During discussion of Park Hill plans for fall
ark Hill school board members have expressed hesitancy about multiple reopening options proposed by superintendent Dr. Jeanette Cowherd as school officials seek to protect their nearly 12,000 students, staff members and community during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Following a district survey of about 600 teachers, 2,000 students and 1,000 families, a taskforce examined all the options for reopening schools. The district decided to offer parents and students an in-person option and a virtual learning option.
Cowherd warned those listening to the live-streamed school board meeting that “this will be a year like no other year.”
Cowherd proposed adding a hybrid learning option, which sparked quite a bit of confusion. The district previously laid the hybrid option to rest, citing it “could be a hardship for families and teachers.” Dr. Cowherd attempted to resurrect the option, saying the state recently provided funding for an alternative schedule of in-person and remote learning.
Under this hybrid option, on any given day roughly half of the student population would be in class and half would learn remotely.
“We want to have every option available for us, because we don’t know what is going to happen with the pandemic,” said Cowherd.
Scott Monsees, board member, made it clear he felt ambushed by Dr. Cowherd’s proposed hybrid option and vehemently rejected a discussion on it.
“I consider this completely against our board norms, because one of our board norms–for a long time–was no surprises,” said Monsees. “I am completely triggered right now so I will not be able to discuss this in a rational way, because I am adamant that we have to help our families that have been crushed by not being able to perform at their jobs.”
Monsees said the board discussed this option months ago and determined not to drift that direction.
“I don’t even want to discuss it,” said Monsees.
Right now, if the board starts discussing this option and changes its plan, then working families will be blindsided at the last minute, Monsees said. Rather than discussing the option now, he suggested holding a special board meeting in a few days.
“Well, I don’t like it,” said Monsees. “I think that is very bad for working families. I think it will put way too much stress on them.”
Kimberlee Ried, board president, and Janice Bolin, board vice president, said they wanted to continue the discussion and not waste any time.
“We are getting a significant amount of feedback that what we are doing isn’t enough, so are we ignoring that feedback by not even looking at this?” Bolin questioned.
Dr. Mike Kimbrel, assistant superintendent for academic services, explained the alternative option could be implemented when schools are faced with distance learning measures due to an increase in COVID-19 cases. The option would provide schools the flexibility to switch between plans if needed. So instead of switching to full distance learning, the hybrid option would allow students to attend school two days per week with remote instruction occurring the other two or three days.
The strategy of the alternative learning plan is that it creates a safer learning environment by guaranteeing more space for students.
“If we have moderate community spread and we are thinking we just need to thin out buildings, then that might be an option,” said Kimbrel.
Upon learning the blended option would only be implemented during school closures when there is a high risk of transmission of COVID-19 cases, Monsees said he would get behind the option.
In the face of intense reactions, Dr. Cowherd said she would continue to actively explore this option by contacting board members individually and possibly scheduling a special board meeting.
Changes to the district’s reopening plan would be late in the process but could foster stronger communication between teachers and students. The district only has a few weeks to figure it out before schools reopen on Aug. 24 and the deadline for families to sign up for online distance learning has already come and gone.
“I apologize for providing this at such a late moment and at such an emotional time,” said Cowherd.
Board members and parents expressed their frustration over the district’s inability to guarantee that students will get into the courses they want, specifically advanced placement courses.
“I feel like it is a legitimate concern for high school kids to have to sign up now (for online learning) not knowing what classes they’re going to get,” said Bolin. “What happens if they can’t get the classes they need?”
School officials say they will start with the course request students filled out when they enrolled earlier this year. The district will attempt to enroll students in their requested courses.
Bolin criticized the district’s communication and pointed out the tremendous decision students are faced with not knowing if they will get the courses they need.
“I feel like the communication around that has been a little unclear,” said Bolin. “Am I not reading everything we put out? Because it says in there you’re not guaranteed to get the courses you want.”
Jerusha Staggs, a mother of five who works in the district as a teacher assistant, wrote a letter to the school board expressing her concern over the ambiguity of online courses.
“I do not believe that it is safe for schools to reopen,” said Staggs. “With that said, I have questions and concerns about the availability of online courses for high school students. We are being forced to make a critical decision in three days with almost no information. Those of us who have inquired about AP classes have been told ‘I don’t know.’ Some of us feel we are being forced to send our children into an unsafe situation, because otherwise they would be educationally penalized.”
Cowherd acknowledged the district cannot guarantee that students will be enrolled in the courses they want.
“This is part of the challenges we are facing as an organization,” said Cowherd. “We have been asked to change our business model, totally, totally change our business model and create an online program. And I am proud of the work we did in Park Hill to provide the very best for all of our kids, but some of the challenges we have and the reason we have a deadline-and every district has a different deadline based on when they released the stuff-is first off we have to have applications from our teachers to teach online, we have to identify who has to teach that based on student enrollment requests, so I can’t identify teachers to teach those classes and identify which ones they are until I get the student requests.”
Bolin responded by saying she is “disappointed” with the district’s communication to parents, claiming parents and their children have been forced to make a “blind decision” without the necessary information.
Following the meeting, the district moved the deadline for families to sign up for virtual learning from Friday to Monday and clarified its handling of assigning courses.
According to newly released information, if the district has an insufficient number of students wanting to take a course or if the district doesn’t have a teacher, then the district will try to place the student in a course that is delivered by a non-Park Hill educator.
“If we cannot find the course for the student at all, we will contact the family to work through what other options we can offer to meet the student’s needs,” say district officials.
The district is not providing a grace period after the deadline for students to change their mind if they don’t get the courses they want.