Lebanon County schools are solidifying plans on how to finish the 2019-20 academic year without students returning to their classrooms.
“This is hard for all of us,” Lebanon School District superintendent Arthur Abrom said Friday.
“Schools are based on relationships and our ability to see our students every day,” he said. “Especially our seniors—the things they’re losing out on. They’re unable to play sports or put on a musical. They’re unable to have a prom. It breaks our hearts for them.”
Abrom and the county’s other school superintendents have been holding frequent discussions so all public school students in Lebanon County can expect a consistent approach to the remaining school year.
“It’s a different environment,” Northern Lebanon School District superintendent Gary Messinger told LebTown recently. “The teachers have done a fantastic job. Across the board, the staff has responded incredibly well.”
News on April 9 that schools would remain closed through the end of the year “confirmed what I was anticipating all along,” Palmyra Area School District superintendent Bernie Kepler said. “We knew it was likely this was going to happen.”
That signaled school administrators it was time to make decisions to assure long-term continuity in local education, he said, while advancing the curriculum for students so they’re prepared for the next school year.
“We’re looking at ways to formalize things, particularly at the high school level,” Kepler said. “Because we know we’re out for the rest of the year, we need to be sure our students are engaging.”
Teachers in Lebanon, for instance, “are making multiple contacts” with their students each week, Abrom said. “And if we see that a student hasn’t signed in for three days, teachers are checking up on them.”
But there are still some issues with the technological side of home-based learning, superintendents agreed.
“We have over 90 percent of our kids up and running,” Messinger said. “We’re reaching out to some kids who have some internet connectivity issues. … For instance, we have a couple of kids by the mountains that are having a hard time getting a connection. It’s a beautiful place to live but not a great place for online learning.”
Many schools nationwide had trouble when the pandemic forced schools to close because popular educational platforms, such as Schoology and Seesaw, were overwhelmed with the sudden surge in users.
“They were bombarded by districts across the country. A lot of kids were trying to get online at the same time,” Messinger said.
“Much of that has been remedied,” added Kepler. “It’s not that we’re issue-free, but Schoology has beefed up their infrastructure so that we’re having less downtime.
“Clearly our teachers would prefer to be seeing our students face-to-face,” Kepler continued. “Our teachers are incredibly busy, they’re working nonstop throughout the day—emailing, making videos. For the most part, they’re very pleased with the engagement of their students.”
“Our teachers have been awesome in trying to adjust from the old paradigm to the new paradigm very quickly,” Abrom agreed. “And some students are flourishing in the online environment.” According to Abrom, Lebanon has 80 to 85 percent attendance among secondary students, closer to 50 percent on the elementary level.
That’s because the district has provided electronic tablets to all its upper-level students but doesn’t have the budget to supply the younger students, he explained.
“In many cases, our younger students are using an older brother’s or sister’s devices,” he said.
Another problem, he added, is that some homes don’t have internet access. The district hopes to help alleviate that problem by increasing WiFi services at some of its schools.
“We have expanded our internet WiFi capabilities at four of our schools,” Abrom explained. At Northwest Elementary, parents can now pull into the parking lot to access the school’s WiFi.
Also, Abrom noted, some district residents are taking advantage of offers from some of the internet providers in the area who are providing access at a lower cost.
“One of the problems that I see with the lack of technology is that our students could be further behind than students in another district,” Abrom said. “One of our plans is to continue to provide some type of planned instruction over the summer.”
Summer instruction won’t be required, he said, but it will help students catch up on lessons they otherwise might have to cram into the start of school next fall. Also, he said, there will be credits attached as an incentive to secondary students.
The district has applied for a state grant, Abrom noted, that could help Lebanon to provide more tablets to its younger students.
Messinger said a small percentage of Northern Lebanon students are still experiencing connectivity issues.
“We’ve reached out by phone and online and in some cases haven’t gotten responses. We have letters going out to them to explain to them that we’re still going, and they need to reach out to us.”
Otherwise, he said, “I think we’re settling in … It’s a huge adjustment for kids to figure out how to do this. Everything takes longer online.”
Grading for the rest of this year “will be incredibly flexible,” Kepler said.
“The kids have the opportunity to get their grades to where they need to be to pass,” Messinger added. “But, mathematically, there is no way to fail a course they were already passing” when the shutdown was announced.
“We don’t want this experience to harm our kids academically,” he said. “This is a whole new world, and we don’t want it to punish them. So a failing grade [in the final quarter] is not going to pull down their percentage enough to fail for the year.”
With this school year ending on such uncertain terms, Abrom said the beginning of school next year might look a little different.
Teachers will have to gauge what students “conquered” during the spring and summer, he explained, and curricula might be adjusted accordingly, if certain concepts weren’t mastered. For instance, he said, that a third-grade student might have to revisit some second-grade standards before advancing to the new curriculum.
As for seniors, school administrators are exploring ways they can give them some portion of the senior experience, even if it’s virtual or delayed.
“Can we pull off a prom sometime later in June or July? Maybe August, who knows?” Kepler said. “And we will do whatever we need to do to give our graduates an experience for commencement.”
“We had to modify graduation requirements a little bit,” Messinger said. For example, requirements for community service had to be waived in some cases, he said.
“As far as the actual ceremony goes, we’re talking about several different options,” he said. A drive-through or drive-in commencement ceremony are among the options being considered, he said.
“And we’ve started doing some other things to recognize them, such as personalized signs for the students’ yards,” Messinger said.
“Frankly, I feel horrible for those kids. They’re missing their proms, they’re missing their senior class trips. They’re missing all of the things that are exciting about their last months as a senior.”
Abrom said further meetings on graduation options will be held this week.
Graduation in Lebanon is scheduled for June 4, and that date is not expected to change, he said.
“I do not believe we will be able to put large amounts of people in our auditorium,” he said. “But I hope that, once this ends, we can do something special for our seniors. Perhaps in August, or when they’re back home for Thanksgiving break.
“Each district is handling it on their own,” he added. “Each district has a different number of students—and a school district that’s graduating 400 kids will look different from a school district that’s graduating 200 kids.”
Northern Lebanon’s graduation is also scheduled for June 4, Messinger said. “We’re still on track for that,” he said. “How that looks for us? We’re still working that through.”
Primarily, Abrom said, he hopes families in the Lebanon area know how much school staff cares about the students.
“We miss them,” he said. “And we look forward to them checking in with their teachers each and every day. That’s the best way for us to know how they’re doing.”
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