ONLINE LEARNING

First-graders use iPads during reading lessons at Shawnee Mission School District in 2018.

WICHITA — Jennifer Mathes kept her expectations for the spring low.

A sudden, pandemic-driven shift from classrooms to online instruction was bound to throw the Blue Valley school district a curve. That would be a loss for the quality of teaching she could expect for her daughter.

But for the fall?

“You’ve had some time to prepare,” said Mathes, who’s the CEO of the nonprofit Online Learning Consortium. “You’ve got to create a better environment so my daughter doesn’t suffer.”

Yet at many Kansas schools, teachers will only be required to take a few days of training in the art of running a classroom online before school starts again in mid-August.

Some have taken online seminars voluntarily. But union contracts and uncertainty about what schools will look like when they restart — expected to be some mix of online and in-person teaching — have let the summer pass without mandating much preparation for teachers.

Lesson plan

At Morris County public schools in east-central Kansas, the school year will start seven days earlier for teachers than students. Kansas schools usually have about four days to get ready before the kids show up — during a normal year. Some schools have shifted their schedules to front-end training normally spread across the calendar.

But that only nets schools a couple of extra days to prepare teachers for an unprecedented fall.

For many Kansas teachers, it will be their first time getting drilled on best online teaching practices since school let out in the spring.

And schools have much higher expectations for their teachers than they did in the spring. Testing was lax-to-nonexistent last semester. In the fall, schools will be expected to require significantly more rigor from students. Having half a classroom disengaged and playing hooky won’t be acceptable anymore.

And schools still must provide annual sessions on topics like sexual harassment and suicide prevention. Plus teachers will need to learn how to keep their classrooms virus-free.

“It will be a lot of work in a short amount of time,” said Kelly Gentry, director of instruction and curriculum Morris County Public Schools.

Some education experts are concerned that’s not enough time for preparing teachers for online learning. Getting teachers ready could take weeks or months.

“There will need to be a recognition that learning how to operate this fall in a pandemic is something that will not just come from one week of training,” said Lisa Guernsey, senior advisor on early and elementary education policy for New America, a left-leaning education think tank.

Even if schools wanted to mandate teacher training earlier in the summer, teacher contracts restrict districts from doing so. Others would need to find ways to compensate teachers for the extra time, a concern as schools face the possibility of losing some state funding.

There’s also the question of what to prepare teachers for. Schools could return to in-person classes, online-only or some mix of the two. Wichita Public Schools does not plan on providing any instruction for its teachers until after the state releases guidance next week.

That uncertainty has caused some teachers to hesitate taking up their own prep work, fearing it might contradict whatever plans the state comes up with.

“A lot of teachers really are putting in a lot of time to think about the fall and they just don’t know where to start,” said Lori Stratton, an English teacher at Gardner Edgerton High School in Johnson County.

Learn on your

own time

After the sudden shift to online classes in March, more training is the last thing some Kansas teachers are thinking. Instead, they’ve been using their summer vacation time to decompress.

“This has been an extremely stressful time,” said Teresa Coffman, a professor of education at the University of Mary Washington. “Teachers need a little bit of a break.”

Many Kansas teachers are taking free online lessons, despite the sessions being voluntary and with the plans for the fall still being a mystery.

More than 1,000 Kansas educators have completed an average of six hours each of training related to teaching outside the classroom provided by Greenbush, the education service center in southeast Kansas. Sessions include “Google Classroom Crash Course,” “Student Engagement,” and “How Can I Increase My Motivation And Focus?”

Topeka and Olathe Public Schools also provide their teachers with online lessons during the summer. And while teachers might not be required to come in until the week before classes, districts like Morris County public schools are bringing in their administrators early to prepare the training, guidance and rules those teachers will get in August. Mandatory training for online learning best practices will also continue at school districts throughout the school year.

Jennifer Hanni, the director of school improvement services at Greenbush, has helped create some of the optional training sessions Kansas teachers have been taking. But while she believes more time for professional development is always needed, the continually morphing status of the coronavirus makes it so teachers can’t fully prepare for the next school year until they’re in it.

“This is a unique circumstance where we can have all the time in the world,” Hanni said. “But if we don’t know what something is, then it’s really difficult to plan.”

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