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Online learning could find permanent niche as legacy of COVID-19

But questions of internet access and equity loom

Oct 16, 2020 at 7:11 pm
    Ann Lebo, director of the Iowa Department of Education, speaks to reporters March 22 about the state’s COVID-19 coronavirus response during a news conference at the State Emergency Operations Center in Johnston. (Kelsey Kremer/Des Moines Register pool)

    CEDAR RAPIDS — The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing Iowans to rethink how education is delivered — including permanently incorporating online learning tools and ramping up connectivity to equitably meet students’ needs at all levels statewide, school officials said Friday.

    Ann Lebo, director of the Iowa Department of Education, said federal grant money is enabling her agency to build an expanded online “e-learning central” platform designed to help “connect the state corner to corner” to better serve students with a greater menu of educational opportunities.

    School districts previously could apply to be online providers for some students, but legislation approved in response to the coronavirus outbreak broadly allows more remote learning options. Iowa officials are using a $17 million federal education grant to better connect schools while mitigating the costs, she told an audience Friday at The Gazette’s Iowa Ideas virtual conference.

    “I think what this whole experience is going to teach us is who does it serve well and what permanent place should it serve in our learning?” Lebo said.

    “It will have to be a permanent solution if we feel that this is something that we want to continue,” she added, “and I think this experience has probably taught us that it is, but we might need to rethink what it looks like so we’re actually bringing together a group of stakeholders to help shape that. And then as part of that process, have teachers involved and help building what that looks like as well.”

    Noreen Bush, superintendent of the Cedar Rapids Community School District, said online learning “absolutely” provides news opportunities but doesn’t replace the human relationships students, families and teachers need.

    Also, she said, the COVID-19 effects on education have raised “pronounced” concerns about equity and access to the internet.

    Bush said collaboration with other schools and educators and creative use of things like mobile “hot spots” or other innovations have enabled schools to break old ways of doing things and address some of those challenges.

    “There are a lot of puzzle pieces that have to move all the time. This is a giant puzzle and it’s shifting every day of how to respond and how to support individual students,” she said. “It’s forcing us to change. It’s forcing us to think differently.”

    State officials are working on the connectivity issues, Lebo said, with a goal that “we don’t want your ZIP code to be an inhibitor of your opportunity to learn.”

    Iowa Ideas panelist Trace Pickering, director of Iowa BIG, which is an education program that four Cedar Rapids-area school districts feed into for hands-on academic projects, said students who may have taken school for granted until COVID-19 closed them for six months came back this fall “doubly excited” and eager to take advantage of learning opportunities.

    Pickering said the pandemic also has made communities more open to change and “I’m excited by what I see” in the willingness to consider options that have been talked about for a long time but without much progress.

    Bush, whose district serves “upwards of 17,000” students and their families, said she is encouraged by the collaboration but noted educators also are feeling a “cascading” emotional stress due to the fluctuating situations they confront almost daily.

    “Our teachers have worked so, so hard,” she noted.

    “This is completely new for families and new for staff. I call it training ugly. We’re learning as we go and it’s not always pretty,” said Bush.

    She said schools have had to focus on essential curriculum and face challenges brought on by technology and infrastructure, noting “every day feels like first-year teaching for the most veteran teacher.”

    Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com

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