FARGO — Starting Wednesday, April 1, around 9 a.m., students across Fargo and West Fargo will open up their school-issued laptops and personal smartphones, and start a new type of education. E-school, or distance learning.
Public schools in West Fargo plan to begin slowly on March 30, with a goal of allowing students, teachers and parents time to learn how to interact and share virtual office hours. In an e-conference Friday, March 27, Moorhead School District Superintendent Brandon Lunak said distance learning classes start on Monday, March 30, and the plan is to resume traditional classes May 5.
When public and private school districts closed two weeks ago due to the coronavirus pandemic, they raced to create distance learning programs that in some cases may last to the end of the school year. Although specifics vary, the plans that Fargo, West Fargo and Moorhead school districts came up with include e-classes at least twice a week and personal time with teachers during “office hours” as well as once every three days. The system combines eight weeks of pre-recorded lectures and learning videos mixed with reading assignments and time spent in a program called Zoom, like Skype or Facetime, which allows students to see and interact with their classmates and teachers.
“As a district any time we want to provide something new for our students, we want to do it right,” Fargo Public School Superintendent Rupak Gandhi said.
Gandhi acknowledged the difficulty of a school district to be “nimble and quick” with 3,600 employees and 11,348 students, but the district’s plan was submitted to the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction on Tuesday, March 24.
“We don’t expect this to be perfect, but we also know that in no means is this a replacement at the same level of instruction our students would get. And also, this does require parents to have some responsibility as well,” Gandhi said. “This is a learning experience for us, and we know there are a group of students that could benefit from an additional learning model, and maybe some will have experiences down the road that we can capitalize on. And this does require parents to have some responsibility as well.”
All school districts will continue special education courses, English learner individualized packages and online counseling services.
“We will have new experiences, some will be great and some will be challenges,” said Allen Burgad, West Fargo Public School secondary assistant superintendent, during a school Facebook live stream on Wednesday, March 25.
“We truly miss you,” Burgad said of students. “We are going to be with you. We’re going to do the best we possibly can to make the next two months memorable for you.”
Although resuming traditional classes on May 5 is the current plan for Moorhead Public Schools, circumstances may change, Superintendent Brandon Lunak said.
“I think when it comes to graduation, if you’re a senior and you're graduating in the 2020 class, we believe that we owe you a graduation, and we believe we will deliver on that,” Lunak said. “These are unprecedented times and I am continuously amazed how this community pulls together. We pull together in challenging times and put students' needs first, we care for our neighbors and we won’t back down. Not only will we overcome together, we will thrive in the midst of this."
Internet and supplies
Most families have access to the internet in Fargo, and in West Fargo, up to 98% of students have internet access, but for those that don’t the school districts are working with Midco to help supply access for four months, free of charge, school administrators said.
Moorhead’s situation was similar, but Lunak said that he is now confident that by working with broadband providers every student will have online access to distance learning.
Personal learning devices, which resemble small laptops, are provided already to all students in middle school and high school. Elementary students have access to electronic devices that resemble iPads.
Not all parents can be home during the daytime, even during the pandemic, so students will not be graded or penalized for attendance records in Fargo or West Fargo. Truancy, although not a thing of the past, will not be traditionally enforced.
“Our plan is based on student mastery of their objectives, which we will assess through the completion of their work and not based on availability at a certain time in front of a screen," Gandhi said.
Flexibility was important when designing the plans.
“If a student, for whatever reason, cannot be present at that time — maybe they are watching a younger brother or sister, something came up and they are ill — all of the sessions will be recorded and they can go back and watch them at a later date,” said Robert Grosz, associate superintendent of Fargo Public Schools. A questionnaire will act as proof that every student fulfilled their assignments.
In Moorhead, student attendance will be taken daily through a teacher taking attendance during an interactive lesson or through assignment completion.
The goal for younger children is to complete a home learning board each week with 20 activities that will cover five disciplines: literacy, exercise, art, regulation and numbers, or LEARN. Students select one activity per discipline per day through the learning board, Gandhi said.
Families who don’t have internet access will be able to utilize school-issued Chromebook laptops with eight weeks of pre-recorded material, Gandhi said.
“Technology is not an absolute necessity for the elementary level,” Gandhi said. “For those that don’t have that technology access, we’re providing that.”
Students and teachers can access an academic hotline with rotating teachers Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
West Fargo Public Schools plan to use a program called Seesaw for their elementary students. In Moorhead, kindergarteners will have a weekly guide with video clips and direct contact with teachers through emails, digital meetings and telephone calls.
Middle and high schools
The current school day will be mirrored virtually and students will find weekly assignments through a software tool called EDUcal, which they are already familiar with, Grosz said.
“It’s almost like their assignment book, but it is electronic,” Grosz said. “Over the course of the week students will be working on those activities that are posted. Teachers will be there virtually through Zoom to meet with their students.”
Teachers will lecture through Zoom, or depending on the type of assignment, students will be able interact with their teachers and classmates online, Grosz said.
Teachers will post a week’s worth of activity in EDUcal, which will be available for middle schoolers on Monday mornings, and for high schoolers every Friday.
West Fargo Public Schools will primarily use a program called Schoology for secondary students. Fargo secondary students will use a program called Google Classroom. High school students will also use programs called Moodle and LMS.
Moorhead students will use Chromebooks with daily lessons and live interactions with teachers and classmates.
Students’ grades will be based mostly off of online feedback from assignments, Grosz said. Grades will be formed through students completing assignments on their devices to create evidence of their learning.
In West Fargo, students will still receive letter grades and GPAs, according to Burgad.
While businesses across the country are forced to send workers home, all employees of the Fargo Public School District will be paid for regularly scheduled hours, Gandhi said.
School officials are looking at putting skills into appropriate places, pushing all employees to work from home, but also asking employees to perform different tasks while the pandemic continues.
All Moorhead School District employees are performing regular duties, or filling in other areas such as mobile student meal preparation and delivery, or helping with emergency child care services.