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Local

Do no harm: As distance learning extends, districts implement, adjust state guidelines

The refrain came up frequently talking to educators about approaches to distance learning as districts prepare for long-term closures – do no harm.

While some districts are planning on adding new material into the mix as most are entering the second full week of remote learning, many are focused on review and enrichment. But regardless of the strategy, all the districts are acting on the Illinois State Board of Education's main mandate of doing no harm.

With the schools now remaining closed until at least April 30, many already had longer-term contingency plans in place.

Corey Tafoya, superintendent at Harvard, said the online curriculum taking shape in his district is discouraging teachers from introducing new material.

"It was a lot of adjustment," said Tafoya, whose district, like many others, had a week of online learning and a week of spring break over the past two weeks since governor JB Pritzker's original order closing all schools. "For the teachers, it's figuring out 'What is my role as a teacher if I'm so used to grading but now am doing no harm as my guiding principle. How do I do that?'"

The district has instituted Wednesdays as a staff development day, where there are still some lessons for students but interactions with staff are limited. It gives the teachers a chance to plan out lessons a week in advance.

Tafoya said Harvard schools have take-home Chromebooks for all students in kindergarten and above. But that doesn't guarantee wifi access on a specific schedule, as well as a host of other potential issues.

"We've started thinking less daily and more weekly," Tafoya said. "We really don't know what's happening on the other end of that computer. We don't know when students are doing it. There may be a mom and dad working from home with two kids and they're all competing for wifi bandwidth."

Tafoya said the main thrust is the do no harm guideline issued by the ISBE means Harvard is making sure no one is hurt by the at-home curriculum.

"It's a real challenge for teachers," Tafoya said. "A teacher's life is so much about feedback and grades, and what does that look like in the middle of a pandemic. What's the role of grades here and now? It's taken some re-discovery to make sure we're not holding someone to a standard they have no way of completing."

Kaneland has actually been in school for the past two weeks – this week is the district's spring break.

Superintendent Todd Layten also talked about the importance of the do no harm guideline set by the ISBE.

Layten said the first two weeks of curriculum were set by the district's director of education services, but starting next week when classes pick back up the curriculum will be coming from the teachers.

"The effect is more that the only grading we're doing is that it can only help a student," Layten said. "We've kind of followed the ISBE guideline of do no harm. We're only doing things to enhance grades. The staff is taking a look at each student and set up individual plans based on students."

Like Kaneland, Crystal Lake School District 155 has 1:1 take-home electronics for its students.

Scott Shepard, assistant superintendent for the district, said the district had a staff development day Monday to get teachers up to speed on remote learning. Last week was the district's spring break.

While Shepard said numbers were low in the first week of remote learning, he expects that to change. That first week was covered by act of god days and did not need to be made up. But with the schools closed until at least April 30, those act of god days are over.

And with that, Shepard said, should be an increase in participation.

"We've heard from a lot of parents and students that want to be engaged and we're moving forward with opportunities to engage with them," Shepard said. "With 1:1 every student has a Chromebook so I don't think that's a huge issue for us. It's an advantage of being a high-school only district."

After the professional development day, Shepard said the curriculum was distributed to parents and students. He said teachers identified about three to five critical pieces of curriculum that will be woven into the lessons.

Even before Pritzker's extension of the stay in place order came down on Tuesday afternoon, schools were preparing for it, and longer remote learning lessons.

DeKalb superintendent Jamie Craven said before the extension he didn't think schools would be back April 8 and were planning accordingly.

And like all the administrators, he said the parents and community have been supportive in uncertain times.

"They have been absolutely wonderful working with us as we've navigated through this," Craven said. "As I've shared in emails to parents and teaches, nothing replaces that interaction between a teacher and a student, but right now this is the best platform we have."

- Kaleb Carter contributed to this story.

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