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‘There is too much to keep track of’: Spokane district hears frustrations with distance-learning

Spokane Public Schools got the message loud and clear this week: Parents are overwhelmed and frustrated by teachers’ use of different distance-learning platforms.

That was the dominant finding of an online forum conducted in late April to gauge attitudes of parents and staff as they cope with school closures resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the closest thing to a report card the district will get, the forum was a mixed bag.

The 1,600 parents who took part in the Thought Exchange said they were grateful for the hard work and dedication of teachers and staff. They also appreciate the district’s efforts to distribute food.

“With this many children and husband working, being able to have the kids walk down to the bus stop and get food was just amazing. Thank you!” one parent commented.

Yet many parents say they’re overwhelmed. Many are working from home, dealing with chores while being forced to take a more active role in their children’s education.

Some are feeling desperate.

“I feel guilty every time I am not able to help my kids with their work,” one parent wrote. “I have been preoccupied with making sure I can pay the mortgage, buy food, maintain health insurance and ensuring we all stay healthy!”

That’s hard enough, but many families said they would appreciate a simpler approach. They want emails sent less frequently and not at the end of the week, but mostly they want lessons and communication to take place on fewer platforms.

“Multiplatforms to get information is challenging,” said one parent, who noted that some children “use Microsoft Teams to get info but then Blackboard to submit some work, then check email for additional work.”

And that’s just for one class, the parent said.

Another commented that some high schoolers “are being asked to work in basically every platform. While it is nice that they are learning all of these programs, it would be nice if the work they are doing were in one place and easy to organize.”

The forum drew similar concerns from students.

One high schooler called the variety of learning platforms “overwhelming” and believes that too often, teachers “forget that they are one of six.”

“They are trying to do their best, but there is too much to keep track of,” the student wrote.

On the issue of communication, some complained they were getting too little; others want less, or at least want emails from teachers consolidated into one message delivered early in the week.

“I need to be able to sit down at one sitting and help my student calendar their assignments for the week and not revamp every time I get a new email,” one parent said.

The Thought Exchange also included 700 teachers and other staff. Many said they appreciate the district’s support during the building closures, but also want to make sure those buildings are clean.

Noting that custodial staff was reduced during last year’s budget cuts, one urged the district to restore full custodial services “to keep our school students and staff healthy.”

“Daily cleaning of sinks and water fountains, highly touched surfaces, and classrooms will help minimize the spread of illnesses,” the staffer continued.

Associate Superintendent Mark Anderson said on Thursday that restoration of some custodial positions “will be one of the areas of discussion with the school board in developing next year’s budget and part of the study for our back-to-school task force.”

The issue of multiple platforms also will be a major priority, Associate Superintendent Adam Swinyard told school board members as he and Anderson shared the survey results Wednesday night.

The teachers’ biggest complaint was premature communication of information from the district to families and the public.

“It is important to get information out to staff prior to putting it on social media,” one teacher wrote. “It can be frustrating seeing something online prior to hearing it from an administrator.”

Parents and staff share one major worry: What will education look like in the fall, assuming it’s safe to return to buildings?

Most hope and expect the district to plan for either case.

“We need to think about contingency plans now for fall,” a parent wrote. “We don’t want to not have a plan for fall if this drags out and we can’t go forward on day one.”

Teachers are already envisioning what those classrooms might look like. Projected budget cuts will likely increase class sizes in many schools, making social distancing problematic.

“Teachers will need guidance in August to best prepare for the varying levels of kids in September,” a teacher said. “Please don’t let us start the school year and then tell us what we should be doing. If you are going to give instructions, then do it early.”