Posted Date: 06/01/2021
This is the second part of a series of commentary on discussing how school is going so far this year. In last week's article, I shared about our celebrations of remaining open and providing opportunities for our students to learn, grow, socialize, compete, and return to some sort of normalcy. Additionally, I shared how quarantining is affecting our daily operations and informed you of our need for quality substitutes.
In this article, I am going to expand on our virtual and learning management system, how we are serving all of our students both face to face and at home, the battles we are fighting for engagement and attendance, and some other possible decision points we will be considering very soon.
Virtual/Face to Face
As of October 19, 2020 we had 3493 students enrolled in Pampa Schools PK-12. This is a decline in our enrollment of around 44 students from this same time last year. Of those students, 530 are enrolled as virtual (at home) learners. 143 of these virtual students are in grades PK-5, 138 are in grades 6-8, and 249 are in grades 9-12. These numbers fluctuate from day to day due to changes in educational settings, quarantining, and many other random reasons.
Being in a constant state of flux naturally makes the work of our teachers and administrators increasingly challenging every day. Our teachers have worked extremely hard to learn and are navigating our Canvas Learning Management System very well now. I applaud their efforts and am so impressed with their professionalism and willingness to be learners every day in their own classrooms.
Engagement in learning and attending school was a concern for some of our students BEFORE COVID-19. However, with the shutdown from last spring and the option for many students to move to virtual on-line school, these concerns are bigger now than ever. And, in many cases, the students that we were the most concerned about achieving their goals are the students that we are working diligently to engage in this new environment. With almost 15% of our students choosing to learn online, we have found it more challenging to get some of them to virtually attend each class daily, to engage in their schoolwork, and in some cases, to even “log on” to the system. Of the 530 students that have chosen virtual school, less than half of them are being successful. This is alarming!
You may ask what we have done as a school district to remove barriers to successful online learning. We have implemented numerous interventions and support systems to ensure that any student who chooses to learn from home has all of the resources and supplies necessary to do so. Sadly, when students are at home, we are not in control of what they choose to do, when they choose to do anything, or even IF they choose to engage at all. That responsibility falls on the parent and/or guardian in the home. We have provided laptops, Wi-Fi hotspots, curbside and in-home set up assistance, live virtual support multiple times each day, and so much more.
So, what happens if the students still do not engage or attend virtual school? Glad you asked!
As a last attempt to stand in the gap for these students and do everything we can to ensure they have educational opportunities, we have one resource left to us. The Court System. Yes, we have over 300 students that we are about to take to the Truancy courts. This may sound harsh, but it is where we have found ourselves. For many of these students, they have already missed more than 90% of the course and will likely need to repeat their grade level. Our hope and intent in making this aggressive effort is that these students and their parents/guardians will either engage or better yet—just return to school.
In fact, our School Board is evaluating our optional virtual system at our next Board Meeting on Monday October 26, 2020. Do not get me wrong, I am a supporter of a parent’s choice and many of our students who are being successful have valid reasons to make the choice to learn from home. I respect a parent’s decision to do this and we have made some wonderful strides as we have collaborated with families throughout this process. However, for the students that are NOT being successful, for those that are taking advantage of our flexibility, or are not even logging in, we must intervene! It is in fact our moral obligation to do so!
Do we HAVE to offer a virtual school option?
The simple answer to this question is NO, we are not required by law to have a virtual option. However, the not so simple answer is YES, it is in our best interest to have a virtual option available in some form. Until mandatory quarantines and potential closures are not a reality, we must have virtual learning in order to keep learning going for all of our students and in order to continue to receive funding from the state of Texas. If we no longer allow students to choose virtual learning unless they are quarantined, have a documented medical reason, or some other special circumstance, then these students could choose to attend a virtual education program elsewhere. The money, of course, follows the student—as it should. There is just so much to consider and the answer is not as simple as you might think.
Some school districts across the state have stopped optional virtual learning and are experiencing a myriad of fallout issues. Most of the Superintendents that I have spoken with have noted that they have experienced an increase in homeschool students. Some of our homeschooled students are blessed and receive wonderful educational experiences from their parents or homeschool providers. However, sadly, many do not and they return later to public school and are further behind than when they left. Also, these districts are experiencing a loss in revenue from the state due to a decline in enrollment. There is no easy answer, but we are examining all of the options and will work together to make the best decision for our district, our students, our staff, and our community.
Offering virtual learning opportunities under normal conditions where there are dedicated staff and students is a good idea. The off/on/random nature of what we must do now is frustrating and certainly not ideal, nor sustainable. As we continue to meet the needs of our students and work diligently to prepare them to be 21st Century Learners, providing on-line and on-demand learning options is the sign of a visionary school district and one that is responsive to the needs and desires of the families it serves. It is important to note that many of our online virtual students are being very successful right now. We must understand the complexities of both systems and not confuse these two separate concepts of how, when, and why we offer virtual instruction.
The Good News
Not all hope is lost and not everything is destined for doom and gloom! We have so much for which to be thankful and so many wonderful people and accomplishments to celebrate. Our teachers are superheroes in that they keep coming back to work every day to do unbelievable things for our students! Our leadership teams, administration, and support staff are showing up every day ready to do “whatever it takes” to keep the doors open, the busses moving, the classrooms clean, and the competitions going!
Regardless of the decisions that have to be made down the road, I am so grateful that our family made the decision to live and work in Pampa Texas over 20 years ago! THANK YOU Pampa for your support, for trusting us with your students, for believing in our people, and for giving us reasons every day to be #PampaProud! #TogetherWeCan thrive through this season of challenges and come out on the other side stronger and better!
Dr. Tanya Larkin, Superintendent
Published on 10/25/2020