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A core dilemma

Ripple Effect is a partnership between the Mail Tribune and KTVL taking an in-depth look at the many impacts of COVID-19 in the Rogue Valley. Tune in to KTVL News 10’s broadcast Monday to see how the pandemic has affected local schools.

The Ashland School District’s decision to teach core subjects such as math and language arts remotely rather than in-person once schools there reopen via a new hybrid model March 1 is being scrutinized by parents who would rather their kids learn those subjects on site.

Arranging hybrid classes once brick-and-mortar schools reopen, either fully or as part of a hybrid format, is a challenge districts across the state are approaching in many ways. In Ashland, district administrators’ decision to offer in-person classes four half-days a week to students in kindergarten through fifth grade after initially announcing a two-day-per-week plan has generally been met with approval. Specifics of the plan, however, have been less popular.

Superintendent Samuel Bogdanove and Student Services Director Erika Bare walked families through the reopening plan during a livestreamed community information and input webinar held Feb. 3, during which Bare fielded a question about the district’s core learning plan from a viewer. Five days later, Bogdanove addressed that aspect of the hybrid format again in front of the Ashland School Board, explaining that, “We really got a lot of questions and some feedback on this and really some concern.”

In a phone interview, Bogdanove said district administrators developed the plan based on input from teachers and parents, data from the district’s iReady student assessments and mandatory guidelines from the state laid out in its 91-page Ready Schools, Safe Learners packet.

“One of the things we’re obligated to do under state regulations and because we want it to be a good experience for all our kids is to do both hybrid learning and, for those families that want it, to continue with online only,” Bogdanove said. “So the best way to do that, we felt, was to address the core at a time that was online. There are also several other reasons why we think that was valuable. One, it would make sure that we’re able to get reading and math core instruction to kids five days a week. We don’t have capacity to bring every kid on campus five days a week, but we do have capacity to continue that core learning five days a week through a distance learning model.”

Why don’t they have the capacity to bring kids back five days a week? Space and staffing, explains Bogdanove. Besides mandatory face masks and social distancing, RSSL guidance requires at least 35 square feet per student in every classroom, a rule that greatly reduces the number of students who can be squeezed into each room. Classrooms that held between 25 and 30 students pre-COVID are now limited to 10 to 12, Bogdanove said, a problem that schools across the state are solving by dividing cohorts and converting other spaces such as cafeterias and libraries into makeshift classrooms. Doing so requires more teachers, which has contributed to the district’s staffing shortage — ASD has put a call out to the community for “educational support professionals.”

There’s more behind the decision: Teaching core subjects via CDL essentially eliminates the possibility that those classes get derailed by a positive COVID-19 test and subsequent quarantines; Reading lessons formerly done in tight half-moon desk setups that make mouth-watching easy for teachers can be effectively duplicated via Zoom sessions; and core subjects will still be taught on site indirectly.

“When students are actually on site and in person, in social studies and in science and in unit studies, part of that focus is still going to be about literacy and math,” Bogdanove told the school board. “It’s just embedded in these other subject matters. It’s really part of everything we do in school, particularly K-2 and really K-3. The other piece is for students that need it, whether it’s because of special needs or special circumstances, there’s opportunity for targeted follow-up with certain students on reading and math during that in-person time as well as during some other times. So that flexibility exists.”

That’s not good enough, according to Carlie Irvin, a nurse practitioner and mother of three who moved to Ashland 11 years ago, at least in part for its highly regarded schools. Irvin, a member of the district’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Workgroup Committee, says the current plan to teach core subjects remotely is not in the best interest of the district’s youngest learners.

In a letter to the school board, Irvin cited an article published by McKinsey & Company to make her case that “there has been a remarkable disparity and inequality for children of lower socioeconomic status and for those who are a minority,” and that Ashland’s hybrid format will only exacerbate that problem locally.

Irvin also pointed to Ashland’s iReady assessments as further evidence that remote learning isn’t really working for elementary students, particularly students who face additional barriers.

“Similar to what the data (have) indicated nationally,” Irvin wrote, “the elementary students have scored far below previous years and the most affected by distance learning are minorities, low socioeconomic status and those with learning disabilities.”

Irvin is well versed in COVID-19’s various impacts, from how it changed the health care industry to its affect on family life and education. She supported school closures from the beginning, quit her job to help her children keep up in school and has dipped into her savings to pay for a tutor.

Irvin said remote learning worked out well for her family initially and in some ways was even better than in-person school for her 8-year-old, who’s been diagnosed with dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Then, the Ashland School District unveiled a CDL plan for the 2020-21 school year that emphasized synchronous learning — that is, live rather than prerecorded Zoom sessions.

“This fall, it’s been very different for us in many ways,” she said. “I’d say first and foremost is that it’s all synchronous learning, the majority of it is synchronous learning, the core is synchronous learning. So the children sit on Zoom with all their other classmates and the teacher. And there are so many distractions.”

For most students, she concedes, distractions such as background noises, background action and students chiming in with questions are inconvenient but surmountable. But for many others, Irvin says, all the baggage that comes along with synchronous learning renders it practically useless and in fact could deliver a major blow to a child’s self-esteem.

Ashland’s iReady data, provided to the EDI Workgroup for a Feb. 1 meeting, seem to support that contention. Charts illustrating the percentages of each K-8 cohort that tested at grade level on iReady assessments indicated that only about 15% of “ever English learners” — the category includes all students ever classified as an English learner — and special education students were performing at grade level in math. About 24% of ELL and 25% of special education students scored at grade level in reading. Those numbers are well off the district’s overall marks — about 35% for math and 55% for reading.

Irvin’s account of a hard day for her kindergartner epitomizes the struggle of many families living with the ups and downs of distance learning, but it’s the broader view that comes into focus once you pull back, she says, that’s most concerning. Last week, her 6-year-old son missed some important instructions for a math assignment, became frustrated that he couldn’t do it and regressed. With two other children to care for, Irvin couldn’t attack the math assignment until later that afternoon. Worse, she knows it’s entirely possible her own lesson may end up doing more harm than good.

“The concern is that I’m not a math teacher,” Irvin said, “and so I may be showing them what to do from what I remember back when I was in elementary school, but I know that the way they teach math now is very different from how we learned (before). So I’m teaching them a different method, setting them up for struggles when they come back in.”

It’s not who’s teaching it or how it’s being taught that’s the problem, Irvin stressed. Ashland’s teachers, she said, are phenomenal, but no amount of skill in the classroom can make up for a flawed system she believes will lead to a wider gap between those who excel in distance learning and those who do not.

“We have an average learning loss close to nine months across the board in the nation,” Irvin said. “But for these kids who are really struggling, who have limited access to internet, who have learning disabilities, who have to share computers, whose parents are working two jobs, who are free- and reduced-lunch, who are struggling — really struggling — they’re going to continue to have a learning loss.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

Mail Tribune Photo illustrationAshland schools are set to reopen via a new hybrid model March 1, but some parents believe children should be taught core subjects in person.