BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Holy Trinity students are going back to school Tuesday… sort of.
The Lee County Catholic school system has decided to transition to required distance learning starting Tuesday, April 14.
The Iowa Department of Education is requiring school districts that are offering continued learning through the COVID-19 shutdown, to declare by Friday whether they will do required learning or voluntary learning.
Fort Madison public schools and Central Lee schools have both indicated they will continue with the voluntary programs currently in effect.
Schools that don’t offer any continued learning will be required to make up the lost educational time by the Iowa Department of Education.
Governor Kim Reynolds has closed private and public schools in the state through April 30. She said she would give districts two weeks notice on any additional changes, which would be tentatively next Thursday.
But Holy Trinity Catholic’s Chief Administrative Officer Michael Sheerin said whether school is restarted or canceled for this year, HTC is positioned to move forward.
“The truth is we’re planning long-term and I think at this point any school would tell you they are not on a 3-week plan. They are really planning to end the school year,” Sheerin said.
“We would rather be overly prepared and hope the government would say we’re coming back May 1, but we’ve made a decision to plan this out for the long term.”
He said the first two weeks out of school the system started introductory distance learning programming to get everybody’s feet wet, find out online capabilities and see what the returns are from students. These next two weeks have been fine tuning the processes, and preparing for required learning that will translate to credits for students.
He said student participation has been “sporadic”, but said at times some classes were seeing 85% participation and some could be lower than 50%.
Pen City Current sat in on a class with teacher Kevin Barnes last Friday that had no student attendance during the allotted Zoom teleconference time, but Barnes said there could have been a technical snag.
He said tech is a big issue right now because not everyone has access with the rural broadband connectivity issues in Lee County. But he said for the most part students have been doing well with the system.
“I believe the voluntary learning is working out very well for the students who can access it,” Barnes said.
“They know what they are going to learn is limited. The direction they move is going to be a little slower paced than in the classroom. But it also gives them something to do with social restrictions we have right now.”
He said the learning is centered around concepts and not small details. Most of his classes are currently working on final projects so a lot of the class time is centered around questions on the projects.
But he said in some instances, students are doing better because they aren’t with their peers, they are more relaxed and even have brought pets on their laps as they sit it on coursework.
Sheerin said if this shutdown has highlighted anything it’s the lack of rural broadband access.
“State by state now I believe you’re going to see huge investments in high speed and getting fiber optics to every home. That will be a major effort going forward.”
But he said the district will mail or deliver or have available for pick up, packets that have instructional material in them, and will work with students who don’t have reliable Internet access.
Sheerin said the district has been looking at personalize learning models for several years and because of those efforts, the transition to distance learning has been easier.
“Each student can move on at their own pace, in a nutshell. If you’re in third grade and you know multiplication and another student is still on addition models, one can move on and the other can work at his or her pace,” Sheerin said.
With the learning being required effective Tuesday, the coursework will now be issued credit or grading, but Sheerin said that will have to be adaptive as well.
“That will be all done on very personalized basis based on families’ ability to get information and get it returned. Then we’ll assess fairly,” he said.
“What that likes like will be a work in progress whether it’s pass/fail, to a grade, to a rubric of 1-4. with 1 being optimal and 4 being challenged. Then you have to look at how that effects grade point averages for those students.
Sheerin said High School Principal Jason Woodley has been instrumental in getting the high school teachers and students ready for the transition to the required learning.
“Mr . Woodley has done an outstanding job at the high school and he’s been very instrumental in getting things ready in that system,” Sheerin said.
He said high school AP and dual credit courses will still be scored and graded as they were before.
He said if the state sees enough progress from the health and safety side of things and opens schools back up May 1 the district is ready. And going forward federal, state, and local education officials will be working to perfect the systems that were quickly put in place for this shutdown.
“If May 1 were back in school then happy days. It’s been a good introduction to us,” he said. “Every school will now work to perfect online learning services. The best lesson from all this is not necessarily that our schools aren’t ready to be prepared, but the infrastructure around us has been fragile.”
He said he’s been hearing from students that they’d like to get back and be a part of school activities.
“All the parents are saying kids are missing one another, but if we open it up they’ll be back two weeks and will be clamoring for summer break,” Sheerin said with a chuckle.
Barnes said shifting to mandatory learning will be easier because the students have experienced it and have had access already.
“I think a lot of the students have had to chance to adjust and are doing very well with the online system. A number of students only able to get online short period of time a couple times a week. But I know what kind of workload to give them. I’m adjusting the workload,” Barnes said last week.
“If they do turn it over to mandatory, most students and districts will do just fine. There will be those that are left behind a bit but our school is providing paper packet pickup where families who struggle with the online access.”