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Jackson County schools work to find and fill gaps in distance learning

For over two months, teaching without a classroom has been the challenge set before teachers and administrators as COVID-19 restrictions stretch on.

And some monumental adaptations have taken shape.

“Folks took ownership of something that seemed impossible March 13,” said Bret Champion, superintendent of the Medford School District. “And here we are May 13, and kids are learning, and teachers are teaching. It’s not perfect, but there is a lot of learning happening across the system. As a general comment, it’s incredible.”

But equity remains an elusive target as the weeks go by, with two key issues being families’ technological ingress and access to needed services for their children. And as schools wait for information from the state about whether they’ll have to continue distance learning in the fall, narrowing the educational disparities in the distance model is an important priority.

Data tracking attendance and engagement offer some surface-level insight into which students are falling through the cracks while campuses remain closed. Even now, teachers and principals have said they’re seeing some students log into their online learning platforms for the first time since the closure began in mid-March — meaning they’ve missed about two months of schooling.

Natalie Hurd, spokeswoman for Medford schools, said that according to attendance data, staff “have been able to consistently reach over 98% of the students.” But fewer students have been consistently engaging with actual assignments and instruction.

Over 80% of Medford students K-12 have been consistently engaging regularly in learning, Hurd said, with percentages varying by school and grade. More students in elementary and middle school are engaging in learning than students in high school.

In Central Point School District, the average weekly attendance rate over the weeks of closure until May 16 was 93%, according to the school district. About 121 students have not been engaging at all, or only minimally.

With graduation and state testing data, it’s typical for Oregon schools to examine whether students of certain ethnicities, students learning English, and homeless students, to name a few, are achieving at comparable rates to white, English-speaking or housed students.

But when it comes to parsing through attendance and engagement data from recent weeks to determine whether historically underserved students are disproportionately affected by the potential obstacles of distance learning, school officials haven’t yet begun to investigate.

“We’re used to getting very robust data,” Champion said. “And we’re not able to, quite to that extent.”

Laurie Rooper, spokeswoman for the Ashland School District, said she has heard a variety of reasons why online instruction in particular isn’t ideal for students. That includes, Rooper said, some families who shun internet usage out of their personal convictions. The school staff try to honor that by providing other options, she said.

Ashland, Central Point and other local school districts have been making use of additional analog methods for instruction and assignments, such as paper packets. Medford has focused more strongly on solving problems through district-issued hardware such as Chromebooks and mobile hotspots, or by making school parking lots available for students to connect to Wi-Fi.

Champion said the district has already decided to let students keep their Chromebooks through the summer.

But for some students, and especially some students receiving special education, being out of the school setting has presented at times overwhelming challenges to continue acquiring skills and learning.

Jana Langhoff, parent to Tyler, who’s in kindergarten at Howard Elementary School, said he is struggling to stay engaged with his schoolwork during the closure. Tyler has been diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and is receiving speech therapy through video calls with a speech pathologist. But he isn’t on an Individualized Education Plan. His mother won’t be able to start IEP meetings with district staff until the fall, she said.

“It’s been horrible,” she said. “He’s learning more off of playing Minecraft.”

Langhoff said her efforts to press Tyler to focus on school work when he’s not in class have mostly fallen on deaf ears. It’s when he’s working directly with his teacher, whom Jana described as “awesome,” that they get the best results.

“Getting back in the classroom would be great,” she said. “I know he’s falling behind.”

Stephanie Havener, a special education teacher at Jacksonville Elementary School, works in the MAPS program with children experiencing significant disabilities. For a number of the students, especially those with autism, she said, the disruption of routine has been jarring enough to severely affect their learning.

“I’ve heard from so many families, and it makes me tear up even now,” she said. “The kids are getting their backpacks in the morning and sitting by the door, and they don’t understand. They can’t handle it.”

Some services have been able to transition somewhat smoothly to online: Tyler Langhoff’s speech therapy is one example.

But other requirements that may be outlined in a student’s IEP, such as in-person physical assistance, teachers like Havener aren’t able to provide in the distance learning setting. Over the weeks, she’s worked with parents on creative strategies to get kids what they need. But she still worries about the longer-term impacts of the closure on her students’ learning.

“We’re just going to see a longer time recovering,” Havener said. “(With) any disruption, we always struggle for a couple days with behavior, with relearning to fall back into a routine. I don’t even want to think about it, actually. It’s going to be a struggle.”

Schools continue to work out the kinks of their distance learning models, even as they plan for summer school and next year.

The latest guidance from the Oregon Department of Education said schools may operate in-person summer programs, with appropriate social distancing protocols in place. Jeanne Grazioli, executive director of teaching and learning for Medford, said students who have been most impacted by the closures will be prioritized for acceptance into summer school.

As for next year — the district has been assembling plans for every possible scenario between an unimpeded return to campuses and a statewide continuance of distance learning, Grazioli said.

She said fall will also be the time when schools will be able to more accurately assess the impacts of the closure on students’ academic progress.

“If a student was on track for three-quarters of the school year and they continue to learn during fourth quarter, we’re hopeful that we’re not looking at a large number of students that need remediation,” Grazioli said. “But we’re prepared if we do have to remediate.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune{ }{ }{ }{ }{ } Jana Langhoff and her son Tyler work on the computer together in Medford.