How These School Districts Planned Back to School During COVID-19

Written by Christina Peebles

October 9, 2020

Blog | COVID-19

Proximity Learning, an ESS company, co-hosted a webinar with the American Association for Employment and Education (AAEE) on Tuesday, August 25, to discuss how school districts in Louisiana and Georgia are planning to go back to school during COVID-19.

The webinar featured the back-to-school plans of three school district administrators. Daphne Donaldson is the director of human resources for the East Baton Rouge Parish school system in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Liz Young is the talent management coordinator for Fulton County Schools in Atlanta, Georgia. Nyree Sanders is director of human resources for Newton County Schools in Covington, Georgia.

Questions were asked by Jim Frenchak, a partnership director for Proximity Learning, and AAEE executive director Tim Neubert.

Table of Contents

What is your current plan for virtual vs. in-person learning for the new year?

Daphne Donaldson: For our school district, the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, we have started virtually. Right now our students are learning in a virtual environment. The plan is to reassess after Labor Day to determine whether or not we will move into a hybrid environment and an A/B schedule. Our intent is to bring back our younger children, the elementary students, before we bring back the older students. We’re going to try to bring those students back first. Right now that’s our actual plan at this point. But it may change, and we’ve learned change is a major piece of this whole thing.

Liz Young: We are in virtual learning. We’re calling it universal remote learning. All of our students are engaged from home. We do have a plan to phase back in. It’s based on a matrix based on community spread, data numbers for when it’s safe to do so in it. Similarly, it will start with those younger students, focusing on pre-K to second grade first, as well as some of our special needs students that do need to come in and have that face-to-face instruction.

Nyree Sanders: I would say our plan is probably somewhat of a combination of what both ladies talked about. We don’t start in with students until September 8. But when our students do report back, we will start with self-contained special needs students in the buildings. Other than that, everyone else will be phased in over time, and we hope to have any students who chose in person back in the buildings by maybe the middle of October, but that is truly based on what happens with the data related to cases. Hopefully, if all goes well, we’ll see more students who chose in person back in the building by October.

When did your schedule start and what does it look like today?

Liz Young: Our schedule is gonna be based on age level. Our younger students have a different schedule [and] a different number of hours that they’re online than our middle school students. It’s all synchronous instruction. They’re logging in, they have a morning meeting, and they have math time or reading time. Middle school and high school are following a very traditional schedule, almost like they’re in the building. They’re logging into all of those classes every day.

Daphne Donaldson: We started back on August 10. Our employees returned on August 3. We’ve given some autonomy to our principals. But, the school day pretty much looks like the regular school day for elementary, middle, and high school students. One of the things that we’ve encouraged our teachers to do is to do a 20-20-20 type of thing. Where the students are not looking at the screen for straight long periods of time, but we’re being mindful of the impact of the blue light from the computer screen. We have a great educational technology department that has worked with our teachers to help them figure out taking instruction that’s normally face-to-face and moving into a virtual environment, but also maintaining quality instruction [while] being mindful of the technology and the impact it has on students.

Nyree Sanders: We do have schedules that we put in place for each level of student grade span. What we’re planning on doing, and it is subject to change, for elementary level students is to have school Monday through Friday, their regular school schedule. Except Wednesdays would be a modified day where the second half of the day they would be finished for the day and the teachers would have professional learning and do any types of student and parent conferences they need to do on Wednesdays, and that’s for our elementary. Then for middle and high school, we would have similar to where they still sign on and have school all day long, except for in the afternoons after lunch. It will be some type of asynchronous versus synchronous schedules and it would be either AB. So depending on what day of the week it is, they would not have instruction the entire day in the afternoons. We’re looking at a combination. Again, this is for our virtual students, but we also have a third option which is self-paced. For K-12 we are now offering self-paced, which means that those parents who choose not to have their students have a live teacher would be able to go onto the platform and work with their students to make sure that they do all of the assignments. We would just have a teacher providing support and checking their rosters for attendance.

Are they going the full scheduled day like they were attending full time in the brick and mortar?

Liz Young: At this time, they are. There has been some feedback that schools are looking at. That is a long day online for an eighth-grader. To be on there in class periods from nine to four is a lot, even when teachers hopefully aren’t lecturing the whole time. But, some schools are taking feedback to adjust that and maybe utilize some asynchronous instruction. The trick is to still have that schedule be aligned to the school day schedule so that when we do return face-to-face, it is a smooth transition.

What type of staffing challenges did your districts have in the spring, and what are they today? What do you do with the staff’s children?

Liz Young: As far as staffing in the spring, it’s been really interesting because it’s such a different year. But, in some ways, it’s been beneficial. People are deciding not to move in the middle of all of this, or there were other districts around us that decided to do a hiring freeze, which we didn’t do. So, there were more applicants available. We’re actually, in terms of hiring and vacancies, in a pretty good spot. Keeping an eye on the student enrollment and where those staff are going to be with all of the changes, I think is the tricky part at this point.

Liz Young: For a while, we were going to be going back face-to-face, so [the staff’s children weren’t] really on the table as an issue. When the decision was made to go to universal remote, that’s the next big thing. If I’m a teacher, and all of our teachers do have to report to the building, what am I going to do with my kids that now aren’t reporting to school? That was a really difficult decision for our leadership to make because not everyone who works in the district is in a position to be able to bring their kids to school with their space. But, that decision was made that it was in our best interest as a district for our employees to be able to do that. There is a waiver that they sign and they are able to bring if they work in a space, [like] an assistant principal in an office or a teacher in a classroom, where that can work and their kids can be there and be supervised and isolated. They are allowed to do that so long as they are school-aged children. So not infants, not college kids, but that’s how we’ve worked that out.

Daphne Donaldson: In the virtual environment, we allowed employees to opt to telework. We have probably about 1600 employees that are teleworking from home. Because of health reasons or childcare, they were concerned to come back into the building. They had to meet certain criteria and they also had to indicate they would be able to do their work from their home site without accommodation, and we had employees who applied for that. Some of those employees have since returned back to the building because they found it was a little bit easier to work in the building versus working at home. You have challenges when you’re trying to deliver instruction at home, so we provided that option. We’ve not brought back all of the employees. Our next challenge that we anticipate is going to be when employees have to return, and the childcare piece is going to be a challenge for us because there are some questions with regards to if we come back hybrid. How does that look? Do you allow the employee’s children to go back to their regular classes and attend those all day, every day, and what impact that’s gonna have on the legal implications of a fair educational opportunity for all students because there’s some concern that it looks a little bit unfair. We’re still looking into those things, and we definitely have some challenges. I think a big piece is collaborating with other districts, like we’re doing right here, to find out how they’re managing all of these things.

Nyree Sanders: In terms of staffing challenges, in the spring we were pretty much finished with hiring and, because of that, it did make it much easier for us to get through our processes and everything almost was already electronic. We were able to do a lot of things virtually, including interviewing, hiring, and participating in the AAEE virtual job fair to handle most of the staffing issues. Because we started earlier with contracts and hiring, we were able to get most of our teachers hired. We slowed down once we knew that our enrollment may vary for this upcoming year. We have a few positions that we didn’t fill towards the end of the school year, and now we’re working with those principals to try to find candidates who were qualified to come into the district. But in terms of staff with children, we are doing our best to work with individuals. We are asking those individuals who have medical issues or have childcare issues to let us know, and then we work with their principals to determine whether or not they can perform their job at home and still complete their entire workday and meet the needs of the students they’re serving. So far we have been able to work out most situations. It’s just a matter of transitioning students and teachers back in the building. How does that look? And when can we finally start that process?

How did you all get your teachers prepared for virtual instruction for this school year?

Nyree Sanders: In terms of virtual instruction, we had been trying to provide that to teachers even when they were at home working remotely in the spring. We’ve been doing lots of professional learning. In the spring [and] this summer, we worked with our technology team who created lots of professional learning to share with our teachers. We came back at the beginning of the year with pre-planning and set up a full day of professional learning for our teachers, paraprofessionals, administrators, and instructional coaches. We’re calling it a vision of virtual excellence, and it’s the Newton County School System way of providing virtual instruction to our students. The goal is to continue to make sure that we allow professional learning time for our teachers even when students come back, but we have had a lot more time because we pushed our student report date back to September 8. We cut 10 days off of our student calendar, and now what we’ve had is pre-planning since August 14. Teachers have been in the building, so they will continue to get professional learning until students report on September 8. It has been very beneficial for them to have this time to plan together and to get the chance to troubleshoot what they know will be issues. We’re already dealing with issues with Zoom and technology and trying to work through those kinks now.

Daphne Donaldson: We had to do a lot of PD. We had already instituted a lot of stuff with Google classroom, and we’ve been doing Google training for several years. We have a great EdTech department in our district that has been pushing that information out. One of the interesting things is that, like most of us, you get the training and then you don’t do anything with it. So, some of our teachers and some of our employees had not touched it since they did the training [and] got the certifications. This was a great opportunity for them to go back and relearn some of those things, and so we’ve spent a lot of time this summer, in the spring, and just before school started with PD. We offer continuous PD for those employees. We also had to rethink and start training our operational people, because many of them did not have the skillset or knowledge to understand how to take their job that was based in a building and move it to a virtual environment, and they didn’t have the technology and the training. We’ve spent some time working with our executive secretaries, clerical staff, support staff, all of our departments, just trying to get them prepared for this change in the new stuff. It’s been a challenge, and we know that we’re going to have to continue to provide that challenge. Another piece was training students and parents on this new normal that we’re in. One of the things we started this past weekend was a community support team that goes out to the public libraries and works with families on connectivity and how to use the different systems at home so you can have some one-on-one assistance.

Liz Young: We also had a little bit of extra time for professional development. Our teachers started on August 3 and our kids started on August 17, so we had two weeks to get as much PD to those teachers as possible and allow them to plan to change their instruction. One of the biggest things for us was to get everyone proficient on Microsoft Teams, which we’ve had for a little while now. We had it in the spring, but we had several schools that were still utilizing Google Classroom and Zoom. It’s great to have some choice out there, but oftentimes for a district to just support one platform and have parents use one platform works out much better. A lot of that time was spent just teaching teachers how to utilize and leverage those tools in Microsoft Teams.

What kind of orientation did you do for new teachers?

Liz Young: We were able to do, utilizing Microsoft Teams, a virtual orientation for teachers. We usually call it, ‘New Teacher Celebration.’ It’s usually in person and it’s a big deal. We feed them and give them goodie bags, [but] we couldn’t do all of that. But, they tried to make it as engaging as possible. Also shortening that time span, because those teachers don’t want to be there online watching presentations all day long. I think we got them just what they needed to get them acquainted with the district and to welcome and celebrate them. We were able to still do some raffling and [we’ll] send them the prizes later. Most of the more getting acquainted with the district professional development came in those next two weeks.

Nyree Sanders: We are a Zoom district now, and so our new teacher orientation was delivered via Zoom, but we had the new teachers report to their buildings. They were able to go to their building [and] social distance. There were packages delivered to each new teacher so they would have what they would need to start working on the classrooms. Principals did a few things to make them feel like they were being onboarded and welcoming them to their school, and most of the training has just been focused on virtual instruction and the expectations around what their work would look like, and it was fairly successful. Most of our teachers were able to participate, and that usually isn’t the case. We usually have lots of issues with scheduling, but we were able to work through all of that and those who did not come to the building were able to log in and get the orientation that way.

Daphne Donaldson: We had a virtual new teacher orientation, and we did that through Microsoft Teams. It was a half-day event for three days. They had a bunch of breakout sessions that they were able to attend. It was a really big collaboration with multiple departments within the district, as well as external vendors and organizations to provide support. We tried to make it very exciting. Normally, we do the big thing like everyone else. You try to just make it sweet and wonderful and happy. But, we did the same thing. The cool thing about this is that everything was recorded, so those teachers were able to go back and watch some of the training that they received later on. They have access to that, which is great because sometimes you go to a great orientation, great training, and you don’t remember anything, or you missed something or you didn’t take a note or you missed a great session. We also held an HR boot camp for administrators to onboard new administrators as well as experienced ones on just understanding how to lead in this new environment of virtual education in a virtual workforce and how to prepare for that. Then we also had a bunch of virtual boot camps. But, we also hosted an operational support boot camp for clerical and support employees. We tried to make sure that everyone understood the new roles and the new normal of possibly working from home.

What kind of technology is at home, and what kind of issues are there?

Liz Young: I’ll start in the spring when it was all of a sudden we were doing this. Our middle and high school students were already one-to-one. All of those students already had a district device that they were able to bring home, and immediately the district started rolling out getting devices to elementary students focusing on older grade levels or more need-based first. Internet access is the next biggest thing. When you roll out devices to kids, they have to have internet access too. A lot of what we did in the spring was not the synchronous instruction for that reason. There was much more asynchronous instruction. Students that didn’t have access received packets. Now with it all being synchronous, the district’s done a great job of getting devices to [students]. The other thing we did was implement hotspots as needed. So when you call our tech hotline, the first question they ask you is, “Do you need internet?” They’re now able to deploy those hotspots to students that need them. The vast majority of our students should have access to a device as well as access to a hotspot.

Daphne Donaldson: We started in the spring as well. We were very fortunate that we had a pretty much one-to-one at the high school level. But, we deployed devices. Our principals and employees in the district made sure we got those out to families, as many as we could connect with in the spring to get them started. Connectivity is a major issue. How will kids get online? We are offering hotspots as well. We’ve worked with several providers that have provided us with hotspots for those families, and we still have some students and families that we haven’t connected with, which is a challenge. Lots of districts are going to see that. You’re going to think you’ve caught everyone and you’re not going to catch everybody. We have 40,000 students, so we want to make sure every one of them has that connectivity. One of the other pieces is we have a website where families can go on to request hotspots, and we also have open Wi-Fi on our campuses. In the spring we opened up the campuses and families could come and park in a parking lot and access Wi-Fi there. Our IT department also collaborated with the housing authority in our area, so there’s Wi-Fi available for the children who live in some of our public housing units across the city. That’s been a big help as well. Our public libraries have Wi-Fi availability. But if you’re in a rural area, I think the rural communities are probably the most challenging because they don’t have towers. Most of us can take our cell phones and pay $10 and change our cell phone into a hotspot. But if you live in a very, very rural community, that’s a challenge because you don’t have any towers. I know that those challenges look very different in different places, but that’s how we’ve been doing it.

Nyree Sanders: We are not a one-to-one district. We would like to be, so we do have a plan to make that happen. But, what we were having to do in the spring [and] now is contact our families to find out if they need multiple devices. We’re able to get those to them. Not all students in our district need devices, so it’s a matter of getting with those families individually [and] finding out which devices they need. We’re offering the iPads for our younger students, Chromebooks for older grades, and the mobile hotspots as well. It’s been a challenge getting enough technology for all of the students who need it, and then for those individuals who live in rural areas. [We] tried to troubleshoot other options for them when they don’t have the internet bandwidth that they need.

How will providing instruction and assessments be impacted by this new school year?

Nyree Sanders: We have lots of practice with [online assessments] here in Georgia, so that won’t be anything new. The difference would be, if we’re talking about students who are not in our buildings, taking any state assessments. We’ll be watching for more direction on how that looks. But in terms of the formative and summative assessments that our teachers would typically do, they are planning to do that. They want to be able to check for understanding as needed and find creative ways of being able to assess students virtually. I want to hear from other districts. We want all the ideas we can get when it comes to assessing our students because they will need a lot of it especially considering that huge gap in time since they got real, consistent instruction.

Daphne Donaldson: For our state, one of the burning questions for HR is our employee evaluations because it’s 50% student performance, 50% observation, The observation model that is currently designed within the statute does not fit the virtual environment. Those are some challenges that we’re working out with our local department of education to assess. You’ve got assessments at multiple levels. You have not just the student assessment challenges, but you also have the employee assessment challenges for evaluations because, in many states, it’s tied to certification. We’re still trying to figure that piece out. Now, one of the things that we did over the summer is we had our state-funded, comprehensive summer programming. We were able to deliver instruction to families and students who wanted to sign up. We had a good number of students that participated. It also was a great practice run for our teachers and staff to figure out any of the issues and topics that we need to work on. It allowed us to drive the direction that we were going to go in for the beginning of the school year. The challenge is based on if we’re having to stay virtual and having to do state testing from home. How does that look? Companies and organizations have been doing it for years. We just haven’t been doing it in K-12 education. But, we anticipate that we’ll figure it out and work it out. It’ll be bumpy in the beginning, but we will figure it out.

Liz Young: As far as state assessment for students as well as teacher evaluations, I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about that. As far as school-based student assessment, that’s going to happen virtually as long as we’re in that virtual environment, and our superintendent has said grades are going to count. I don’t know exactly what that will look like. But, it’s happening because the teachers need to assess the students and ensure that they’re learning the material.

How will providing instruction and assessments be impacted by this new school year?

Nyree Sanders: In terms of gaps, I think the biggest difference will be the types of technology that veteran teachers have been exposed to versus our new teachers out of college. They’ve been on these platforms. They have taken coursework that would help them to use the platforms much better than our veteran teachers, so they do need more training. But in terms of the comfort level, it’s the same regardless of the age of the teacher because they went into this profession to teach students live in person. I don’t know if there is a way to give them the skills they need to do it because none of our teachers are really comfortable doing that when they are expecting to start off the year with a classroom of students in front of them. But in terms of technology, we do see that. Our veteran teachers, it just takes them a little bit longer to get the hang of some of the new technology that they haven’t been exposed to before.

Liz Young: It’s the type of technology like I was saying in terms of transitioning to Teams. If you’re a teacher and you’ve been doing Zoom and Google Classroom all along, then it is a big transition to then go to a whole different platform. Even for me, doing interviews and meetings was a bit of a transition to start using Teams. But, in terms of just instruction, those gaps in person become the same gaps virtually. Like if you want to lecture all day long in a real classroom, that’s going to be a problem virtually as well. I believe the work we’ve done with teachers, even when it wasn’t virtual, is going to help virtually in terms of our PLC format so that they’re all planning together. As well as our instructional strategies and how we format that good instruction in real life should lead to good instruction virtually.

How are you handling student teachers this year?

Daphne Donaldson: We’re allowing student teachers to work within our school system this semester, which is a great opportunity for those student teachers to practice in a virtual environment. Once we move to hybrid, they get to practice in a hybrid environment. It’s gonna make a really big difference for them as they come out of college prepared for this new normal knowing that technology is here to stay, and it’s not new. It’s been around for years, starting with Blackboard. I remember when Blackboard was free, and teachers could use it and I used to use it and I haven’t been teaching for 15 years. I used it in the classroom and I thought it was an amazing tool. To see how everything has evolved into great concepts like Proximity Learning. I think that is the future and our teachers have to be prepared. Now, we have seen an uptick in our district of retirements from some of our veteran educators because they feel like this is way too much, having to learn a whole new system, and then the health concerns, and the stress. So, we have seen a small uptick of retirements that have hit us and we anticipate a few more once we come back to that face-to-face model and environment.

Liz Young: We call [them] teacher interns, not student teachers. It’s a year-long program where they start during pre-planning and they’re involved with their school and cooperating teacher all year long. The only difference this year … is that students from most of the universities around here aren’t supposed to be on their campus and they’re not supposed to be on our campus either. While our teachers [and] our employees are reporting to the building, our teacher interns cannot. But they still got a laptop from us and they have a cooperating teacher, so they’re still completing their student teaching and engaging with their cooperating teacher and students virtually. For most of the first half, they’re more observing and meeting in those PLCs and planning. It’s not until the second semester that they start teaching some more lessons and taking over the class. Presumably, they’ll be back in person by the time they’re ready to start doing more teaching.

Nyree Sanders: Our student teachers have not started yet, but it will be a similar process to what Liz [spoke] about. When we do start with students in September, those individuals who have that option to come to the building will be allowed to. I didn’t mention when we talked about technology that we use audio enhancement devices and cameras that are installed in all of our classrooms. That’s one benefit for those teachers who do decide and are able to come to the building to work. They already have that as well as using Zoom, but they have different tools that are not available to them at home. That’s made a difference for a lot of our teachers wanting to come. That’s something that we like to do with student teachers to give them more experience because it’s not necessarily something that they will see in most classrooms. So, it’s recording the lessons and sharing that feedback with them. I feel like this will give them a lot more opportunities to get feedback than they would have received if it was just them in one classroom with the teacher. We’re hoping that we’ll have more of them that want to come back to the buildings when we start in September.

What kind of efforts is your district taking to reach your most at-risk students?

Daphne Donaldson: We started a community support team made up of paraprofessionals that work in our district. It’s kind of a career ladder opportunity for these paras who may be interested in becoming teachers or pursuing degrees in social work, or anything like that. They go out and represent the district at local libraries and churches to help get us connected. We also have a call center … where we’re going to be calling families and trying to reach out some more, especially when we don’t have correct information on where students are living. We’re going to be calling their emergency contacts, and we’re going to use a call center to do that. We actually will use some of those paras to do that. We call it a repurposing of employees so they can do some different things in this new environment because many of them might not be needed as much while we’re virtual. I believe in getting work out of everybody, so this is an opportunity for them to show their talents. We’ve got an amazing team. They volunteer to do it, and we are paying a stipend. But, we’re also going to encourage them to go into our career ladder program so they can move into different opportunities within a district so we can kind of grow our own.

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