Addressing the possibility that education this fall may have to social distancing guidelines, West Plains R-7 Superintendent Dr. Lori Wilson announced the district will use CARES Act funds to buy equipment to get high school students ready for online learning,
The funds, she said, will also be used to explore options in providing internet access to students who might not have it now.
Speaking Tuesday during the school board’s regular monthly meeting, Wilson said the two biggest obstacles in getting high school students ready to learn online are in providing a notebook or tablet device, and students' access to internet, necessary to at least download lesson plans to be completed later.
The elementary and middle schools were already set up for this eventuality, as far as having enough notebook devices for one-to-one instruction, but the high school was not quite there.
“We need to get this up to date if a second waves hits this fall,” Wilson said, referring to the possibility that another school closing might happen if COVID-19 cases rise again.
Wilson outlined the district’s tentative plan in a letter sent to parents last week, letting them know what was being done to meet Missouri Board of Education mandates, and what the school year could look like this fall:
“The West Plains School District and Missouri schools faced unprecedented times this spring with COVID-19. For the first time in history, we closed our doors for almost one quarter of the year, in accordance with state and city guidelines. Despite the challenges presented, we educated our students to the best of our ability through distance learning. We accomplished this by providing paper learning plans due to technology limitations for many of our students and teachers in our area.
"This is not the way we would like to educate our students going forward in case we face another challenge of this nature. We have been tasked by the Missouri Commissioner of Education to make contingency plans for next year and to develop an alternative method of instruction in case it’s needed. This is a state mandate for public schools, not an option, but I’d like to emphasize the district plans for students to return to school in the fall and operate as close to normal as we can. We need to plan for the worst-case scenario while remaining optimistic for the best.
"Several people have asked about using mobile phones in distance learning since most students have access to smartphones. However, the educational curriculum provided by third party companies utilizes a tablet, notebook, or desktop format that does not translate to the operating system used by phones. Therefore, access to Chromebooks or similar devices is necessary.
"For students to receive distance instruction during the next school year due to COVID-19 or any other unforeseeable circumstance, all students need to have access to a device. The terminology is called 1:1, meaning each student will have a device to enhance learning. For several years, our younger students have been utilizing devices which were purchased through federal funds that covered only elementary and middle school students. We are using a portion of the CARES funding we will receive to purchase 1,100 devices for our high school students, who have not previously had access to individual devices. We are also using this money to upgrade our infrastructure and teacher devices.
"Unfortunately, access to reliable Wi-Fi is a very real problem in this area and affects students, teachers, and parents. We have purchased hotspots for some of our teachers because we have had to continue services for some students via online meetings. If we need to have a hybrid model of instruction next year, online and seated, we need to find ways to make Wi-Fi accessible for our students.
"We are currently upgrading Wi-Fi coverage to cover all our parking lots. We are investigating placing Wi-Fi on the buses and parking them throughout our district so our students can access the internet when they are within range. We are purchasing hotspots for our teachers and students to use, but some do not live in areas where hotspots will work to access Wi-Fi.
"As we worked on these challenges, we identified our task as ‘Learning Reimagined,’ with the tagline ‘Learning Forward. Future Ready.’ This does not change our commitment to traditional education, but rather gives our students and teachers the tools for an equitable education should we be forced to move to an online format due to COVID-19.
"Going forward, we are focusing on three goals: create educational equity for our students, provide professional development for our teachers to use technology as an instructional tool and as our method of instruction if we are forced to close school again this fall, and teach digital citizenship to each of our students.
"Because of continuing COVID-19 restrictions, we will not have seated summer school in June, and are working on piloting an online summer school. This will provide an opportunity for our teachers to develop online lessons which will allow instructions to our students through technology. The district is continuing to evaluate if a traditional seated summer school will be an option in July as we monitor state and municipal reopening guidelines.
"Finally, I wish to comment on the Missouri School Board Association (MSBA) guidelines for the fall, which are concerning, but let’s keep in mind this situation continues to develop. Quite a few of MSBA’s suggestions are not feasible for most schools, such as drastically limiting the number of students on buses, and limits on athletics, choir, band, and other group activities. I want to assure you we have no intention of discontinuing band, choir, extracurricular activities, etc. The district is committed to educating our students, and we will continue to keep community patrons aware of the district’s response to the COVID-19 challenges. Thank you for your continued support, and should you have any further questions or concerns, please feel free to contact me by calling 256-6155 or by email at email@example.com."