Learning gaps expected when school resumes

By LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

When schools closed in mid-March due to COVID-19, no one expected their doors to stay closed for the rest of the school year. But they did.

The premature end of the in-person school year threw families and educators into a flurry as they scrambled to figure out how to continue education at a distance. With the announcement of continued school closures, the Indiana Department of Education required each school corporation to put together a continuous learning plan to map out how they would finish the school year.

“The way I took it was the state looking at accountability and to make sure schools are staying on track,” said Southeast Dubois Superintendent Jamie Pund.

The plans asked administrators to specify how teachers provide instruction to students, how attendance is being tracked and how teachers and school administrators are keeping in touch with families. They also contain information about how students with special needs, such as disabilities or English as a second language, are having their needs met during the closures. Many schools have posted their continuous learning plans on their corporation websites.

As school administrators put the plans together, concerns about the lasting impacts COVID-19 will have on students and education came into focus. One major concern is larger than normal learning gaps when students return to regular in-person classes.

“I think it’s definitely solidified that in person is best,” said Tina Fawks, assistant superintendent of curriculum, instruction and assessment at Greater Jasper Schools.

A major area of concern has been students with special needs, such as English language learners or those with disabilities.

“We are doing a lot right now to make extra contact with those special populations,” Fawks said.

Northeast Dubois Superintendent Bill Hochgesang said his staff is also reaching out to students with special needs to make sure they continue to receive the services they need.

“That is a huge challenge, and it takes so much more time this way than if they were in school,” he said.

Although he knows the staff can’t offer the same level of instruction and service they could if classes were in person, Hochgesang believes his staff is doing the best they can to still offer quality education. He’s also grateful to the parents for helping the students at home.

The school closures have also brought other needs into focus. For some students, internet connectivity has been an issue. So has the lack of structure the normal school schedule provides.

“There are kids who struggle to stay on task,” Hochgesang said. “I think parents are doing an outstanding job of keeping the kids on track, but it doesn’t take the place of the teacher.”

The full extent of the learning gaps won’t be known until students are back in the classrooms and teachers can evaluate each student’s level. Once that happens, local educators are confident they’ll be able to get students back on track.

“The greatest thing is that even in this crazy situation, the kids are continuing to learn,” Hochgesang said. “That’s what’s important.”

As schools look ahead to reopening, they’re faced with the challenge of not yet knowing what that may look like. Questions around personal protection equipment and extra sanitizing requirements abound, as do questions of how social distancing guidelines play out within a school.

“It’s going to look so different, I don’t know if we really know [those answers] yet,” Fawks said.

For now, local school officials wait for additional guidance from the IDOE and Gov. Eric Holcomb before they can fully address and plan for reopening.

Still, there are some actions they can and are taking now, such as beginning to acquire personal protection equipment. At Southeast Dubois, Pund said, they’ve already started ordering masks, gloves and cleaning supplies.

“We are trying to get ahead of it,” Pund said. “I don’t want to get in a situation where they announce the guidelines in June or July, and we aren’t ready in August because those supplies are potentially back ordered.”

Although it’s been an uncertain and stressful time across the board, there have still been positives. For one, the school closures have made clear the importance of in-person instruction and the role schools play. For another, the closures have created stronger connections between schools, students and families.

“I think it’s really opened up communication between teachers and parents,” Pund said.

Overall, local educators agree they’re proud that they’ve been able to continue to provide education to all students and are confident Dubois County students will remain on track in the long run. That said, they’re still eager to have the students back in the classrooms.




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