With the closure of schools going into effect statewide at the tail-end of the third quarter of this school year, districts are in the thick of a fourth quarter unlike anything ever experienced before.
On April 16, Gov. Tony Evers extended the Safer at Home order through May 26, clarifying that public and private K-12 schools would remain closed for in-person education and extracurricular activities through the end of the school year.
School districts across the state are now having to plan the end of the 2019-20 school year, even as considerable uncertainty clouds what the coming weeks and months will hold.
All three of Price County’s school districts — Phillips, Prentice, and Chequamegon — will continue offering virtual education for the remainder of the school year, while working to create alternatives to educational milestones that would normally be celebrated in person.
Chief amongst these milestones is high school graduation — a date high school seniors have been working toward for 12 years.
On May 22, the day graduation was initially scheduled, the graduating seniors of Phillips High School will gather in their vehicles in the school's lower parking lot along with their immediate family.
The salutatorian, the valedictorian, the class selected speaker, and high school principal Colin Hoogland will speak as they would in a normal year, and while observing appropriate distance between each individual, students would be able to walk across a stage that will be constructed in the lot.
The local radio station, WCQM, will broadcast the event live for families and friends at home, and the event would also be recorded and published online. After the ceremony, graduates and their families may drive in a parade through town.
“As difficult as it is, the decisions we're making may seem cautious, but it is using the information we have today. It may change tomorrow,” district administrator Rick Morgan told the Phillips School Board Monday night when the graduation plans were shared. If restrictions related to the coronavirus were to ease off during the month of May, graduation plans for Phillips seniors may be altered accordingly.
Meanwhile, Prentice seniors will likely celebrate graduation later in summer.
“We want seniors to be able to have their scholarship night and graduation in person — they deserve that experience,” said Prentice administrator Randy Bergman.
According to Chequamegon School District Administrator Mark Weddig, conversations are ongoing between parents, colleagues, and other school districts to determine the best option for the graduating class of seniors at Chequamegon. No formal decisions on graduation have been made yet.
Students reacting differently to virtual learning
With significant disruptions to the normal routine of students, there have been learning lags noticed in all three districts, although this is not universal to all students.
Local school districts reported that the majority of seniors are continuing on track for graduation, and most high performing students across grades are continuing to accomplish the work they are assigned.
“There are students that don’t have support or resources at home, however, or need the support of a teacher,” said Weddig. “Some students who were struggling before this are struggling even more now.”
Some students have checked out, failing to make any effort to participate in virtual learning. Other students don’t have reliable access to the internet and must use paper packets, and for multi-child households, students often have to alternate between using technology to communicate with teachers and studying offline.
On the flip side, some students who did not thrive in the classroom are now excelling with the virtual learning options, noted Weddig.
This situation has put considerable pressure on parents and students to continue learning in an unfamiliar environment, and Bergman said teachers and administration understand these challenges.
“We just want students to keep moving forward with learning,” said Bergman. “We’re asking students to read as much as they can, which will help them when they return to the classroom.”
For students of Phillips Elementary, the focus has been placed on reading and math, with other subjects falling into an optional category that parents can tackle with their students if they feel able to do so.
Determining appropriate grades for students in such an unusual period is proving to be another challenge districts are having to face.
In Prentice, staff members are still determining how they will grade students this year, and whether a failing grade should be altered to “incomplete,” allowing students to catch up at a later point.
“We are still trying to determine what to do,” said Bergman. “We’re talking with colleges to see what they will be looking for, and we won’t grade students in a way that will affect their ability to apply for colleges.”
For Chequamegon students, Weddig said that as long as they demonstrate effort and participation in assignments, they will be held harmless when graded. Individual student growth will be a focus when determining the grades of Chequamegon students.
“We are making sure we concentrate on student mental health, as well,” he said. “We’re making an effort to identify the students who are struggling and really focusing in on them.”
Standard grading will be used for Phillips students, although students can appeal to have their grades changed to “pass” or “no credit” — preventing a lower than normal grade from negatively affecting their grade point average going forward. Failing grades will not be issued, and such work will be considered incomplete. Students may have the opportunity to make up that work over the summer months. According to Morgan, this grading system allows greater flexibility for students to make up missed school work, but it does not absolve them of their learning requirements.
Should a Phillips senior fail to meet the requirements needed to graduate, the district will continue working with that student through the coming months — similar to any other school year — until the student meets the requirements needed to pass.
Chequamegon plans to continue to offer virtual education through May 29.
At Prentice, another option is under consideration. Students who are continuing on track without declining grades may end their school year on May 15, allowing teachers to focus all their efforts on students who are struggling for the last few weeks of school.
Phillips is considering a similar option, with students who are caught up on their assignments finishing on May 28, allowing teachers to focus on students who are running behind. All assignments will be turned in by June 2, allowing teachers to work on grading and assessments on June 3.
Preparing for next school year
Even as districts are making tough decisions to bring the 2019-20 school year to a close, teachers and administration are already beginning to think about the return to school this fall … and ways to tackle learning gaps.
Phillips teachers are preparing for the difficult task of attempting to assess each student at the end of the school year, determining knowledge gaps or areas of non-proficiency — a process that is complicated by the need to do so from a virtual setting.
“We will be making assessments of each student, and trying to determine what we need to provide for those individuals,” said Morgan. “The reality is likely that every single student will probably have needs. Although we are doing everything possible during this time, this is a very challenging circumstance.”
At Chequamegon, virtual staff meetings are held weekly, ensuring staff remain connected and on the same page.
A main focus on gap reduction at Chequamegon will focus on English Language Arts and mathematics, with efforts being made to prioritize those subjects early in next school year.
One key to addressing these gaps may be the districts’ summer school programs, which are normally held in June.
Prentice School District will likely hold their summer school program in late July/early August, allowing for a brief break between the end of summer school and the regular school year — which Prentice is considering beginning earlier than normal on Aug. 24.
Chequamegon is exploring options for hosting their three-week summer school program after July 1, with a strong focus on reducing gaps in English and math.
Phillips has not yet determined when summer school will be held in the district, or what form it will take. Morgan reported that parents will be surveyed to see what options they would like to see and how willing they would be to participate in a voluntary summer school program. It is possible Phillips’ program may be held in August, allowing students to start preparing for the next school year.
“There is a lot of uncertainty at this point,” said Morgan. “We are considering several options, but if restrictions change, we could alter plans. Our planning likely won’t stop any time soon.”