Central School Board talks ‘Return to Learn’ plan

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By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register

“Information overload” is how one school official at Central’s May 18 school board meeting  described the Return to Learn guidelines set forth by the Iowa Department of Education (DOE), which requires all Iowa schools to create a plan for the eventual return to school. According to the DOE, all plans are supposed to be submitted by July 1, in preparation for any potential challenges, COVID-19-related or otherwise, that could occur during the 2020-2021 school year. 

The plan must include remote learning options, procedures which allow students to catch up on missed time and work, integrating public health strategies, the ability for schools to move from on-site to remote learning as necessary and helping the DOE and the area education agencies better understand how best to support schools. 

Essentially, all schools must, in the future, be able to provide continuous learning, whether on-site, remote or some hybrid of the two, for students should similar action required by COVID-19 need to be taken again. As one school official speaking on student learning put it, “The next time, this will be mandatory, not voluntary.” 

However, one official, having looked into the Return to Learn guidelines, remarked, “We need to see what fits for us,” because COVID revealed a litany of issues, specifically internet access in rural Iowa, an issue one official said was “embarrassing for Iowa when compared to other states.” 

It was a problem openly acknowledged by Superintendent Nick Trenkamp, who spoke of the problems even teachers were having staying connected and questioned whether access was even adequate enough to fully implement a remote learning plan. 

It may help explain why Central, even at its peak, had less than a 50 percent participation rate in homework completion during the voluntary learning period that followed the COVID shutdown, a rate that, by the third week of Central being closed, plummeted to 32 percent. 

Another issue with the Return to Learn guidelines is that they were developed with minimal input from school leaders, which a school board member said was “disappointing.” It’s a one-size-fits all approach that doesn’t address the logistics of what works in some places and what works in others. It also doesn’t address issues such as holding classes via apps like Zoom among high- school students who have diverse schedules, students with working parents, or once again, students who lack the basic ability to even connect to the internet or those who don’t even have a computer. 

It also doesn’t address the issue that “teaching remotely is not what teaching is about,” as one board member said. Teaching is about social interaction, building relationships and promoting student growth, all of which is difficult to manage behind a computer screen that is glitching, freezing and reconnecting.

Some of the options discussed by the school board and administration officials to overcome such obstacles were expanded response-to-intervention time, summer school or a changed calendar, though there was little interest in doing the latter two and the problem of teacher and student burnout was suggested as a possible outcome. 

Another proposed solution came from a school board member who suggested teachers “should teach faster,” so they could “teach more in a class period.” As they also suggested, this would “waste less time” during the school year, providing extra learning time if needed later on. 

In the end, it was decided a committee would form to provide guidance on how to best formulate a plan that would work best for Central teachers, staff, students and school officials. Regardless of what the plan is in the future, as Trenkamp said, “We need to be prepared.”

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