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Shift to remote learning a 'herculean' task for Nebraska's 1,200 schools

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Mikala Hansen and Opie sit on the couch and wait for students’ faces to pop up on the laptop screen.

Hansen has an attendance book. Opie, a tennis ball.

It takes a few minutes for the freshmen in Hansen’s Millard West High School biology class to connect to the virtual classroom in her home.

Today’s lesson? DNA.

Her students used what they could find at home — fruit snacks, cotton balls, Hot Cheetos, beads, paper — to make models of DNA. They take turns holding their creations up to the screen and answering Hansen’s questions.

Opie, Hansen’s dog, and Maverick, a 175-pound Great Dane, occasionally pop their heads into the camera’s view.

Hansen hopes they aren’t distracting. But that’s life right now.

“We’re just humans,” Hansen said of teachers. “And it’s a weird time.”

The closing of Nebraska school districts and private and parochial schools to students has forced teachers to quickly pivot from traditional classroom learning to remote learning for about 366,000 schoolkids in 1,200 schools.

Until the medical experts signal schools can return to normal operation, schoolkids will have to learn without the caring guidance and watchful eye of a live teacher in the room.

Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt on Friday called the shift “herculean.”

“It’s about as remarkable as I could imagine,” he said.

Blomstedt said he continues to recommend that the state’s schools not return to normal operations this school year. He said the only way he would modify that recommendation is if health officials decided it was warranted.

Omaha metro area schools are still subject to a governor’s order to remain closed to students through April 30. Another order is in effect in the Lincoln metro area through May 6.

Blomstedt has told local school leaders to do what they believe is best for their students. He has emphasized that local school officials know their students and their school’s capacity for distance learning better than the state.

This week, the U.S. Department of Education approved Nebraska’s request to waive the federal requirement for annual standardized testing. Blomstedt had already suspended this year’s testing, pending a waiver, and notified school officials not to worry about meeting state instructional time requirements, normally 1,032 hours a year through eighth grade and 1,080 per year in high school.

On Friday, he said schools should focus efforts on their seniors, who have the least time left in school.

Although the State of Nebraska sets basic graduation requirements — for instance, that students must take four years of English and three years of math, science and social studies — local districts and schools have their own requirements and decide whether a student has met them.

Decisions on how to grade, or even whether to grade assignments, are up to local schools.

Schools that already provided portable computers to their students before the outbreak — “one-to-one” computer policies — have seen a smoother transition to remote learning.

But it hasn’t been without issue — a computer hardware failure caused a server to go down in the Millard Public Schools.

Some school districts, like Millard, have laptops or iPads for nearly every student. Others, like Papillion-La Vista, do not and have scrambled to provide devices. Some students have access to devices and Wi-Fi at home. Others do not.

Some districts are making paper packets of lessons available, some even delivering them by school bus.

The Omaha Public Schools, the largest district in the state, printed packets for elementary students and provided one activity a week for middle and high school students via email. All students have access to online reading materials from Scholastic.

OPS Superintendent Cheryl Logan said at a school board meeting earlier this month that a survey conducted last year showed 89% of OPS students have Internet access at home and 67% have access to at least one device. But in many instances that device might be shared.

As OPS pivoted to distance learning, the district asked students who didn’t have access to technology to contact them. In some cases, computers were handed out to students.

Osuman Issaka, president and CEO of The Simple Foundation, said technology or lack thereof has been a challenge for his students, most of whom attend OPS.

Some are doing their schoolwork using smartphones. Others weren’t doing their schoolwork at all because they didn’t have the right technology. Issaka got three to four laptops for the students to use. One student uses the laptop one day and then passes it on to the next student.

Other students don’t have access to Wi-Fi.

“We’re trying to work through it,” Issaka said, noting it’s requiring a bit of creativity.

Normally students would be able to use technology at school or at public libraries.

“It’s the new norm,” Issaka said. “What I’m telling them is tomorrow might be a different new norm. You have to be flexible and agile.”

Issaka is trying to find projects for the students.

“They’re bored out of their mind. I’m bored out of my mind. At least I have work.”

Kara Perchal, a spokesperson for the Elkhorn Public Schools, said the district intends to move forward with some graded assignments, though teachers have been asked to focus on learning, not grades.

“During this time, we’re striving to provide grace, flexibility and support to families and have suspended penalties for late work to be understanding of the challenges families are facing,” Perchal said.

The Papillion-La Vista Community Schools, without a one-to-one computer policy, had to scramble to distribute district-owned laptops to seniors.

“All of our seniors by the end of this week hopefully will have a device and Internet access. And then starting March 30, we’ll actually start the instruction for seniors,” spokeswoman Annette Eyman said.

“It’s going to be very individualized because the goal is to make sure we’re getting seniors the credits they need to graduate.”

The material for seniors will be graded.

As in many districts, Papillion-La Vista won’t have a set school day, a decision that takes into account the unsettled situation in homes.

“They may have a device at home, but mom and dad are working at home during the day, so the kids are going to be learning at night,” Eyman said.

In other cases, high school kids are home caring for younger siblings during the day, and they probably won’t be sitting in front of a computer, she said.

Lessons for the rest of students — delivered online or in packets — will focus on keeping students engaged, she said.

Millard teachers are in the beginning phase of implementing remote learning, according to spokeswoman Rebecca Kleeman.

“The important thing right now is to connect with our students and share feedback on the work they’ve done,” she said. “Our teachers understand that families have unique stresses right now, so they are being very flexible.

She said planning is underway for how to grade courses.

“This will likely vary by level, but that work is still happening,” Kleeman said.

Learning at home cropped

Angela Bergman, a Westside Community Schools science teacher, and her son, Sam, teach and learn from their home in Valley last week.

Sam Bergman, 13, had hoped to perform in Westside Middle School’s production of “Newsies,” but that’s up in the air for now.

Instead, he’s doing schoolwork at home and planning to help his mother, Angela Bergman, teach her Earth Space science course to Westside High School students.

Westside has one-to-one computers, and the school already offered an online version of the Earth Space course, so she’s ahead of the game in that respect. But she’s reluctantly had to cut out some content to focus on the essential lessons.

“It’s like asking to choose between your children,” she said.

Normally, her classroom is full of science “toys” she can hand to students — like a clear plastic tube filled with water and gravel — to demonstrate a principle or some natural process. Now she’s got to do the demonstrations for them.

She’s wondering how she will inspire students to engage in “scientific discourse,” the kind of back-and-forth of kids asking questions and sharing ideas that occurs in a classroom setting.

For eight years, the Springfield Platteview Community Schools have had a one-to-one system.

That is making for an easier transition, Superintendent Brett Richards said.

Secondary students, grades 7-12, have always taken their iPads home. K-6 students used them at school.

But in the current situation, K-6 students are checking out their iPads and taking them home.

Springfield Platteview froze students’ grades at the end of the third quarter, which was March 13.

Generally, students won’t get a lower grade for the year, unless they don’t participate in the remote learning, Richards said. In that case, they would risk getting an incomplete.

By participating, they will be able to improve their grade by up to 10%, Richards said.

Sarah Ortiz, chair of the science department at Platteview High School, held her first online class Thursday with students in her Advanced Placement chemistry class.

Her goal is to prepare them, best she can, for the AP test in May.

Students who score well can get college credit, a substantial financial reward for their hard work.

The College Board, which provides AP courses across the nation, announced this week that traditional face-to-face AP exams that are normally administered in schools will be replaced. Instead, students will be able to take shorter, online versions of the exams at home on a smartphone, tablet or computer.

Platteview High students are already familiar with receiving and submitting assignments via their devices, Ortiz said. But there are drawbacks to not having students present, she said.

It will be harder to tell when a student doesn’t understand the lesson, she said. And she will have to make sure she doesn’t leave any details out of the lessons while the kids are logged in, she said.

She’ll have to demonstrate labs during teleconferences, or direct students to virtual labs online. Ortiz said that’s not ideal — like telling someone how to change a car tire online.

“It definitely loses its ‘wow’ factor when something explodes online,” Ortiz said.

Her class was scheduled to convene online at 3 p.m., and sure enough, her computer started to “ding” as students logged into the conference.

“How you guys all doing?” she asked, as students’ pictures popped up in little boxes on her laptop. “It’s good to see all your faces.”

One student passed on a message from another having trouble joining the group.

“Mrs. Ortiz, Madison says she’s trying to get into Zoom, and it’s telling her it’s waiting for the host.”

Ortiz dealt with the issue. After the kids logged in, she explained to them some details about how the class would proceed. Then she delivered a quick lesson on solubility using milk of magnesia.

Mixing chemicals, she magically changed the color of liquid in a beaker from blue to bright orange.

The session lasted about 30 minutes.

“OK, I’m going to call it good then for today,” Ortiz told them. “And best of luck on that homework. Shoot me an email if you have questions, and otherwise I’ll be at that help session Monday at 3. See ya there. Bye.”


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Emily is an enterprise reporter for the World-Herald. Previously, Emily covered K-12 education, local government and the Nebraska Legislature. Follow her on Twitter @emily_nitcher. Phone: 402-444-1192.

Joe covers education for The World-Herald, focusing on pre-kindergarten through high school. Phone: 402-444-1077.

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It's hard to say yet what the situation might look like this fall, but possibilities include delaying the start of the school year, separating students into groups and rotating them into school buildings at different times, or using partial or complete distance learning.

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