When the Harrison School Board met last week, officials discussed the coming 2020-21 school year, which is still a mystery at the moment.
“If you have a clear crystal ball for us what next fall looks like, we would like to see it,” Superintendent Dr. Stewart Pratt said.
Pratt said there has been much discussion about starting school in the fall, discussion with both laughter and tears.
With school having been out for months as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, students have largely completed the year using alternative methods of instruction, or AMI as parents now know so well. AMI was never designed to be a long-term plan, rather a means of students being able to complete schoolwork during inclement weather days or other short-term disaster.
Pratt said the Arkansas Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has already indicated that it will create a “play book” for the coming year, but Harrison doesn’t plan to wait for that.
“We’re going to lurch out there and just build our own play book, move forward and worry about our kids,” Pratt said.
Pratt first called on Debbie Wilson, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment, for plans in the works.
Wilson said she was happy with the way teachers and staff shifted gears with all new teaching methods. They have also identified the standards they weren’t able to cover with on-site instruction suspended.
She said they’re also identified the students that “kind of went AWOL,” the ones who have been out of touch with district officials.
“The teachers have also been through trauma informed classroom training this year because we anticipate, when kids come back, we’re going to see some kids that haven’t had a great time at home during this time and they have some needs that need to be met in the classroom,” Wilson said.
She said one of her top concerns is for K-2 students who are learning to read, which is difficult to do in a digital setting. They all hope against hope that students will be on campus this fall, but that’s not certain given the possibility of another surge of the coronavirus. So, teachers are being trained on internet-based instruction.
Students in grades 1-12 have school-issued Chromebooks, but officials are looking at some other remote devices better suited to kindergarten students’ small hands.
The goal is to be ready to start on campus, but be prepared for starting remotely. On the other hand, they could start on campus again and then be forced to close campuses again. Wilson said she thinks they can make any of those transitions without missing a beat.
She said the state has already said there will be no more AMI packets for students. Schools just have to be prepared to have classes one way or the other.
Wilson said teachers were disappointed to not be able to have testing at the end of the school year that would show student progress over the year. They are now looking at software that will allow for digital testing next year.
Wilson said teachers are more important than any piece of software, but it may require finding how to deliver their good teaching methods in a digital format.
Board president Mitch Magness said one concern he has heard from parents, teachers and even some students is the amount of time students will have been out of school by the middle of August.
Wilson said that was behind the move to identify standards that have been missed. Some will have to be condensed and presented in the new school year no matter how it looks by the end of summer.
She has also ordered some packets of instruction that will include six weeks of lessons for students learning to read because they can’t have summer school.
Magness said he has heard from parents who have a greater appreciation for teachers and the role they fill in children’s lives.
Susan Gilley, administration executive director, said one requirement of funding through the CARES Act is a needs assessment for the district. The data Wilson and her staff have gathered will flow directly into that assessment.
She said all teachers are on board with a way to make COVID-19 an opportunity to develop the new education frontier for kids, parents and the community.
The money spent from federal funding will have to be justified in areas of food security, technology, direct student support, and continuous learning opportunities or systemic procedures.
“As Debbie said, we’re assuring you that we’re going to do the best we can for all of our kids,” Gilley said.
Shannan Lovelace, district business manager, said some requirements of that $500,000 through the CARES Act will be to continue maintenance efforts and to compensate employees to the greatest possible. The district will still be required to meet minimum teacher salary standards that came out of the 2019 state legislative session.
Pratt said special services supervisor Brigid Bright, who couldn’t attend the meeting, is working toward meeting the needs of those students. Some of those needs can be met with digital instruction, but in some cases that’s not possible.
“They deserve the same kind of learning as anyone else and we’re going to make sure they get it,” Pratt said.
Pratt said parents need to know that the Harrison district isn’t waiting to see what state officials or even other school districts do. They are building their own “play book” that will see local educators creating the way forward, not being farmed out to a digital platform in another state.
“Our staff knows your children better than anybody,” he said. “We want our staff, who knows your children, to provide our education for your kids.”