Lee schools asked students with poor grades, class no-shows to return to in-person learning

Pamela McCabe
 
| Fort Myers News-Press

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Video: Lee school district shares footage from first day of 2020-21 school year

The Lee County school district provided Southwest Florida news outlets with footage illustrating the re-opening of local schools and classrooms.

More than 10,000 virtual learners in Lee County switched back to brick-and-mortar classrooms Monday, kicking off a more crowded school environment for the second quarter of learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Targeted for the change were students whose interim report cards showed poor grades and class no-shows. 

Pointing to data pulled during the sixth week of school, the district found “a large segment” of students either hadn’t connected with their teachers or were sitting with a D or an F in at least one class, explained Jeff Spiro, the chief of academics for the school system.

A breakdown of A-to-F data across all learning models has not been provided to The News-Press, but Spiro shared an Oct. 14 email. It shows that 41,704 students across all three models— virtual and in-person — had a D or F in one or more courses and could have been considered no-shows for at least one of their classes.

This email reports this was the case for:

  • more than 20,000 kids in face-to-face classes
  • 19,645 in Lee Home Connect
  • 2,053 in Lee Virtual School

The email states that 15,147 of these students are in elementary school, 11,386 in middle school and 15,171 in high school.

The district is home to 97 traditional public schools that serve around 85,000 students. Another 10,000 are enrolled in local charter schools.

The six-week data isn’t representative of the entire first quarter but was enough to spur the district to “put some extra steps into action,” Spiro said. 

Schools called families of Lee Home Connect students to urge them to come back to campus, and the district opened up a special window that allowed Lee Virtual School students to come back to brick-and-mortar learning prior to the semester mark. 

Lee Virtual School is a public school that has been around for more than a decade, but Lee Home Connect is a newly created learning model where kids attend live, virtual classes with teachers from their regular school.

Under its reopening plan, the district asked students in face-to-face and Lee Home Connect models to commit one quarter at a time, while Lee Virtual students were asked to sign on for an entire semester. But the plan specifies that if students weren’t successful in any of the instructional models, they could move to another one at any time.

“We felt it was important enough to make that move now, as opposed to what we had told our community, so we really made that decision of what’s best for kids,” Spiro said.

Although officials did not supply comparative data, they said it is not uncommon for students in a traditional school year environment to see fewer As, Bs or Cs at the start of any school year.

Bethany Quisenberry, who heads up the elementary curriculum, said this is often due to fewer graded assignments and the adjustment students go through with getting back into the school groove.

“We typically will see a pickup from interim until report card, at least in elementary for sure,” she said. 

But the extended summer break following the shift to distance learning in the spring raised serious concern about learning loss and the widening of the achievement gap, which shows the difference in school performance among groups of students, such as those from different income levels or races.

Anecdotally, Quisenberry said the district is “seeing those holes” in its youngest students.

Last year’s kindergarten students, for example, would have spent the fourth quarter learning how to read and put math concepts together, but schools have seen those same students struggle with those concepts in the first quarter of first grade.

“We are seeing those holes in our first-grade students and then in our second-grade students, but it really seems that the older students have held on,” she said. “They’re jumping right back in and the teachers are implementing interventions that are student-based and trying to fill those holes as quickly as possible, but the lower level primary students, it seems they lost more.”

Officials say participation in the district’s “Expanded Learning Virtual Program” during the summer helped.

The program reached about 15,000 students. When it ended, about 500 of the district’s lowest-level elementary school learners were invited to a 12-day, face-to-face summer school program in July.

Normally, summer programs reach about 1,000 kids. 

“We really think that contributed a lot to not seeing as large of a decline as what we thought we were going to see,” said Candace Allevato, the director of high school curriculum.

Attendance issues were also higher toward the start of school when everyone — from kids to teachers — were figuring out how to adapt.

School officials said it was common for students to log in late for a class, log in to some of their classes but not all of them, or sign out for their scheduled lunch break and not come back.

Also, some students experienced technology issues, like in-and-out internet and slow connection speeds, which affected their ability to engage in live, virtual classes. 

In most cases, schools reached out to families to head this issue off before it became a problem.

“If you log in and you only stay in my class for 10 minutes, then I’m going to mark you absent, and then the parent and the child have to deal with the attendance clerk as to where you are for the rest of the period,” said Lori Houchin, the director of middle school curriculum. “But that’s that contact that we need and that oftentimes will solve issues.”

What if families weren’t ready to go back to campus?

If a family wasn’t comfortable sending their children back to school, the schools outlined interventions that could help get an underperforming child “back on track,” said Spiro.

Ongoing advice for families is to:

  • create a schedule for virtual learners
  • establish a workspace for kids at home
  • make sure families know how to access and use Google Classroom to check on assignments
  • having families communicate regularly with teachers 

School social workers have also been tapped to help, as they have never stopped interacting with families, conducting home visits to drop off needed supplies and helping families get connected to local resources so basic needs, like electricity, are met. 

The district’s school counseling and mental health department is also bringing on additional licensed mental health practitioners and offering counseling outside of school hours, said Jessica Duncan, executive director for student services.

In preparation for the challenging year, teachers were offered training during the summer on restorative practices, which refers to alternative methods of disciplining students for misbehavior or academic issues by getting to the root of the problem that could stem from challenges at home and mental health. 

Teachers were also given tips on how build relationships with students regardless of whether they are in-person or connecting virtually. 

A big focus for schools is tackling the district’s “greatest challenge” in the age of COVID teaching: hybrid classes.

These are classes in which teachers are working with students in the physical classroom at the same time they are leading virtual instruction through Lee Home Connect.

“It’s a challenge for teachers, it’s a challenge for students and we absolutely recognize that,” Spiro said. “We said that from the beginning that that was going to be a challenge and what the curriculum instruction team has done is they tried to push in as much support as they can for those hybrid teachers, in particular, to try to get them as many tools as possible to help them be successful.”

This includes making sure teachers have access to resources outlining best practices for the new realm of teaching. District-based employees and experts can also “push into” virtual classes, where they can be “side by side” with a teacher to see what’s working and what needs tweaking, Spiro said.

The pandemic way of teaching has made everyone in the classroom feel like a novice, regardless of teaching experience, said Allevato.

“We’re all essentially first-year teachers all over again,” she said.

Some families tired of virtual school

Aside from students who struggled with content and log ins, the transfer wave consists of people who grew tired of the virtual school environment and had grown more confident with the schools’ response to COVID-19.

This was the case for Jewelene Harris, a Lehigh Acres mom who opted to send her two sons back to brick-and-mortar classrooms. Both had been Lee Home Connect students.

Her sixth-grader attends Lehigh Acres Middle School and made the move back to in-person classes Oct. 19, two weeks ahead of the quarter mark, while her oldest, a Dunbar High School sophomore, went back to campus Monday.

Harris was a member of the district’s reopening task force, a thinktank of parents, health experts and school staff who offered the school system feedback on its operational plans during the pandemic.

The experience didn’t exactly leave her with a “warm and fuzzy” feeling.

“This whole situation was so new that I felt like they didn’t really know what they’re doing, honestly, and they needed to practice, so I feel like the first nine weeks was like live practice, giving them an opportunity to see what works and doesn’t work,” she said. “I wasn’t ready to send my kids back as a science experiment, and I’m grateful I had the opportunity that I was working from home.”

Although her sons performed “extremely well,” Harris said, she found that her youngest was missing the “organizational piece” of school. 

Much of the issue was keeping up with the Google Classrooms of six teachers instead of just one core educator. Harris compared it to keeping up with Facebook comments, only it was constantly searching the platform to check on assignments and due dates.

“With the transition from elementary to middle school, it was like he was missing stuff, no matter how much my husband and I kept looking in the Google Classroom, doing this, doing that, you know, it seemed like he was still missing something,” Harris said.

Harris recognized the struggle teachers were having, especially those with hybrid classes, and she learned more about how the schools were addressing COVID concerns. This boosted her confidence in sending her boys back to campus.

Her sixth-grader, who is now in his third week of face-to-face instruction, “absolutely loves it,” she said.

“He loves it so much that he wants me to take him to the morning program before school starts,” Harris said. “That’s how much he loves it.”

As for concerns about her boys getting sick, she said the family is continuing to talk about health and safety precautions, like washing their hands, using hand sanitizer, wearing masks and following the schools’ safety guidelines.

“You can’t control who comes to school. You can’t control what people do outside of school, who they are interacting with or whatever, so we all kind of have to have some level of faith about things,” Harris said. “I resolved that we just have to keep praying and trust in what we taught them.”

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