Holding the students harmless

When the COVID-19 crisis hit and Governor Gavin Newsom began to talk about “stay-in-place” orders for California, Superintendent Todd Lile saw what was coming. It was just a matter of time until Madera Unified’s schools would close, the students would have to stay home. On March 13, 2020, the school board made that inevitable decision, and the district’s staff moved decisively to meet the challenge. Madera’s kids still had to be educated.

Meeting the enemy took the form of a two-pronged attack. First, teachers and students would have to use the Internet to conduct classes. This meant that every household would require Internet access and computers. Second, the district would have to have an integrated instructional plan that included staff development, parental involvement lesson plans, and brand new grading policies, all over the Internet.

While the tools for teaching during the crisis (internet access and computers) were being prepared and deployed, the district went to work on something called the Instructional Continuity Plan for Continuous Learning. Under the guidance of Sheryl Sisil, Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services, and Directors Janet Grossnicklaus, and Selma Gonzalez, Madera Unified staff designed a comprehensive strategy — a guide — for delivering instruction, distributing meals for students, and helping families with their social and emotional needs. The common threads holding the plan together were inclusiveness and equity, and the theme was “hold the students harmless.”

At the top of the list of the district’s concerns was maintaining contact with every home as the distance learning plan unfolded. Madera Unified wanted to ensure that there were no breakdowns in the system. Was the flow of information between teacher and student traveling unimpeded? Also, were there social or emotional problems out there caused by the crisis with which the district could help? For these reasons, a Student Care Check-in System was devised. The district would contact each household once a week.

The weekly contact would be initiated by the teachers. If that attempt was unsuccessful, the effort moved to each school’s office staff. If contact was still not made, the district office took up the task. Madera Unified was determined that no one would be left behind.

It was decided early on that distance learning for TK, K, and grade 1 could be conducted using hard copy materials — basically paper packets — prepared for students that would be picked up at each school. For grades 2 through 12, the bulk of distance learning would be accomplished through the Internet.

The long distance instruction would include learning activities that are essentially “spiral reviews” and extra practice. It would not include untaught skills or concepts. In addition, each teacher would establish daily office hours, 60 minutes in length, for individual problems that could crop up.

In addition to providing instruction for students, the Continuity of Learning Plan included training sites for teachers and charts of resources for them to make their online instruction more effective.

By April 1, the state had forwarded additional guidelines for distance learning. The district was encouraged to give due diligence to the education of every child, including the English language learners, the homeless, and children in foster care. With that, the district turned to the ticklish problem of grading, which was made a little easier to handle because of the timing. The third quarter (Q3) had just finished when the schools were closed, so all distance learning grades would be earned during the fourth quarter (Q4). That made the “hold harmless” rule easy to apply. No Q4 grade in any subject could be lower than the Q3 grade.

Resting on its “hold harmless” premise, the plan adopted a grading system in which no student’s grade would suffer because of work completed through distance learning. In TK, K, and grade 1, students would earn an O, S, N, or U. However, no grade could be lower than the Q3 grades.

At the 2-6 level, grades would be reflected in terms of A, B, C, Pass, or No Mark. Again, grades in Q4 could not be lower than grades in Q3.

In middle school, the same grading system for distance learning would prevail. Grades of A, B, C, Pass, and No Mark would be issued. Essentially, the Q4 report card grades for 7th and 8th would be the same as the Q3 grades. Grade point averages would still be calculated, but only the letter grades would be used.

The high school grading system, although tweaked just a bit, was basically the same as in the middle schools. Q4 grades would be issued as A, B, C, Pass, or No Mark, but none can be lower than the Q3 grades. The high school plan, however, was a little more complicated in that it had to deal with dual enrollment classes (classes taken in high school but which earned credit in college). It also had to deal with high school alternative education. In schools such as Mt. Vista, Ripperdan CDS, and Furman High, credit is earned for attendance. Three weeks of attendance earns one credit.

Another problem posed by the high school grading system was graduation. Unlike middle school, some high school students were allowed to improve their Q3 grades during Q4 because their graduation depended on it. Also, in a few instances graduation waivers could be obtained, but these would be decided on a case by case basis.

A final item took some of the stress out of the crisis. There will be no annual 2-12 state testing this year.

The Instructional Continuity Plan for Continuous Learning was presented to the school board at its meeting on April 21 by Sisil, Grossnicklaus, and Gonzalez. It drew enthusiastic support from the five trustees who were present (Clerk Brent Fernandes and Trustee Ed McIntyre were absent). Superintendent Lile, ecstatic over what had been accomplished, called the work “unique in the Valley.”

The only negative comments heard during the meeting came from Amanda Wade, vice president of the Madera teachers’ union. She lamented the fact that the kindergarten and 1st grade students could not be included in the digitized distance learning. Wade urged that the TK, K, and grade 1 students be given chromebooks and allowed to participate in learning over the Internet.

Wade had high praise for MUTA teachers for their work in planning and implementing Madera Unified’s distance learning plan.