Iowa students were supposed to be back from spring break Monday. Instead, they’re joining their peers on the Illinois side in staying home.
COVID-19, the new coronavirus, has forced governors across the country to shut down schools, to “flatten the curve” of infection and stop community spread of the virus. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker extended school closures through April 7. In Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds recommended, but did not order, that schools close until April 13 and waived those four closed weeks from the state’s days requirement. Districts in Scott County are following those recommendations.
Beyond “don’t bring kids into school,” though, much of the state-provided guidance is vague, though Illinois provides a much more specific list of resources. The last time a pandemic shut down so much of public life was 1918, so there’s no modern precedent to address online classes, special education delivery, or the widespread use of standardized college entrance tests.
Districts across the country have started implementing online classwork, but no public district in the Quad-Cities has started a widespread effort to do so.
That’s not to say they’re not discussing it.
Bettendorf Schools said Monday they’re working on educational support for students that will include online resources, as well as printed materials for those who don’t have access. A spokesperson for Pleasant Valley said they were working on figuring out a mechanism.
“At this point, it’s not something we can really do, for the reasons the state has put out for us,” the Pleasant Valley spokesperson said. “While online learning, we believe we can make it equitable, we can’t force participation. … What value does that have for students if we can’t make sure everybody is doing it?”
Per the Iowa Department of Education, districts can use online learning options, but cannot require student participation, and those learning options should be offered as “equitably as possible.” Students living in poverty, students with disabilities and students who do not speak English as their first language are named as groups to keep in mind.
In Illinois, districts are “strongly encouraged to provide instruction to students during these Act of God Days through whatever means possible,” including putting together learning packets, assigning long-term research-based projects, having students write reflection essays about books or movies and making take-home packets available the same way many districts are providing grab-and-go meals or meal delivery.
Delivering classes online is possible on the district’s end, Davenport Superintendent Robert Kobylski said in a press conference last week. But, he added, the accessibility of those online classes and resources is an issue of equity. How would students without internet access or a computer fare? How would special education services for students who require them translate to an environment without an in-person educator?
Last winter, Bettendorf, like many districts in the area, had more snow days than expected. Joy Kelly, high school principal, started online learning days to keep students engaged. The days didn’t count toward the district’s state-required hours, but she said the days still had merit.
“It kept our students engaged. It helped our staff stay connected to our students during a disruptive time,” she said. “It provided structure and routine for both students and staff, and it signaled just how important the learning was.”
Bettendorf is a 1:1 district, which means every student has a device issued by the district. Even with a device, though, not every student had stable WiFi access. Thanks to a grant, the high school now has 20 WiFi hotspots students can rent out. But for a district with more than 4,600 students, that’s a small percentage. Libraries, coffee shops and other WiFi sources are also closed because of the virus, too, providing few alternatives.
Davenport and Moline-Coal Valley are also 1:1; Pleasant Valley and Rock Island-Milan are not.
Last year, Kelly said the high school had high voluntary participation rates.
“For the most part, our students really did engage with that, and I think that’s a credit to our parents and our staff,” she said.
That could change though, she said. While the previous online learning days addressed snow days, the COVID-19 shutdowns go beyond schools: Everything from restaurants to many government offices, and anything deemed “nonessential” is closed.
Older students, in particular, might be tasked with being the primary caregiver for any younger children.
“It’s not just a disruption for the students. We now have parents who are displaced, or are going to be displaced, in terms of their jobs,” Kelly said. “If you’re trying to get breakfast for three little siblings, an 8:20 class is going to be a challenge.”
Illinois doesn’t have guidance for special education yet, beyond a list of resources, many of which address assistive technology. The Illinois State Board of Education is “currently reviewing questions regarding special education and will be adding information to (the FAQ page) as soon as it becomes available,” read a message on its website Monday.
Other than asking districts to be as equitable as possible, the Iowa Department of Education guidance doesn’t offer much by way services.
“If a school district closes its schools to slow or stop the spread of COVID-19 and does not provide any educational services to the general student population, then it would not be required to provide services to students with disabilities during that same period of time,” the guidance states. There’s also “no automatic entitlement for services to be ‘made up’ once services resume.”
Federally, that guidance holds: If the general student population isn’t receiving educational services, students with disabilities don’t either. The teams that create students individualized education plans may include distance learning plans, but they’re not required to.
Just because the guidance available now isn’t detailed doesn’t mean it won’t change or become more detailed. If school closures are extended, there may be a more urgent need to find a viable long-term solution for educating kids, no matter what their needs or hurdles are.
“I think the guidance may adjust given the fact that this is such a unique, unprecedented situation,” Kelly said. “The guidance, as it stands, is right. We have to approach things from an equity perspective.”
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