Brown on July 27 changed that timeline overnight.
“With the guidance provided today, we are shifting our focus from On-site Learning Model to Comprehensive Distance Learning,” Polkinghorn stated on the district website and in a letter sent July 28 to families. “I will continue to collaborate with the Hood River County Health Department, the ODE and Oregon Health Authority to assess when it will be safe to return to on-site learning. The earliest we anticipate making a change to on-site learning will be early November, to coincide with the end of the first quarter/trimester.”
Keeping campuses closed, except for the possibility of staff being in buildings, is expected through November, “provided we can meet the requirements of state COVID rates,” Polkinghorn said. “Those rates aren’t anything the district can control, it’s our community following the recommendtions of Oregon Health Authority and wearing face masks, washing hands, and people staying home if they’re sick.
“We need to do those things as a community so we can open the schools.” he said. “COVID is not a problem of the district but it’s a problem for the district.”
Now, the key date regarding school reopening for families is Aug. 14: Children who will enroll in an expanded Online Academy (HROA) must commit to do so by that date, and remain either in the Academy or in the comprehensive distance model at least through the first semester of the 2020-21 year.
Families interested in the Online Learning Model through HROA will need to notify the district of their intent before Aug. 14. Information about how to notify the district can be found on the district website. Families who choose the online instruction model are required to commit to this program through January (grades 6-12) or through February (grades K-5), at which point, they can choose to stay for the duration of the school year, or switch to on-site learning.
(For families that do not want to be in the online learning model, there is no action required.)
“We know that Comprehensive Distance Learning presents a number of challenges for students, families, and staff. The HRCSD will use the remaining month of summer to focus on how to deliver a remote learning environment that is consistent with the excellence our students and families deserve. We will work hard to ensure that our students and families have access to our district student services and support systems.
Polkinghorn said July 30 that the district had been paying attention to what the governor had been saying throughout the summer, anticipating the need to shift to distrance learning.
“At her press conference the week before, we heard (Brown) say ‘it will different in the fall’ and then we started hearing about other districts pivoting (to the distance learning model).”
Meanwhile, the district had online presentations in Spanish and English planned for July 28 and 30.
“We started paying paying close attention, and found out Monday in conference with ODE, about embargoed information about distance learning,” Polkinghorn explained. “We learned late Monday about the (COVID) metrics and basically no district would (be on-site) in the fall.
“We spent (July 27) scrambling,” Polkinghorn said, “We wanted to get information together with the July 28 forum planned, and get it out so we could talk about it at the forum.”
“It was a fast pivot, as we had been planning all July for being on campus, discussing how can we open safely, within the (state) blueprints for reopening, all geared around opening schools (buildings), so we had to kind of take all the work we’d been doing and shelve it and focus on comprehensive distance learning,” Polkinghorn said.
School Board members in their meeting July 22 had suggested that shelving of plans would likely occur, and it did.
Polkinghorn said that since the July 28 announcement, community feedback has been “mostly appreciation and thanks, mostly positive.”
Some of the feedback is around the difference between comprehensive distance learning and on-line, he stated.
“At the two forums we tried to explain that,” he said. “The primary difference are that distance learning will feel more like at school, with structure and a lot more time with your teacher, In on-line, it’s more flexible, with less structure, and access to teachers when you need it but not necessarily structured time with teacher.”
He said families are being asked to decide “what is a better fit for your student and better fit for your lifestyle.”
In comprehensive distance learning, students will use adopted school curriculum and established digital curriculum, led by teachers, under a predictable daily schedule, and students will work virtually with peers and teachers.
In HROA, students work independently and also use adopted school cirruculum and established digital curriculum and “have flexible daily schedules and routines.”
HROA had been offered to high school and middle school students, but the district is now “scaling up to include elementary-age kids, at least for a year,” Polkinghorn said. “We are recruiting teachers for the program. It’s all sort of temporary, who knows when the pandemic will end, but hopefully by end of the school year we will be at the back end.”
Polkinghorn said district curriculum director Bill Newton is putting together information to further help families make a decision on optint for HROA or not. “There is no permanence to the decision, there are options,” Polkinghorn said. “If you choose to go online, you can come back to the after the first semester. If you go go distance leraning and it is not working, then at semester you can switch to the online,” he said.
Staffing decisions need to be made, however; hence the Aug. 14 deadline.
“We need a solid number, before the 14th,” Polkinghorn said. Families are notified of the choice via letter, and the information is put out on Facebook and via the district web site.
At the July 22 board meeting, Polkinghorn said, “We know we need to be looking a lot different fall, and we are planning a much more robust instruction. We know the spring was hard and didn’t work realy well for some kids.”
“The aim is to get kids on campus, but we are facing the reality that it might be that’s not what’s going to happen,” he said.
Board vice-chair Julia Garcia-Ramirez cautioned administrators “to keep in mind those kids that do not have access to technology. I know you are. I just want to say I’m concerned about the kids who will fall through the cracks.”
Board member Corinda Hankins-Elliot said, “I am hearing a lot of concern about things being “like the spring” but with the online curriculum basis and our ability to tell people they will be able to get AP courses and other things, a lot more people might elect to do online as a way of knowing what they’re getting. But if we ask people to buy in without knowing what they’re getting, we’ll have fewer who will do that.
Polkinghorn said the district plans “to communicate that you will still get a good curriculum, the same as everyone else in school will be getting, and online is a great option if it’s a good fit for your kid, It gives room for those who that’s not the best fit or option.”