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Thursday, September 24, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Single platform, more child care, class meetings: SPS expected to adopt new distance-learning model

UPDATED: Tue., Aug. 11, 2020

Chase Middle School eighth-grader  (DAN PELLE)
Chase Middle School eighth-grader (DAN PELLE)

The Spokane Public Schools board of directors is expected to approve Wednesday night a distance-learning model that includes expanded child care, a laptop for every student and a single learning platform.

Above all, there will be structure, an element that was missing during the ragged response of last spring, when the COVID-19 pandemic left many parents and children frustrated and confused as they tried to navigate myriad platforms.

“There will be clear expectations and consistency for the student experience, and support for families,” said Heather Bybee, the district’s new chief academic officer.

“We will know that we’re successful if we don’t hear a lot of complaints,” Bybee said.

The district expects its model, which is covered in a 27-page document, will address most concerns when the school year begins Sept. 3.

In a letter to parents that accompanied the document, new school Superintendent Adam Swinyard said, “Our reopening plan represents our best efforts to prioritize student, staff and community safety while continuing to provide a quality education in a new and fluid environment.”

Swinyard added the district’s goal is to “return to in-person instruction as soon as possible based on the guidance of public health officials.”

Until then, the district has attempted to build a learning structure based on the Microsoft Teams platform, which Bybee claims is “idiot-proof because I’ve been able to use it.”

Microsoft Teams will allow teachers to see the faces of every student during lessons – a substantial upgrade from last spring when they could engage with only 10 at a time. In addition, students will be able to engage with each other in “breakout rooms.”

Elementary schools

At grade schools, the day will begin at 8:30 a.m. with a 20-minute “Real-Time Class Meeting” and social-emotional learning.

Most of the structured learning will occur during a three-hour block, during which teachers will direct instruction in core subjects as well as music, art and physical education, the latter happening at home.

Bybee said teachers will be given substantial latitude on how that three-hour block is used; regardless, the daily plan will be posted when the day begins.

“We tried to take input from what we have learned about the balance of what students could manage and how they could best support an elementary school experience in an abbreviated time frame,” Bybee said.

In other words, after three hours of distance learning, kids are more than ready for lunch. In the SPS model, the lunch hour will run from 11:50 a.m. to 12:50 p.m. The rest of the day includes an hour of “Independent Work Time or Play,” then 40 minutes of support and enrichment, followed by 30 minutes of access to teachers.

High schools and middle schools

The model is similar for middle and high school students, who will begin each day at 8:30 a.m., receive one hour of real-time instruction on each of three subjects on Monday and Wednesday mornings, and three other subjects on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. On Friday mornings all six subjects will be reviewed in 30-minute classes.

The rest of the schedule is identical to that of the elementary model.

Special education students will be provided real-time learning blocks via Microsoft Teams following the school schedule.

Occupational therapy, physical therapy and speech services will be provided via consult or teletherapy, with in-person services available on a limited basis.

English Language Learners in kindergarten through sixth grade will receive services on a weekly basis via Microsoft Teams. Secondary students will receive the same services as part of the school schedule.

Families that don’t want their students attending school in-person at any time can register for a full distance-learning option with Spokane Virtual Academy or On Track Academy@Home.

There will be challenges. The district has plenty of laptops, but said it is still working with community partners to provide connectivity; for some already-stressed parents, that will mean driving to a parking lot outside a school building.

However, Bybee said she has many reasons to feel confident about the new year.

“We have been able to learn an incredible amount from this spring,” Bybee said. “Spring caught us and everyone by surprise, but I’m very optimistic about the community supports that exist out there.”

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