Just over a week after assuming interim duties last July as the Salina USD 305 school superintendent, Linn Exline was offered the position permanently.
Ten months later, she has to be wondering what she got herself into.
“I certainly didn’t know that figuring out how to educate over 7,000 students during a pandemic was part of being a year one superintendent,” Exline said, chuckling.
Yet that was the challenge Exline and the entire district faced in late March when Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly announced that schools statewide would shut down for in-person learning the rest of the school year.
Now, more than a month later, Salina schools are three weeks into an online curriculum where all students, kindergarten through 12th grade, are equipped with Chromebooks and internet access for online learning. Administrators and teachers are encouraged by the early returns, but getting there was no small task.
The state department of education provided a guidance document outlining its expectations during its “continuous learning” phase through the rest of the school year. With it came three options for delivering instruction: face-to-face in small groups of less than 10, packets, or online learning.
“We had a team of teachers — a representative group of teacher leaders — that we pulled together the day that the guidance document came out,” Exline said. “We said to them, ‘We want you to look at this and we want you to tell us, as you think about our families, as you think about the students we educate, what’s the best method for them?’
“They immediately said to take off the face-to-face, although that’s what they’re used to doing. That with the uncertainty surrounding how long would we be able to do that, they thought we should take that one off the plate.”
Charlie Todd, a math teacher at Salina South High School, was part of the first teacher group to meet, with no administrators involved.
“It was really broad,” he said. “That first day we were just meeting with about seven different teachers and it was mainly just talking about what the rollout was going to look like.”
The first decision the group made after scrapping the idea of small-group in-person instruction, was to choose online learning over packets.
“A lot of the conversation kind of centered around equity issues, not everyone having internet access and all that,” Todd said. “Online instruction would clearly be better than packet work, for the sole fact that we could still be in contact with students and kind of give guidance in almost real time.
“With packets, however, that’s not available, and a big chunk of education is that questioning and responding to the thought process of students. So online was clearly superior to packet work, but again the issue of equity kept coming up.”
Once the district determined that it had enough Chromebooks available to cover the eight elementary and two middle schools — high school students already were using them — and that it could provide hot spots to those families that didn’t have internet access, the online option won out.
“After collaborating as a small group that had representatives from elementary, middle and high school, we knew we would need to dive deeper into more selective grade-level groups,” said Ali Kindlesparger, ESL (English as a second language) instructor at Schilling Elementary School and co-president of the local National Education Association chapter. “Groups were divided into kindergarten to second grade, grades 3 to 5, middle school and high school.
“Teachers were asked to give input on what our new schedules would look like based on the criteria given by KSDE (Kansas State Department of Education). Many teachers discussed that the most important aspect of this new learning would be the social/emotional part for everyone, especially the kids. In the group I was in, we looked into different ways we could video chat with our students, such as using Zoom.”
Mike Shaw, eighth-grade social studies teacher at Lakewood Middle School, joined the discussion at that level, where representatives from different buildings got together, divided by grade level and or subject matter, to hammer out a plan. He came away impressed with the level of cooperation.
“It was a very collegial atmosphere,” he said. “A lot of times when different schools get together it’s, ‘We want to cover this, we want to cover that,’ but we needed to work together and create a plan of what’s best for the kids.”
For the elementary schools, principals were assigned different grade levels to join with the teachers in curriculum discussions.
“We were there with them as a team of teachers started the process of what that would look like,” said Angie Dorzweiler, principal at Oakdale Elementary. “And then from there we helped facilitate those teacher leaders from each grade level, getting it back to the building teams with a command message across the district.
“So that way kindergarten across all eight buildings were all going to focus on the same content, the same standards. That way the message got there very consistently.”
Consistency between buildings also was a point of emphasis at the middle school and high school levels.
“Everyone who taught geometry in the district and everyone who taught whatever class that it is we offer at USD 305, we were all involved in a meeting discussing what is it that we want students to be able to do by the end of this fourth quarter that is all online,” Todd said of the high school math discussions. “Although not every teacher is going to teach exactly the same way or have the same method of delivering the instruction, we all are teaching the same thing.”
There also were time constraints, forcing the teacher teams to narrow the scope while still meeting the KSDE requirements. Because students were at home and they had to work around individual family schedules, it was not possible to operate during regular school hours.
“Compressing and really honing in on what is it that we would need to make sure that the students are getting with regards to content and curriculum between now and May, when they are done with the school year with us,” Dorzweiler said. “And also wanting to make sure that we’re really careful that it is something that we realize they’ll be able to do.
“Because if we were to throw a completely brand new concept in front of them and we’re not right there beside them, that’s not something that would be fair to do to them and their families.”
Dorzweiler gave the teachers high marks when it came to paring things down.
“Our teachers did a phenomenal job of looking at what all the kids have learned across the school year, what the fourth quarter would have held for them and saying, ‘These are the most important pieces and this is how we’re going to make it happen for them,’ ” she said. “Taking what is usually an hour-long reading lesson and finding a way to really pare that down so that we’re staying within certain time constraints, the teachers are getting really creative with what that looks like.”
Once plans were in place, the district still had to distribute the Chromebooks at the elementary and middle school levels and also provide hot spots for more than 330 families, covering roughly 600 students.
“Not only that aspect, but returning the stuff students had at school — stuff they had in their lockers,” said Dustin Dooley, South Middle School principal. “There was a lot of coordination with our custodial crew, and our teachers volunteered to help with that.
“Our custodial crew did a tremendous job with that. Between that and the Chromebooks and hot spots, we had three different pickups, and I think it went about as well as we could have hoped.”
Once instruction resumed on March 30, following an extended spring break, students still did packet learning for the first two weeks while all the technology pieces came together. Using a wide-ranging communication network the district was able to determine which families needed internet access.
Kindlesparger said the district also was proactive in overcoming any language barriers.
“As an ESL teacher, I was pleased that our district tried to meet the needs of our non-English speaking families,” she said. “All of the technology directions were translated in Spanish, which is the next-biggest language spoken in our district.
“I think that at the beginning, this was a challenge for a majority of our families because even though things were translated, the websites themselves are in English. I do know that our bilingual assistants have been working hard to call families and help them with this new technology.”
While teachers have transitioned from the planning stage to actual instruction, the principals are focused on making sure no students or families fall through the cracks.
“The biggest challenge for us has been making sure that students are participating and that they’re doing their classwork,” South Middle School’s Dooley said. “I think we’ve developed a pretty good tracking mechanism for that in our building, and our counselors and administrators are reaching out to those students and families that are not participating.”
Shaw said that he has tried to be patient and understanding while he and his Lakewood students navigate what for most are uncharted waters.
“You have to have grace and patience,” he said. “The rigor has to be there, but you have to taper that with kindness and support as you work through it.
“This (COVID-19) is a once-in-a-century type of event.”
By all accounts, the first three weeks online have been relatively smooth.
“I think it has gone as well as we could have hoped for it to go,” Todd said. “There are obviously hiccups, but students and teachers are figuring it out and adapting.
“It really is rethinking a lot of what instruction looks like, how we deliver it and how it is assessed. And we did it in a week.”
Dorzweiler also praised students’ families for their willingness to adapt.
“Our families, in hearing from them and talking to them, they just want to know that what they’re doing is the right thing and to help their kids,” she said. “They too have rolled up their sleeves and jumped in.
“Just the positivity that has come out of the COVID situation and this learning plan has been phenomenal.”
Exline agreed that everyone involved rose to the challenge.
“Educators by nature do a lot of collaborating. It’s who we are,” she said. “It was fun to see that teacher leadership bubble up (and) I’m really proud of the decision that they made. I think they were very thoughtful and forward-thinking and I think we ended up where we needed to be.”