After first week of online classes, many Iowa students stay offline

Des Moines Public Schools staff prepare for student laptop pickup at Hoover High School. (Photo courtesy of Des Moines Public Schools)

Some Iowa school districts are reporting that as few as half of their students participated in school work during the state’s first week of offering online classes.

That news comes as districts are struggling to continue coursework online as COVID-19 has shut down school buildings for the rest of the year.

Absences are more apparent for families who may not be able to afford laptops or internet access at home. It also highlights the struggles students face in rural Iowa, where internet companies may not provide services.

Concerns about lapses in education are prompting school districts to consider summer classes and ask the Iowa Legislature for more money to help pay for technology. The governor on Friday granted one wish by allowing districts to start the 2020-21 school year earlier in August, normally barred by state law because of the economic tourism generated by the Iowa State Fair, which starts mid-August.

Despite school districts’ best efforts to provide laptops and internet access to all kids, both urban and rural areas are reporting challenges getting students to check in online. Districts themselves all differ on how many laptops or wi-fi hotspots they can provide and how quickly they’re offering them. 

Some administrators are reporting difficulties reaching kids. Some reported hearing from parents their children will not engage in school work until classes return in the fall.

In Iowa, an average of 12% of students were chronically absent for the 2019 school year and missed nearly a month of school, according to data by the Iowa Department of Education.

Chronic absences are particularly acute for low-income families who struggle to bring kids to school, access medical care or supervise them. COVID-19 compounds those issues, particularly if parents have to leave kids unsupervised or there isn’t technology available.

Out of Iowa’s 327 public school districts, the majority chose to provide voluntary classes, meaning coursework is not graded. Six school districts are requiring classes and courses will be graded, while 36 districts are combining both plans, according to the Iowa Department of Education. 

Nearly all Des Moines families needed help with online access

Des Moines schools, the state’s largest school district, is combining both required and voluntary classes and grading coursework for its high school seniors.

But the district is also facing major hurdles providing technology to every student, so they can access classes. 

High school seniors received laptops and wi-fi hot spots to start classes April 13. After that, technology is provided in tiers and classes will start for 9th-11th graders April 20 and middle and high school students by April 27.

In a district-wide survey, 95% of families responded and said they needed help getting a computer or wi-fi. On average, schools are distributing 29,000 print packets on a weekly basis to students.

Nearly 75% of students in the district qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Superintendent Tom Ahart said that in Iowa, households greatly vary in their access to high-speed internet.

“That’s an inequity in the best of times and in the worst of times, it’s a glaring inequity that’s having a very direct and immediate negative impact on those families and our ability to serve those students,” Ahart said.

Des Moines is far from alone in struggling to get students to log in and complete coursework.

Only 50% of students engaged online in Iowa City

The Iowa City Community School District has been able to provide laptops for every middle- and high-school student and it’s working on providing Chromebooks for every elementary student. 

The district already had around 600 wi-fi hotspot devices that were sent out to low-income families prior to school closing. Now, it’s working on providing home internet services to about 350 new addresses.

Despite being ahead of other school districts in terms of providing laptops and internet service, for the week of April 13, only around 50% of students engaged with online classes, said Matt Degner, assistant superintendent of Iowa City schools.

But the district’s most important issue at the moment is providing enough coursework that it’s beneficial for student learning, but not burdensome for families who may be struggling due to COVID-19, Degner said.

A main priority is teachers checking in with students and having guidance counselors and advocates connect with at-risk kids.

“The big thing we try to keep at the forefront is the traumatic nature of the situation and making sure kids can be as safe as they can be and as healthy they can be,” Degner said.

It’s ‘crazy’ to expect no lapses in education

Just south of Iowa City, Superintendent Ken Crawford said he believes 95% of families have access to internet at Lone Tree and Highland school districts, which have around 500 and 650 students, respectively. But for those who don’t, a local church has offered to purchase hotspots and he’s talked with Mediacom about providing access for families.

But he suspects it will take a couple weeks before all students are able to receive internet access. In the meantime, teachers have mailed packets to students to complete.

It’s “crazy” to expect no lapses in education, particularly as families and kids are struggling with learning from home, however, Crawford said.

While schools could try to offer regimented schedules, it’s unrealistic to assume students will follow them, Crawford said. Even parents have told him they’ve taken kids out for trips, instead of requiring them to do school work.

This will make the fall even more critical for reviewing coursework and assessing what students missed and need to relearn. While gaps may not be apparent when school returns in the fall, it can compound and become apparent in two years, Crawford said.

“To say we’re going to structure an eight-hour day on our own is unrealistic for anyone,” Crawford said. “It’s just human nature sometimes.”

Winterset Superintendent Susie Meade said the district is experiencing around 80% engagement from students and less than 5% of students have requested help accessing the internet.

Teachers are now tasked with reaching out to kids who have not engaged with the coursework, Meade said.

Some families have told her they plan on not doing schoolwork until things are expected to go back to normal in the fall.

The expectations can’t be the same as they were in the past, Meade said. For now, the goal is for teachers to connect with students on a weekly basis.

“It’s not at all the same level engagement as if they were here at school,” Meade said. “For the most part, our parents are very willing to do what they can to keep kids up and running.”

Districts ‘relearning ways to engage kids’

The Waukee school district is requiring graded coursework for students between 10th to 12th grades.

Because classes are structured in 9-week increments instead of quarters, Waukee High School principal Cary Justmann said students were already finishing classes before they left for spring break.

While the majority of high school students have laptops and internet access, the biggest concern is families who share devices. 

To try to ease the burden on families, instead of requiring daily assignments, Justmann said coursework is due every Monday, so kids have a week to complete their work.

Because the school district was still handing out laptops this week, Justmann said they’re not at a place yet where he feels good about the accuracy of its student engagement numbers, but he expects the district will have a better handle on how many students are participating in coursework next week.

“Our biggest challenge is relearning ways to engage kids,” Justmann said. “If you’re in a chemistry class blowing something up, you have 20 to 25 kids right away. When you’re doing that remotely, that’s harder to do. We need to excite the kids to help them put in the effort.”

During a press conference on Friday, Iowa Department of Education director Ann Lebo said the state is not tracking how many students are engaging with online coursework.

Ann Lebo is the director of the Iowa Department of Education. (Photo courtesy of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ office.)

But school districts are now required to submit plans for the fall by July 1, which will include examining how many students engaged in school work and any remediation plans to help kids catch up, including summer school or starting classes earlier.

“We all will have significant disruptions to look at in the fall,” Lebo said.

Budgets for school districts and preparations for online learning have not been adequate for years and COVID-19 now stresses that, said Mike Beranek, president of the Iowa State Education Association.

ISEA:  State budgets for online learning have lagged for years

He points to different states like Maryland, whose legislature passed a historic $4 billion education reform plan before ending session due to COVID-19.

He believes the state needs to increase its funding levels for schools to help them get the technology and resources they need to handle the pandemic.

“We are woefully behind,” Beranek said. “If there’s a teacher living in rural Iowa just south of Iowa City that can’t even connect, then look how far behind we are.”

But Bernaek believes that once school returns, educators will be able to help kids catch up on what they missed during the pandemic.

His concern is the emotional and physical wellbeing of students when they return in the fall. At a time when some teachers are struggling to even get an email or phone call reply from some families, there will be people who fall through the cracks and may need counseling or additional help in the future. 

“The main focus is making sure we’re making our students mentally happy and not developing anxiety from not being with their peers and educators in the building,” Beranek said. “Students will remember this time. They may not remember the math lesson a teacher planned for them, but they will remember the two to three months they were out of school.”