The Payson Unified School District has embraced a sweeping experiment in online learning — but still isn’t sure how many kids are getting left out.
The district plunged headlong into the effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 by converting every class to an online model, with roughly a week of preparation.
“We’ve kind of been training for this moment for a long time,” said IT lead Victoria Andrews. Google had previously recognized Payson as a Google reference district. “We’ve been doing training in terms of integrating technology into traditional classrooms for five years.”
Right now that includes crash-course training for teachers in how to deliver online lectures, conduct online discussion groups, post class materials and textbooks, record student presentations, manage one-on-one online chats with teachers and students — and post tests for students to take.
“I have to commend the teachers and staff, they’ve really stepped up to make education continue and reaching out and talking to students and also parents,” said Interim Superintendent Mark Tregaskes.
“It’s a very steep learning curve,” said Andrews, “on top of all the anxiety and concern” about the pandemic.
The governor’s order to keep schools closed until May and shift as much instruction as possible online has tested the town’s internet connections. The district still doesn’t know how many students can’t access the internet at home — but national studies suggest perhaps a quarter of students lack access.
Tregaskes said, “our problem in Payson is that we have just the one line coming in and that just slows things down considerably with the more users you get. The other thing we’re trying to find out is how families can provide access for their children.”
The stay-at-home order has underscored the critical role the internet now plays, not only for schools but for the economy. Rim Country has long been hobbled by the modest speed and capacity of the dead-end line bringing the broadband signal to the region. Various organizations and agencies have been working to increase capacity and reliability for years, with improvements promised but not yet delivered.
And that has left many families without access, with a rising number of people at least temporarily losing their jobs and half of the families in the district already qualifying for the federal “free and reduced” lunch program based on income.
Tregaskes noted that the district is discovering that many families who had internet service are no longer connected. “People who might have had service, no longer can afford that service.”
He said the district is working with internet companies who have offered free service for families during the crisis, and community partners like the MHA Foundation to come up with creative ways to provide access for students in the next two months.
The district continues to hand out packets at each school site with lesson plans and assignments for the week for parents who can’t go online to get the information. As of last Friday, Tregaskes didn’t have a firm count on how many families must rely on the printed packets and how many have no reliable internet access or a computer for students to work on.
Still, he said things have gone well so far.
“What I’m hearing from parents overall has been very, very positive,” said Tregaskes. “The more you do this, the better you get at it. We got off to a great start and continue to get better, but it’s a big learning curve for everyone. Some are picking it right up and for others we’re providing more training — not only our staff, but our students as well — especially if they’re a young student who has never worked that much with technology. So one step at a time. We’re making progress, but some are further along than others.”
However, he acknowledged that the abrupt shift to home learning — with or without the internet — has once again made parental involvement the crucial element in student success. Multiple studies show parent education and involvement has a bigger impact on student achievement than any other single factor. That goes double when it comes to a student’s efforts to adapt to the greater degree of discipline and focus required by a shift to online learning.
The U.S. Department of Education in 2010 did an analysis of the results of 1,000 studies comparing online classes to traditional, in-the-flesh classes. Most of the studies focused on colleges and other learning situations rather than K-12 schools. Overall, the analysis found the students in the online classes did better — but mostly when those classes blended online learning with in-the-flesh feedback and tutoring. That’s the online approach taken by Payson Center for Success, the district’s alternative high school. The school board recently promoted PCS Principal Linda Gibson to superintendent of the whole district. The U.S. Department of Education Study concluded that the “blended” approach often included additional “learning time and instructional elements,” which might have accounted for the gains. The study provided cautious encouragement for a shift to online learning approaches, even based on the much more limited software, technology and internet speeds in 2010.
However, stressing online learning on the fly increases the difficulties for students without access or enough help from parents to keep kids on track.
“It can present some unique challenges for parents,” said Tregaskes. “For some families, it’s something they do that’s almost second nature. For other families, it’s not. How can we best address that? Because of individual circumstances, it’s much harder for some families than for others. Our teachers realize that as well. They reach out to students and provide individual help and guidance. We need to do more and more of that as we move forward — it’s a critical part of what we’re doing.”
But that can present an overwhelming challenge for a teacher with multiple classes and 180 students to monitor — or an elementary school teacher whose students aren’t skilled at using the computer or the internet.
Recent direction from the state finally settled the question about whether schools will reopen before the end of the semester. The state also decided schools must finish their classes during the shutdown, without extending the school year into the summer.
Tregaskes said that represented a difficult call. The state could have shifted the rest of the school year into the summer.
“If we had a crystal ball and knew what the future holds — that might have been good. But we don’t know for sure if we could make it up later. So we have to make good use of the time we know we have and continue forward with that.”
He said students who complete their classes will graduate — but wasn’t sure whether the emergency “social distancing” orders will make it possible to have graduation ceremonies in late May when they normally take place.
Andrews said the district’s investment in classroom technology is now paying off. Google declared the district one of the “Googliest” in the nation, based on an array of criteria. The district’s just one of 234 Google Reference Districts in the nation. The district has some 2,400 Chromebooks on a cart that can be wheeled into any classroom. Students can then get on their own small computer for online-assisted lesson plans, YouTube videos, curriculum materials while in the classroom.
During the closure, all the employees have been issued Chromebooks to work from home and taught how to do online meetings, through Google’s Hangout app. The district is also using its online portal and email connections with parents to maintain communications.
Many teachers work in department teams and now can hold meetings remotely, with the speaker shown in a pop-up window. “Teachers and staff members are getting on and sharing what they’re doing. We have teachers who have used these tools for a long time and they can participate in training and help others problem-solve,” said Andrews.
She said each teacher has been forced to adapt. “We’re all unique — like snowflakes. I’m super happy that our faculty and staff have been supporting each other and our students. Given the situation that all of us are in, they’re doing an amazing job of taking care of students.”