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As coronavirus concerns force schools to turn to remote learning, some Indiana schools have a head start

As districts across the country race to set up remote learning plans in response to school closures from the new coronavirus, Indiana may have a head start: It is one of only 12 states that already has a formal e-learning policy.

But whether those plans — designed mostly for short-term, weather-related closures — will easily apply to longer stretches of time remains to be seen.

The state saw a rush of districts, including all 11 in Indianapolis, announce closures after Gov. Eric Holcomb announced that districts can waive up to 20 days of school. That exemption makes it easier for schools to close by allowing them to do so without providing remote learning or making up the days later.

Now, with thousands of Indiana children out of school, the question becomes how far will schools go to continue educating them remotely?

For many schools in the state, especially those in lower-income areas, this would be their first attempt at giving students multiple days worth of lessons online, and full of challenges. Schools must consider, for example, whether all students have access to a computer, the internet, parental supervision, and food while they are out of the classroom.

“Candidly, it was really never on our horizon [that] we would do this for more than a day or two,” said Avon Community Schools superintendent Margaret Hoernemann.

Embracing e-learning

A Chalkbeat analysis found that 30% of Indiana schools used an e-learning day last year, and wealthier schools were almost twice as likely to have taken advantage of online learning than those with high levels of poverty.

For districts that have never tried e-learning before, closures could leave them scrambling to figure out how to provide services.

At this point, the state is neither encouraging nor discouraging a move to online learning. The Indiana Department of Education provides guidance but doesn’t oversee online classwork or mandate assignments. So, what a student’s days look like remotely is largely left up to local districts.

At one of the few IPS campuses that offered e-learning last year, Matchbook Learning at School 63, the school’s blended approach helps students become accustomed to doing classwork on the computer. During an e-learning day, they can use their own computers, tablets, or smartphones to do their work at home, said the school’s CEO Amy Swann. For those students without computer or internet access, the school also provides paper-and-pencil materials.

Because the school — an innovation school that’s managed by a charter operator — has a population of students who are homeless, Swann said, they began working with shelters to provide laptops that Matchbook students can use.

Across the state, there was a big push for the virtual option after a particularly harsh winter in 2013-14, when brutally low temperatures, snow, and ice forced many schools to close for more days than usual.

In recent years, many Indiana districts have invested in 1:1 technology, with nearly half of all school systems last year providing electronic devices for each student in all grade levels, according to state data. The governor has also pledged to invest $100 million to expand internet access in rural areas.

The virtual options allow students to keep learning instead of canceling school during inclement weather, but the idea wasn’t without controversy. State education policymakers questioned whether an e-learning day was an appropriate substitute for a school day and wondered if students were truly learning.

The same question is being raised once again, as more districts weigh the option of long-term online learning during, and perhaps beyond, coronavirus closures.

“The classroom teacher can’t be replaced by an electronic device,” Wayne Township Superintendent Jeff Butts said Thursday, before the closure announcement. “I think we will see a significant reduction in the learning that will occur if this happens over a long period of time.”

Despite those concerns, however, Wayne is planning to offer online and paper-and-pencil schoolwork for students during the closure.

Staying ‘engaged intellectually’

Some districts faced pushback from parents for making the decision to close when there were no presumed cases of COVID-19 — which was true for all of the districts that made announcements Thursday night, including those in Marion, Boone and Hamilton counties.

Superintendents pointed to research from past outbreaks that found that school closures are much more effective at controlling the spread of disease when they happen early on. But they were quick to acknowledge the strain it puts on parents who rely on child care and the diminished value of online learning compared to in the classroom.

In Avon Schools, most students are completing lessons and speaking to their teachers online. The district became the first in the state to close on Monday after two students tested positive for COVID-19.

Teachers monitor who is logging on to complete the work and reach out to people who are missing lessons, Superintendent Hoernemann said. A new lesson is uploaded every day. One elementary teacher hosted a video meeting with all of her students at 7 p.m. so she could talk to them directly, Hoernemann said.

But some students who don’t have access to a computer or internet were given paper packets to complete and turn in when school resumes, which is expected to be after spring break on April 6. That means they won’t receive feedback from a teacher for weeks.

This potential drop-off in learning comes as the state would normally be preparing for standardized testing. Instead, the state has asked the federal government for forgiveness from all statewide tests. Indiana’s students in grades 3-8 are scheduled to take ILEARN between April 20 and May 15 — soon after some are expected to return from the closures.

If approved, the cancellation would mean parents and schools go a year without the typical feedback on their students’ performance. Although Indiana’s exams were already expected to be relatively low stakes because lawmakers approved a “hold-harmless” measure last month that will protect schools and teachers from negative consequences for low scores.

It could also make it easier for schools to cancel classwork entirely.

For Hoernemann, providing Avon’s children e-learning isn’t about performing well on a test. She said she doesn’t know yet if the district’s plans will change now that they are able to waive school days. But for now they plan to keep providing e-learning

“I think the advantage of using e-learning is that learning is continuing,” she said. “And I think that’s important not from the standpoint of, ‘oh my goodness, IREAD, ISTEP.’ It’s important because kids need to be engaged intellectually every day.”