Chandler ready for a very different school year SanTan Sun News

Chandler ready for a very different school year

Chandler ready for a very different school year
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By Kevin Reagan
Staff Writer

Michael Buist feels ready to start the new school year.
It will be a year unlike any other when Chandler Unified students start online classes Wednesday, Aug. 5, the Casteel High School math teacher acknowledged, but he’s prepared for the changes that are ahead.
Buist has been spending his summer thinking about how to adapt his teaching style to fit with the virtual landscape that’s become more ubiquitous during the COVID-19 pandemic.
After teachers were forced to suddenly shift to online instruction at the end of the last school year, Buist said he and his colleagues were forced to reassess what it means to be a teacher in the 21st century and consider revamping methods that have long been outdated.
“Teachers were really forced to think about their practice, think about their pedagogy, and really evaluate what’s important,” he said.
Even before the shutdown, Buist was trying to introduce his students to more digital tools they could use to challenge their mathematical wits.
His frequent use of one particular software program, Mathspace, was prevalent enough for the company to name Buist one its most “esteemed educators” this year.
The honor was meant to demonstrate Buist’s dedication and compulsion to prepare for teaching in a more tech-dependent future.
Whenever he finds a new tool, Buist said he’s always eager to test the program out – it might just come in handy when a pandemic unexpectedly closes school, he said.
Buist said he has spent his summer break participating in webinars, taking online courses on blended learning and trying out new video applications like Flipgrid – anything that might help him adjust to becoming a virtual teacher.
“I’ve basically been trying to keep my mind fresh,” he said.
Buist is one of hundreds of teachers at the Chandler Unified who have recently undergone professional development to be better equipped at navigating the virtual world.
Larry Rother, the district’s senior executive director for K-12 services, said very few CUSD teachers had ever had to instruct their classes entirely online before the pandemic hit.
Once Chandler Unified realized its campuses wouldn’t reopen for the end of its spring semester, Rother said administrators immediately started training teachers on Google Classrooms and other online tools.
So much of what happened during the last semester was done in reaction to the pandemic, he said, and there wasn’t time to flush out all the unexpected challenges of educating 47,000 students online.
The district hadn’t been sure how many students even had access to a computer at home – forcing some families to rely on paper assignments they’d have to regularly pick up from their school site.
Chandler Unified has since spent millions purchasing hundreds of extra laptops for the upcoming school year and district officials say they are confident they’ll have enough to avoid any students having to depend on paper packets again.
The district’s additionally allowing some students to use computers located at their respective school campus. These in-person computer sessions would be supervised by staff and students are expected to keep a safe distance from others.
The expanded access to technology and retraining of teachers will make this upcoming semester much different than how the last one ended, Rother said.
Chandler Unified has spent the summer preparing for a semester that will be more comprehensive and structured than what students had to endure at the end of last year.
“Our schools are going to be up and running come Aug. 5 and it will look very much different than the fourth quarter,” Rother added.
Like many districts in Arizona, Chandler Unified will spend the first couple weeks teaching all its students virtually and eventually open up its campuses for in-person learning on Aug. 17.
That date is still tentative, district officials said, since it could be pushed back after Gov. Doug Ducey two weeks ago gave districts the authority to decide when to start in-classroom learning after Aug. 17.
“It’s not reasonable to set a date,’’ state Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman said at a July 23 press conference. She said she doubts that any school would be ready to actually begin classroom instruction by that original target date.
Instead, the new executive order signed by the governor directs school boards and charter school operators to begin some sort of operations – even if just online – on what would have been their regular start date.
In the meantime, the Department of Health Services is supposed to come up with “public health benchmarks’’ by Aug. 7 school officials will be required to consider when determining whether to open classrooms. But it will remain up to each entity to determine when they are ready for in-person learning.
That can mean continuing with online and remote instruction for as long as the school officials believe is necessary.
But requirements remain.
The biggest is that these districts must provide somewhere for students to go.
These could be youngsters whose parents work as well as students who do not have access to computers at home.
And the governor has a particular focus on “at risk’’ children from low-income households, special education students and those who go to school with limited English proficiency.
According to the most recent report by the state Auditor General, about 10 percent of Chandler Unified’s approximate 45,000 students are in special education programs and another 2 percent are English Learners.
There are other conditions Ducey set – including requirements for “social distancing’’ and for all adults and most students to wear masks.
But there’s also a carrot with all this: a 5 percent boost in state aid.
Under normal circumstances, the state pays only 95 percent of normal aid for students who are being taught only online. That means only about $5,000 per student versus $5,300, the average figure for traditional public schools.
This plan erases that gap.
But it also would provide an identical bonus to qualifying school districts who agree to actually put youngsters into seats. They will get 105 percent of state aid, or an extra $265.At least two members of the Chandler Unified Governing Board – Lindsay Love and David Evans – had spoken out against Ducey’s earlier mandate to open in-person classes on Aug. 17 and petitioned the governor to delay it until October.
Regardless of when CUSD campuses reopen, at least 13,000 students are planning to enroll in the district’s online curriculum for at least the first half of the upcoming semester.
About 2,500 of these students have indicated they plan to learn online for the entire year.
The district will permit online students to switch to in-person learning at the end of each quarter. Nearly 7,800 students are planning to return to their campuses when the second quarter starts.
Since only 13,000 students have committed to online learning, that means a large majority of Chandler’s 47,000 students intend to return to the classroom whenever campuses reopen.
In the meantime, students will be assigned a schedule and begin corresponding with their teachers through Google Classrooms. When students arrive to campus to begin in-person learning, they’ll have the same teachers as during the virtual period.
Rother said this initial virtual period for the in-person students will be quite different than what the district’s online students will experience.
The Chandler Online Academy, which is the platform online students will enroll through, operates with a specific curriculum developed by Florida Virtual School.
The Academy’s secondary students work at their own pace to get through six assigned courses and can virtually chat with online instructors.
The Academy’s elementary students will be given a more structured schedule with times set out for when they’re expected to start and finish a lesson. Students are guaranteed to have at least three live interactions with an Academy instructor each day.
Teachers will provide skill-based instruction based on each student’s needs, driven by data collected from the Academy’s self-paced content and other assessment protocols.
Elementary students will additionally be assigned virtual classmates they’ll engage with in community-building activities, group projects, and social emotional curriculum.
If an Academy student wishes to switch to in-person learning, Rother said then they would return to their respective campus and be assigned new teachers.
The district is trying to avoid in-person teachers from having to teach virtual students simultaneously to their classroom students and vice versa for the Academy’s instructors.
“Our hope is to make the transition as seamless as we can for students who leave Chandler Online Academy and come back to the homesite,” Rother said.
Buist said he’s trying not to think of in-person and online teaching as two separate realms.
There’s not much difference between the two, he said, because the content doesn’t change when it’s delivered virtually.
Though Buist seems fairly confident about how he’ll handle teaching content this year, he worries about how he’ll build relationships with his new students.
It will be difficult creating a sense of community during those first couple weeks when every student will be learning online, Buist said.
He’d like to figure out a way for him and his students to feel connected without being in the same room together. But accomplishing that goal may be easier said than done.
“I don’t know if I ever figure things out,” Buist joked.
Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services contributed to this report.

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