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 Original article can be found at The Neighbor.

Megan Valley; March 29, 2020

When Davenport Superintendent Robert Kobylski first publicly raised the idea of starting a virtual academy, the COVID-19 emergency hadn’t yet fully hit the United States.

The virtual academy, as proposed Feb. 20 was meant to take pressure off the district’s Keystone Academy, which serves students with behavior problems, encourage open-enrollment in the district, and absorb some of the students at Mid-City High School, the district’s alternative high school.

But by the end of February, the U.S. would confirm its first death from COVID-19, the new coronavirus. A month later, Gov. Kim Reynolds recommended schools close until April 13. Like other districts in Scott County, Davenport announced it would be closing school buildings to help mitigate the spread. 

 

Now, the urgency to start a virtual academy is much greater, in Davenport and districts across Iowa.

In Iowa, only three districts are approved as virtual learning providers, and Davenport isn’t one of them — yet. The district submitted its application in early March. This week, Kobylski said they followed up with the state about Davenport’s status. He’s expecting to get approval “any day now.”

“Our frustration here in Iowa is, all we’re doing is providing resources and pushing out information,” he said. “We’re not instructing, we’re not grading, we’re not guiding.”

In preparation, Kobylski said he was asking teachers to get certified in Google Classrooms next week. The free certification requires a 12-hour program to help teachers get acquainted with the program and utilize it to its “fullest capabilities.” The platform would be used for elementary and intermediate students. High school students would use Edgenuity.

Once the district gets approval, Kobylski said they could have online courses ready in four or five days.

Even with state approval, there’s an accessibility problem. Davenport is 1:1, which means there’s at least one device — in Davenport’s case, Chromebooks — per student, but having a device doesn’t guarantee internet access. “That’s not just a Davenport issue,” Kobylski said. “That’s an Iowa issue. That’s a national issue.”

To get a sense of the scope of students who need help with access, Davenport sent out a phone blast Friday afternoon to gauge which households need help, either with Chromebooks or internet. Kobylski said they also planned to print out paper packets with instructions for parents to pick up at the same sites offering free lunches for kids. “That’s a really low-end solution,” he said. “We’re trying to find some more creative solutions.” 

 

Another solution is to reach out to area providers, like Mediacom, to figure out how those families could get free internet access. That’s still “cumbersome,” Kobylski said, because providers still need to go into homes to set it up. A third option is to order mobile hotspots. Davenport has orders in for 10 Kajeet hotspots for every school, but the company is sold out as so many districts have to confront this problem at once.

As for special education services, Kobylski said they’re still waiting for guidance from the state-level task force. The position now is if students in general education are being educated, students receiving special education services must also be educated.

“It’s the right position, but it was not meant for a situation like we’re in right now,” Kobylski said. “We need some guidance from the state for what we can and cannot do.”

While Iowa districts are still anxiously awaiting answers for questions about online learning, teachers are starting to reach out to students to keep up their relationships.

“It’s not a requirement, but it’s definitely something that’s all on our minds,” said Linda Smithson, a teacher-librarian at Smart Intermediate. Teachers stood across the street from the school while students went to pick up lunches with signs. Some of the Smart staff have been sharing video messages with their students, too.

“Almost every teacher I talked to today said they had gotten an email or a message from students,” Smithson said. “They’re just reaching back out to kids to reassure them.”

As a teacher-librarian, Smithson doesn’t teach in a traditional classroom, and she doesn’t yet know what the transition to an online classroom will look like.

 

“I have ideas, if we’re going to go that route,” she said, adding that she’s in a Facebook group of teacher-librarians who have been talking and brainstorming together. Even things that seem like an easy transition — doing a read-aloud over video, for instance — can be complicated because she’d need permission from the publishers.

Whatever the next step in education looks like, Kobylski said they’re “very anxious to get to the next level, with actual instruction.”

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