State superintendent Sherri Ybarra and other school chiefs put out a call Tuesday to use the coronavirus pandemic to transform education for the better.
Ybarra joined North Dakota state superintendent Kirsten Baesler and Wyoming schools chief Jillian Balow in a one-hour webinar, “Equity In Rural School Funding and the COVID-19 pandemic,” organized by The Hunt Institute.
“We really feel like in Idaho this is a great opportunity to catapult us into a new way of thinking about education,” Ybarra said.
During the call, Ybarra described how Idaho is preparing for a return to school in the fall that could be hampered by a spike in COVID-19 cases and rolling closures. In response, Ybarra and the State Board of Education are looking at buying a statewide learning management system that districts could choose to opt-in to. The state has also partnered with Idaho Digital Learning Academy and Idaho Public Television, which is broadcasting lessons delivered by teachers for third- through sixth-graders.
As the state moves to blended and online learning, Ybarra said it will be important to use the state’s share of federal stimulus money to focus on connectivity and devices so instruction can reach more students.
“That’s a real challenge. That’s one of our biggest challenges,” Ybarra said. “We did do a survey and we’re looking at about 30 percent still of our Idaho’s students that have gaps in either internet or devices.”
Baesler was even more direct about the changes ahead and how significant they may be. In North Dakota, Baesler said policymakers expect major changes in parent engagement, personalized learning and the grading systems, saying the nation is talking about whether the “A” through “F” grading system is working.
North Dakota will also invest in diagnostic testing to get more of an idea of where students are when school resumes in the fall.
“Most importantly, making sure that we never are the same system we were in February 2020,” Baesler said. “Those that choose to go back to the way it was will be on that same trajectory, and it’s our opinion in North Dakota that trajectory isn’t good enough for all of our kids, all of them, not just some. So, we will be using this as transformation opportunity to reinvent ourselves.”
Ybarra is scheduled to participate in a webinar Wednesday dedicated to distance learning.
Little hopes schools can reopen in the fall
Gov. Brad Little said he hopes Idahoans’ efforts to slow the spread of coronavirus will allow schools to reopen in the fall.
Speaking during his eighth weekly AARP Idaho telephone town hall meeting Tuesday, Little said the vast majority of Idahoans have endured huge personal sacrifices, such as closing their businesses, missing graduations, weddings and funerals and staying home to protect their neighbors and preserve hospital capacity.
“It’s my intent, and that’s why we’re trying to get all of this done, to get schools back open,” Little said.
Generally, Idaho school districts and charter schools have closed their physical buildings and are focusing on remote or online learning.
The State Board Monday revised its local reopening criteria for the remainder of the current school year to align with Little’s recent stay-healthy order and the four stages of his Idaho Rebounds plan. Under those guidelines, schools would be able to reopen this year if they can do it with groups of fewer than 10 — a teacher and nine students — in a traditional classroom. However, exceptions will be considered on a case-by-case basis to allow small groups of students to enter a school for exam proctoring or for students who have fallen behind to receive one-on-one help.
Little also told Idahoans to expect physical distancing and other safeguards to remain in place for a long time. State officials recommend people keep six feet of distance — about two arms’ lengths — between them.
“I will be honest with you; social distancing will be something that will go on for a long time, until we get a good therapeutic or vaccine,” Little said.
In recent weeks, Little has said it could be a year or more before a vaccine is available, even if it is fast-tracked.