With Scottsdale Unified School District’s Return to Learn Phase 2 plan underway, so is its enhanced distance learning program, which is in full effect.
Teachers and students have been digesting all that comes with online instruction since Aug. 10 as an option presented for students enrolled in the 2020-21 school year.
“Enhanced distance learning has exceeded expectations,” said SUSD Superintendent Dr. Scott A. Menzel during a special meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 1 at the Mohave District Annex, 8500 E. Jackrabbit Road.
Although the Scottsdale online learning forums have been successful for some participants, many parents have said their children would do better with in-person learning and insist SUSD schools open to their student if they elected for their child to have full-time learning on campus after previously submitting their decisions on their preferred learning model.
Another reason parents have protested SUSD schools not opening, despite Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey’s executive orders suggesting reopening school campuses on Aug. 17, stems from the district scheduling a tentative Sept. 8 opening date before benchmarks were established by state and local health agencies for meeting safety requirements to open schools.
Meanwhile, thousands of viewers continue to pack the online board meetings to follow the progressions of the district's decision to open school buildings to all or not.
SUSD began its school year on time Aug. 10 for students to participate in an enhanced distance-learning program taught by certified district teachers until public health conditions permit students opting for on-campus learning to return to school buildings.
“These plans are subject to orders and regulations of the state. Aspirationally, Sept. 8 was the date, but we knew that there might be some changes,” said Dr. Menzel, noting the metrics would have to allow for opening.
He detailed how complex the COVID-19 environment is when considering data, stakeholder interests.
Complimenting the group efforts of those participating in enhanced distance learning, from teachers to students, he noted how it does not replace the experience of in-person learning.
Dr. Kimberly Guerin, assistant superintendent of SUSD Education Services who oversaw a group of 50 stakeholders during a hybrid model brainstorming design sessions, agreed with Dr. Menzel on the enhanced distance learning advancements.
“We also know it doesn’t replace the magic that happens in the classroom,” Dr. Guerin said.
Dr. Guerin showed board members a presentation of learning module examples for students, including an online class that students can see the teacher in the corner of the screen; an asynchronous learning model that required students to click through slides and then engage with students by communicating with peers; a virtual bulletin board, and more.
“Clearly the personality and encouragement is coming through,” Dr. Guerin said, describing the option enabling direct communication with the teacher. “This is just one tool our teachers are using.”
She showed a virtual classroom of younger students in each corner of the screen.
With the exception of students donning headsets, like a real classroom full of little kids, students were standing, fidgeting and yelling out: “I see you!”
“You can see how difficult it is with our little ones,” Dr. Guerin said, noting the joy, pain, struggle and reality of virtual learning environments, especially for younger students.
Dr. Menzel agreed one of his biggest concerns was with younger students adopting to the distance learning environment. He said the most vulnerable populations should return to in-school learning first.
While board member Jann-Michael Greenburg expressed that he would want younger children, at least up to second grade, to all return to school as soon as possible, he recognized the difficulties social distancing would present with that population as schools would be at a higher risk of a possible outbreak.
When presented with a question from a board member about simulcast streaming, Dr. Guerin said that would present another problem of a whole system overload as so many businesses and people are using online platforms to continue working and learning.