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School district says it's been unable to connect with around 25% of students
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School district says it's been unable to connect with around 25% of students

Students leave school

Students leave Wilson Elementary in Rapid City before the coronavirus pandemic led Gov. Noem to close schools in the state. Now, schools are teaching students remotely.

With schools closed since mid-March and the majority of learning taking place online and remotely, Rapid City Area Schools still hasn’t been able to reach many of its students.

Matthew Seebaum, assistant superintendent, said the district’s attendance is following a national trend as he estimated one-fourth of students haven’t logged in to online classes, haven’t picked up packets from their schools or communicated with their teachers or the district in any way.

“Some of our most at-risk, most impacted students have kind of dropped off,” he said. “We have not had communication, and we have not been able to communicate even with multiple efforts to some of our students.”

Seebaum said teachers and the district have tried to reach them in multiple ways: through text message, phone, email and even U.S. mail. Counselors, social workers, administrators have all attempted to reach out, he said.

“Our goal is to try to engage as many students as we can,” he said, noting that taking attendance has also been more difficult with schools closed for the foreseeable future.

Gov. Kristi Noem announced March 13 that schools would close for a week to clean their facilities when the state saw its first nine cases of COVID-19. Noem then closed schools for an extra week on March 17, extending closures to March 30.

Noem later announced March 24 that schools would close until May 1, and soon extended the school closure for the rest of the academic year on April 6.

Seebaum said it’s unfair to penalize students for attendance issues due to circumstances that were out of their control.

“If a parent or guardian, because of their circumstances, aren’t able to engage to help their student at home or to at least get them logged in, then we’re at a real disadvantage with that,” he said.

The school district has deployed 4,300 laptops to students who had WiFi, but no laptop. Seebaum said the district still struggles with knowing there are students who don’t have internet at home, noting that both Midco and Vast have offered WiFi service to students for free, but that they have a backlog of requests to process.

“The slowness in getting that set up is a little challenging,” he said.

Seebaum said since March 13, he’s seen a stabilization in comments, questions and concerns from families in the district about the school closures and the transition to remote learning.

“People are getting used to the type of schooling we are doing,” Seebaum said. “Obviously, it’s no substitute for being in a classroom. That has been a struggle for some, but overall we are seeing a settling of students into a new routine.”

Workloads

Seebaum said students are learning through a combination of packets, which students can get at their schools once a week while following social distancing guidelines, as well as online learning.

The district has moved more towards digital and online learning, using Zoom, Google classroom and multiple platforms.

Seebaum said the district does not have “one-to-one” computer access for all its students yet, meaning they don’t all have a computer.

In Sioux Falls, for example, students have access to their own individual Chromebooks where they do a majority of assignments and work.

“That’s something we’ve been exploring, but we haven’t had the budget to be able to do that,” Seebaum said. “For us, what this pandemic does is really send home the message that we need to move towards that for every student in the future and also need more online learning management systems for students.”

Towards the end of the legislative session, the South Dakota Legislature passed a bill giving school districts more flexibility in reducing the minimum school hours required in state codified law.

For elementary school, teachers provide two to three hours of instruction each weekday. 

In middle school, teachers provide 20 to 30 minutes of instruction in the following classes each weekday: English, math, reading, science, social studies, as well as 20 minutes per subject each day for Encore and elective classes.

Grading in middle and high school is based on proficiency, with opportunities for recovery and retakes as well as flexibility on due dates.

In high school, teachers were to provide 30 minutes of instruction per subject and class each weekday.

After spring break, teachers started using fewer packets in order to curb the spread of COVID-19 and started moving to electronic learning.

Mental health

Whitnee Pearce, director of diversity, outreach and equity for RCAS, said the pandemic is creating a heightened time for mental health needs.

Pearce, and Sarah Zimmerman, a social worker for the district, created a parent contact form and an RCAS COVID-19 Resource Guide to help families with everything from health care options, mental health resources, food and utilities.

Zimmerman said the contact form allows families to reach out to the district with specific needs and helps the district “keep a pulse” on what the community needs.

Pearce said the adjustment can be difficult for students who don’t get to see their teachers and friends every day.

“We as a district know what our students and families are going through, especially being away from their teachers and their routines and their friends,” Pearce said.

Zimmerman said staying home and social distancing can take a toll on students, and especially those with preexisting mental health conditions.

“Those can truly be triggered because of the lack of interaction with people and having to stay home and not doing those things you normally would do for fulfillment,” she said, noting the social work department of the district has created online platforms for support and has maintained its case load during the pandemic.

Zimmerman said students may be seeing issues with concentration at home and with homework. For them, she recommends helping students find a sense of control in their daily life through structures and daily routines.

Zimmerman also recommends families find creative ways to keep up their friendships with peers. For students with preexisting mental health conditions, she says they should keep up with their mental health provider.

Special services

Dr. Greg Gaden is the director of special services at RCAS, which covers special education, preschools, nurses, language learner programs, workforce development programs, school psychologists and more.

Gaden said special services are much different now, because his staff can’t meet face-to-face with the students and children they serve.

He said students with special education needs require more specialized, direct individualized instruction. Students with more significant disabilities usually have one-on-one instruction, and those with cognitive impairments have seen significant adjustments to their education during the pandemic.

“When we get into some of those more specialized areas such as occupational or physical therapy, or speech and language pathology, those are pretty significant types of adjustments that you can’t do via Zoom presentation,” he said. “You almost have to have an adult there.”

Gaden said the philosophy of “parents as teachers” can help students in those situations.

“When you teach a parent what you want to teach a child, you’ll get better results from that outcome,” he said. “We also have to take into consideration the parent’s ability to carry out all of those different types of activities. We don’t want to put too much on the parent, because they’re already dealing with work, staying at home with multiple children and teaching multiple children.”

Gaden said he knows of one family with multiple children with autism who has to educate their kids on their own at home.

“Quite honestly, I can’t even fathom what it’s like for a parent at home,” Gaden said. “It has to be extremely difficult and challenging. Our parents have been very good about it.”

Gaden said the program with school psychologists who evaluate students with disabilities has changed a lot with the pandemic.

“It’s much different. You can’t do the research-based assessment on a child remotely,” he said. “It really has to be face-to-face.”

While the workload has been high, Gaden said his department is adjusting to make it more manageable for families.

“The staff is doing a bang-up job, working hard out there for the children and doing the best they can,” he said.

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