The Harrison School Board approved a plan to release students early one day a week to help teachers catch up on their workload, although board members also discussed the need for students to be in school as much as possible.

Superintendent Dr. Stewart Pratt asked Debbie Wilson, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment, to update the board on some student performance data.

Wilson said staff were anxious to see comparisons of student performance to see if the COVID-19 pandemic had an effect on student learning. With schools closed down for much of the spring semester, there was a lack of data from standardized testing.

She said she sat in on a webinar that looked at the pandemic’s effect on student evaluations across the country. She found that students nationwide were only one to two percentile points lower in reading, but the number was closer to 10 percentile points in math.

In addition, the impact was more apparent for students in rural areas or small towns where internet access was more limited.

Grades kindergarten through 3 are the years when the groundwork is laid for reading skills. Students who aren’t reading at grade level by the end of 3rd grade tend to have the most trouble catching up because teachers are beginning to work more on reading comprehension.

Math performance suffers a little more. Although students can more easily continue reading with the help of a parent when not in school, it is harder for parents to help with math subjects like proportions and ratios because they’ve been out of school so long.

“What do you need from us?” board member Jon Burnside asked. “Is there anything you need from this board that could help you guys?”

Wilson said she has heard from teachers loudly and clearly.

“Our biggest hurdle is just trying to keep those kids connected and keep them at school,” Wilson said.

Students who are exposed to the virus and must quarantine may not check in at the school for those two weeks, and two weeks is a lot of time when it comes to education.

Burnside said there are plenty of comments from the public that schools need to be shut down, but it sounded to him that Wilson was saying the opposite.

It is a tough choice for parents to decide whether to send children to school out of concern for their safety, but they can at least check in with the district to keep up.

Board president Mitch Magness asked Pratt if the lower performance levels were a surprise to staff.

Pratt said there was anxiety about where students would fall on the performance scale, so it wasn’t a big surprise. Still, he said he had faith in teachers and students to reverse that trend, and that’s why assessment is so important.

In October, Pratt discussed an idea to dismiss classes early one day a week to give teachers a chance to catch up on work they’re having to do to keep up with both on-site and virtual learning.

Pratt said last week that staff were “all over the place” with their opinions on the proposal, but about 85% of parents were in favor.

“Our parents have said, ‘We’re going to do whatever you guys need to do for our kids,’” Pratt said.

As for staff, polling showed kindergarten teachers didn’t want any early release. In grades 1-4, staff at Skyline Heights Elementary didn’t largely support the plan, while Forest Heights’ staff were overwhelmingly in favor of release time.

Middle School staff would like to see a full day for catching up, but would also support the early release proposal. There was also a portion of Middle School staff who didn’t want any early release time at all.

High School staff were overwhelmingly in support of early release time, Pratt said.

The proposal would see classes released at 2 p.m. on Wednesdays starting in January. Some staff want to release classes at 1:30 p.m., but Pratt said transportation would be a problem because some bus drivers have other jobs and might not be available.

About a quarter of parents who responded were concerned about childcare, so Pratt said the 2 p.m. release time once a week was something of a compromise to help those parents.

Pratt made the formal recommendation for the board to approve the early release time on Wednesdays beginning Jan. 6 and continuing indefinitely.

Board member Mark Martin said he realized the proposal was a compromise, but he thought it didn’t actually give teachers enough time.

Burnside referenced Wilson’s presentation in which she said more teacher/student time would help those students. But he also said the disruption would be only one day a week and that he understood teachers’ need to regenerate.

Pratt said he thought the key was that teachers would be given the time they need to prepare a higher-quality lesson because they had extra time.

Magness said the plan is a beginning to mitigate problems teachers are having amid the pandemic. He admitted that it’s not a perfect plan and might have to be changed if it doesn’t work as planned.

“I don’t know if this is the answer, but it’s a start,” Magness said.

The board unanimously approved the recommendation.

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