Rapid City Area School Board recently voted to approve its “Together Again, Back to School Plan“ for the physical return of students and teachers for this upcoming school year.
The back to school plan is a fluid and procedural guide to how the district will operate during the pandemic. One problem the district discovered during the closure last spring was how to best stay in touch with students.
Rapid City Areas Schools lost contact with 30 percent of its students when the pandemic hit last spring.
The school was lenient towards attendance and work assignments and didn’t fail any student for the spring semester. High schoolers couldn’t receive anything less than a D for credit and for middle schoolers and elementary it was simply pass or fail.
One of the options for students this upcoming school year is 100 percent online, distance learning. This option isn’t only helpful to give students and parents peace of mind for their safety but also give the students who lost touch a way to better stay engaged.
According to the district’s public information manager, Katy Urban, they are prepared for more student outreach.
“So one of the things that we're going to do is we have our social workers who are going to be making calls," said Urban. "If we are losing touch with a student, then we are going to do our best at the teacher level to make contact. And then if that doesn't work, we'll have our social workers reach out. I think one important thing that's a distinction between last spring and this fall is that this is all going to count. So we're taking attendance, they'll be graded just like they were if they were in class. So there are some higher stakes, but definitely we are going to be having teachers who are just dedicated to those distance learners. So they will be able to hopefully track them a little bit better and there's going to be more structure to the distance learners’ days. So we're just hoping that a number of those sort of best practices for distance learning does end up making those kids more interested in that they're engaging and not checking out.”
Although there is no official reason why student engagement dropped last spring, Associate Professor of Psychology at Black Hills State University Emilia Flint, says it’s simply a matter of accessibility.
“Yeah, that's one of the things that my professional discipline, the American Psychological Association has really been kind of on the forefront of communicating that information," said Flint. "Hey, be advised that, especially for folks who are of low socioeconomic status, accessibility to the resources that are needed to properly receive an education online are limited, if not impossible to get. It's like saying, we're going to shut down the schools and assuming that everybody could then have access to a laptop computer. Even in some middle-class families, they have one computer and so they're splitting time. If their parents are working from home, they need the computer and then their children also need the computer to complete assignments and do their online learning. And so, yes, when you sent that statistic to me, that's exactly where my mind went, is that likely that disconnect came from a lack of access to resources to properly engage a child in online learning.”
Rapid City Area Schools will provide laptops to students who need them. Urban says the biggest thing is giving families choices and ultimately for the schools to have meaningful teaching time with students and to provide resources for children and their families.
“I think you have to do what's best for your family and that is going to vary based on who you are and your family's individual needs. Like I said, we really tried to offer some choice for families, and this is a moving target. So things aren't going to be fluid. They're going to change and we're all learning as we go. We're all in this together and so we want to be of any help that we can be.”
Whether parents choose to send their kids back to school or utilize the distance learning, the decision according to Flint, isn’t an easy one.
“I think for parents, it's important to be very self-compassionate, too, to recognize as you've already hinted at, Richard, this decision that the parent makes about sending or not sending their child to school isn't taken lightly. And so to respect one's own decision around it and care for oneself in the process of making that decision to really acknowledge, "Gosh, this is so different. This isn't what I hoped for. Of course, of course I am anxious about this. No matter the decision, if I keep them home, that means they're going to drive me crazy sometimes. If I send them to school, it means that is risky because are we wearing masks? Aren't we wearing masks? Are they going to share their masks? What's going to happen while they're at school?" And so the decision with an involved parent isn't taken lightly. And so for the parent, it's important to have that self-compassion and to recognize this is just a challenging time, so different than anything we have ever lived before. And that it is, yeah, no matter what the decision is about choosing online or going face to face, it's a complicated process.”
Back to school for Rapid City Area Schools is September 8. The district is also making plans to provide meals for students in the distance learning program.