The Lakeland Union High School board of education has voted to change the 2020-21 instructional calendar to give teachers some breathing room away from the stress and time constraints of dealing with issues arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The board unanimously accepted the administration’s recommendation to cancel classes every other Friday through the end of the school year. The modification designates every other Friday as a teacher/staff work day, with no in-person classes or new remote lessons being taught. The change is effective this Friday, Oct. 23.
“It’s going to be a very stressful and challenging year,” said District Administrator Rob Way at the onset of Monday’s special board meeting.
“The amount of time necessary for teachers to prepare learning activities for in-person and remote learners at the same time is, of course, significantly higher than it is normally (in past years),” said Principal Justin Szews.
Reasons for the change
“The feedback we’re getting from students is indicating they’re feeling overwhelmed,” said Szews. “That’s both in-person and remote (learners), with extra schoolwork and with homework.” However, teachers are saying that they are not requiring any additional homework beyond what’s been assigned in the past. It might be that it’s “taking time to get back into the groove” of returning to school, he said.
The principal reported that 429 students are currently taking in-person classes, while 158 are learning remotely and the additional 146 taking virtual classes. In-class students are doing better than the other two options, according to the collective viewpoint of teachers. No grades have been given yet, however.
The no-class Fridays would serve two purposes, according to the administration team.
“We have the potential with those Fridays for one-on-one tutoring both on or off campus for struggling students,” the principal said. Teachers would use the day to prepare lesson plans for their duo roles of in-class and remote instruction. Teachers would also use the day for professional development, including learning how to improve their remote teaching.
“Hats off to the staff,” Szews continued. They have pitched in and picked up the slack, helping other teachers when they are away from the building, he said.
Szews did say that not all the teachers are on board with having every other Friday designated a no-class day, as they felt a five-day schedule was better for learning.
“I think you guys are doing an absolutely awesome job on how you're trying to do this remotely,” said new board member James Westcott. “I think it’s going to be a work-in-progress to continue to find different, creative ways to close the gap on what’s going to happen in-class and what you do on remote.”
He agreed with the principal that the in-class mode presents the best learning outcome for students. Students at home may have issues concentrating, whether listening to the teacher or staying on task with lesson plans. Szews said the in-class setting allows a teacher to answer questions immediately, as well as to better encourage and motivate students.
Outside issues for remote learners
Exacerbating the issue for remote learners is the fact that their Internet connection too often drops, requiring them to re-log in, or sometimes causing them to give up entirely. That’s especially true for those living outside the Minocqua area and without Charter Internet service, according to Josh Maltbey, district director of technology.
For example, Lac du Flambeau has 29 public WIFI “hotspots” to access the Internet, which were provided by the school. They not only compete on the bandwidth with each other, but also with other private hotspots. That leads to more frequent drops when students try to access the virtual classroom.
Maltbey said the school has done everything possible to facilitate Internet access by those students. Later, he suggested the board should begin thinking of a newer technology platform to ensure remote learners don’t get dropped.
Szews took note of the state requirement that high schools provide a minimum of 1,137 hours of direct pupil instruction in grades 7 through 12. In light of the COVID-19 impact on schools, both Szews and Way indicated that the state Department of Instruction probably wouldn’t enforce that requirement this year.
With students absent on those specified Fridays, the custodial staff can do a deep cleaning of the building, said Way, to guard against a COVID-19 infection.
Like all other matters COVID related, the administration team and school board said they would monitor how well this calendar change is working in the weeks ahead.
Board member resigns
The board accepted the resignation of long-time board member Jon Berg. The board expressed its appreciation for his tenure on the board. He was serving as an at-large representative with his term set to expire in 2022.
There was discussion on whether to appoint the replacement for a one-year term, or a full three-year term. The district will post the opening for community members to submit letters of interest.