Matt Grose is the Superintendent of ISD 318, which includes schools in the Grand Rapids, Cohasset, and Bigfork area. Matt has more than 25 years of experience in education as a superintendent, principal, and teacher. In this installment of United Way's 'Ask the Expert' series, he reflects on how students have been affected by COVID-19 and shares how schools are giving students the support they need to be successful despite the pandemic.
What is the typical day in the life “day-in-the-life” of an ISD 318 student these days?
There really isn’t a normal day-in-the-life for our students right now. The school year started with an all in-person learning model, during which students had to wear masks and do their best to stay socially distanced. In the fall, schools shifted to hybrid mode, where most students come to school on alternating days to reduce the number of students in buildings and maintain social distancing. During hybrid, one group of students comes on Mondays and Thursdays, another group comes on Tuesdays and Fridays, and they are online the other days.
Some parents have made the choice for their students to be fully distance learning every day, and as COVID community spread affected our ability to have enough teachers and staff to operate, we shifted into what was called a “reset” – a period of distance learning for all students. In the distance learning model, our older students attend a virtual 7-period school day and our younger students participate through a mix of online video, live video with their teachers, and schoolwork. This may continue to shift throughout the year, but our aim as a school district has been to keep as many kids in school as much as we safely can. When we bring students back to in-person schooling, we consider how to do so slowly and methodically so as not to overwhelm the system.
Overall, we have students in a variety of different settings that are often changing, which is part of what makes what we are doing right now so difficult. Shifting between in-person, hybrid, and distance learning models creates uncertainty. Teachers are preparing, teaching, assessing, and supporting students in many different ways – often all at the same time. Our support staff are also doing their work differently, whether that is on the bus, serving lunch, or supporting individual students.
In general, how are students doing right now?
Some students are thriving, some students are doing okay, and some are really struggling. The current environment amplifies typical dynamics, so we are leaning on various data to stay in touch with what is happening. We track data related to attendance, whether students are physically in class or logging in online. We also track academic performance data to see if students are learning, turning in their work, and staying engaged. New data systems put in place this year offer a tighter turnaround, so we are tracking data more frequently so it can inform instruction.
In cases where students are struggling, our staff is connecting and reaching out to find out why a kid has not engaged, how they are doing, and what they are struggling with. We definitely have challenges, and disparities are amplified when students aren't with us. The only place where we can ensure that a child is well-fed, well-cared-for, and well-educated is if they are with us in school. That isn’t to say that some parents aren’t doing a good job at home – it’s just that, when students are not in school, those are all variables, and these variables can create an environment that can lead to inequities. That is why having kids in school as much as possible has been our goal from the beginning.
What are the challenges in adapting to the current situation and what resources are available to help students?
One challenge is that we are in an environment where internet connectivity is part of our learning model, but not all kids have internet access. To help with this, we collaborated with the city of Bigfork to increase internet bandwidth at city hall so students can go there during the day if they need internet access. We have also issued hundreds of internet hotspots in partnership with community partners, and we are investing in hotspots and data to try and decrease the gap. However, hotspots only work where there's cell coverage, which can be a problem in a rural district like ours.
Students also need engagement from adults in their learning, and that level of support can be very different depending on individual family circumstances. For example, some parents are working outside the home during the school day, and that can create a challenge regarding childcare. The Boys and Girls Club has played an important role as an after-school partner in the past and they have really stepped up to help during the day and offer childcare for workers that need it. Our school district has also been offering childcare, staffed by school employees, for parents who work in essential areas such as healthcare, public safety, and food distribution. Students in these childcare programs can be spaced out and have the opportunity to log in and access the online resources they need for classes.
We’re also addressing the general well-being needs of our students. Food security can be an issue when students aren’t at school, so our district sends meals home, does some deliveries, and offers meals for pick-up for families that need it. Mental health is a large concern for both students and staff. We’ve partnered with organizations such as Second Harvest and North Homes to navigate these challenges, which we’re very grateful for. It really takes a village to support the complex and varied needs of our students.
What are some of positives that have come out of this situation?
It’s a huge win that this has forced us to standardize our online learning platforms. Last spring, we were running a variety of different software platforms and that was confusing for kids and parents. It was the best we could do at the time, but now the systems have been standardized and everyone knows where to go. It’s opened up communication between the school and home, and now we can stay connected to students in a new and better way.
I’m proud of the effort in the care that's being put out there. People are working long hours and putting others' needs above their own. This situation has forced us as a school system to examine everything that we're doing, from what cleaning looks like to how our buses are scheduled, to how we’re communicating to what our curriculum looks like. Everyone has had to be nimble and flexible. I'm so impressed and grateful that people have been doing whatever it takes to help kids be successful.
How will COVID-19 impact students’ learning in the long-term?
Dealing with learning loss is going to be a high priority for all school districts coming out of this pandemic. We know that most kids learn best when they are in school, so there is going to be some degree of learning loss that we need to remediate.
To identify gaps in student learning, we will first need to identify who is behind because it’s not an accurate assumption to make that all students are behind. To know who is behind, you must have a way to measure achievement and progress, and our new assessment system does give us data on how kids are doing. The data system allows us to know the specific standards that kids are behind in so that our teachers can group kids and provide interventions.
We are also planning to increase the support for students’ interventions outside of the normal school year. We have a program in the area called Targeted Services, which is a learning academy focused on students who are behind. By ramping up Targeted Services, we can be more strategic, efficient, and scaled in addressing learning loss. Transportation costs will be an issue because they are not usually fully funded for summer programs, and we will have to adjust our meal programs. However, we are also looking at how online schooling, Zoom, and everything we have learned over the pandemic could help make summer schooling more attainable and accessible.
What can we, as a community, do to support our students?
The biggest thing the community can do is to sacrifice what we want to do for fun as adults to help kids stay in school. Individually, this means changing behaviors and avoiding gatherings that drive case rates up. We need to do what we can to keep schools safe because, as data shows, most children are doing their best learning when they're in the classroom.
The second thing we can do is focus on mental health and understanding. We are all feeling pressure and stress so there is a big need to support each other. People are doing their best. We're doing amazing things that have never been done before. It's not perfect, and we know that, but everybody's working hard. A lot of what is happening is out of our control, but what is in our control is how we treat people. This is an opportunity for everyone to model kindness and grace for our students and community.