While some school districts have closed all school buildings for the remainder of the year and canceled in-person instruction, moving to an online distance learning model for the remainder of the school year amid the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, student transporters and other school staff can play a vital role in providing continuity and communications to students and parents alike.
School closures due to coronavirus outbreak have impacted at least 124,000 U.S. public and private schools and affected around 55.1 million students, reported Education Week. As of this writing, seven states announced its K-12 public schools will be closed for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year, and three states have closed school until further notice.
Industry consultant Alexandra Robinson said the decision to end the school year prematurely, without providing support to the students, is too abrupt for students to deal with. She said students and parents need communication more than ever during this time, and they are looking for the school districts advice and guidance.
She added that there are so many ways that districts can provide aide during a time like this.
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For instance, Intermediate District 287 in Minnesota is continuing to host distance learning, as is the case at many districts around the nation. Intermediate District 287, located 46 miles west of Minneapolis, serves students with varying levels of disabilities.
Ben Magras, the executive director of student outcomes for the district, said the administration came up with three different learning styles, or pathways based on each student’s needs.
The first pathway is a low technology option, which utilizes hard copy documents and textbooks that students can either pick up or have delivered to their house.
Magras noted that during the week of March 16, the district sent a survey to families that asked if they were able to pick up their course materials and touched base on how they were doing. But Magras added that even with sending an electronic survey, the district realized it missed certain people.
Magras said the district discovered that 50 families in their district don’t have access to the internet, so it began searching for community organizations and companies that could provide free internet connections, as well as purchasing hotspots for the students.
A second learning pathway is using a mix of computer technology and paper material. This includes fostering some email conversations as well as video conferences.
The last pathway provides students with a complete virtual education setting, but Magras said very few teachers are utilizing this option. He said the one-to-one districts that offer Chromebooks to students might have more success with this.
Magras said that teachers at his district are required to have daily check-ins with their students, but they shouldn’t solely be focused on academics.
“Beyond the academic needs of our students, we have a number of students with mental health issues. We have a number of students that have anxiety and fear during this time, more so than all of us,” Magras explained. “So, we are very mindful in our service delivery that we are doing regular check-ins with our students, that they have a point of contact every single day with either a teacher or somebody else from the school district. And then, when we are having those conversations. It’s about their academic progress, but also about their mental health, how they are feeling and their emotional health.”
Robinson noted, however, that it’s not only the responsibility of teachers or district administrators to offer this support.
“I keep thinking about support services, and we are transportation. Think of all the interactions that happen on the bus. People forget that some of the best resources—there are only so many teachers, and again only so many drivers and attendants—[are] those drivers and attendants, especially if they are off right now. Some of them may be willing to do a reading group,” Robinson explained.
She added that district administrators and transportation departments need to be in contact with each other. Having drivers host an online reading group keeps everyone involved. She said another idea, which could be especially helpful for students who have lower functionality, would be to offer a virtual bus route.
“Get your bus route kids together and have them do something they would normally do on the bus,” Robinson said. “Maybe you set up a virtual route and you pick each one of them up, and then everybody is online and engaging that way.”
She added you could potentially pick each student up, stop by stop, and maybe everyone just talks for the time being. But she said having that interaction, and students seeing the bus drivers and attendants faces, it shows the students that they are there for them and it makes all the difference.
She added that, right now, parents are the ones communicating directly with staff at the schools. But during the normal school day, parents aren’t usually the ones talking to district personnel. Instead, it’s the students.
“There is no reason why the schools should be the only ones calling children right now. There is no reason why drivers, attendants and transportation directors can’t be calling kids. too,” Robinson observed. “There is no reason why multiple people can’t be talking to that student, and the call is actually for the child. It’s not for the parents.”
She added, “Because right now, a lot of parents are getting all that communication, but I think it’s important for the kids to hear directly from the employees in the school district. Because the driver doesn’t talk to the parent on a daily basis, but they do talk to the students.”
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However, besides distance education involving students, Robinson said that transportation departments could be using this time to conduct training and require drivers and attendants, especially those still being paid, to take refresher courses.
“Especially for those who haven’t had the retraining recently, or the refresher classes recently. Just because you are not at work, doesn’t mean that the driver trainer can’t record themselves teaching a class and get that out to the drivers,” Robinson added.
Dennis Grad, the Auburn School District executive director of transportation and McKinney-Vento homeless liaison, told School Transportation News while his school bus drivers are still expected to work, namely, deliver meals and instructional materials, they are encouraged to stay at home if they are over 60 years old or have an underlying health condition.
However, those who stay home are still expected to be working on professional development. He said he utilizes the School Transportation News webinar series, for example, to keep his drivers engaged, at least for a couple of hours a day.
Editor’s note—A previous article incorrectly stated the school year in Arizona and other states was canceled.