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curiousKC | Flexible School Schedules May Become New Normal

Pandemic Exposed Need for Educators to Innovate for Working Families

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Above image credit: COVID-19 has forced schools to embrace alternative schedules. (Photo | Unsplash)

For some parents, fatigue is cresting as they carry the burden of being a breadwinner and monitoring virtual school for their children.

Full-time nurse and mother two Charity Morris was spinning plates even before the pandemic. After her older son’s school switched to virtual learning, Morris said the “level of difficulty rose exponentially.

“Being out of the home, I am unable to ensure my child logs into their virtual classes in a timely manner,” Morris said. “It looks like my child is truant because I can’t be there to get him off to school.”

Morris knows a number of parents who also struggle with virtual learning, which is what prompted her to ask CuriousKC if “there will ever be more flexibility in schedules so that working parents can be more available to assist their children with coursework.”

There might not be enough time left during this school year to enact meaningful change for working parents. However, the pandemic has shifted the way that schools see the role of a brick and mortar building. And that means schedule flexibility could very well be on the horizon post-pandemic.

Take Kansas City Public Schools, for example. When the pandemic hit, students were given two learning options.

The Kansas City Virtual Learning Academy allowed students to take Missouri-approved online courses on their own time. There is a timeline for completing work by the end of the semester, but outside of that there are no time constraints. Students can take classes on a schedule that works for them and their parents.

The other option was the Distant Learning Model, in which students were assigned to a teacher from their home campus and have a more traditional school schedule that they experience virtually.

When Kansas City schools begin transitioning back to in-person classes on March 15, only students using the Distance Learning Model will begin returning to the building on a modified schedule.

Superintendent Mark Bedell feels proud of the way the district’s teachers have gone above and beyond to aid students. But he knows that the past year has been especially challenging for parents and guardians.

“Ultimately, we recognize that a lot of our parents have to work and it can be very difficult to keep up with a kid,” Bedell said. “And that’s part of the reason why we wanted to make sure that we had academic advisors and teachers who could reach directly out to kids that were falling behind.”

A 2020 study from Brown University projected a 63-68% loss in reading gains and a 37-50% loss in math gains for students adjusting to virtual learning.

With that in mind, it should be good news that, according to Bedell, the future of education is looking more flexible.

Outside the Box

“When the district challenged us to think outside the box, we were ready for it,” said Northeast High School Principal Dr. Waymond Ervin.

Since October 2020, Northeast High School has been mapping out its night school program called Viking Night Owls, which allows students to attend online school from 6 – 8 p.m.

The idea was born out of a need to aid working students.

“What we saw as a data trend was as this pandemic went further along, we had more and more students stepping up to help their families out,” Ervin said.

All students at Northeast High School are on the free and reduced lunch program. With parents and family members losing work during the pandemic, many students had to find employment to make ends meet. Freshmen as young as 14 years old were requesting special paperwork to get a job.

Even with teachers making personal house calls to check in on students who weren’t logging on to virtual class, attendance and participation rates were troubling.

Rather than shrugging and handing out a slew of truancy letters, school Vice Principal Vondragas Smalley started to dream up the night school program.

Vondragas Smalley, vice principal of Northeast High School.
Vondragas Smalley, vice principal of Northeast High School. (Contributed | Vondragas Smalley)

When it launched, more than 150 of the school’s 615 students signed up. The school quickly found that it wasn’t just helping working students.

Many teachers had been reporting that when students were asked to interact virtually, the response was oftentimes limited to a quick “yes” or “no” accompanied by a burst of noise from their surrounding environment.

It wasn’t necessarily that they didn’t want to participate, but they didn’t want the whole class to hear their sibling’s music or neighbors yelling.

Additionally, many high school students are responsible for watching their younger siblings while their parents are at work. All of these scenarios make it exceptionally difficult for students to focus.

“The night school gives them a time period where they maybe have a chance to be alone, where they can actually focus with their teacher and ask questions,” Ervin said.

Another party satisfied with the night school option is working parents.

The high school historically has found it difficult to communicate with working parents and guardians. By the time the adult was home from work, the school was closed and there was no one to answer the phone. With an additional time from 6-8 p.m., parents have welcomed the chance to interact with teachers and help monitor their student’s learning.

Ervin said that since the night school launched, they have been seeing students who have never logged onto virtual school before.

Northeast High School plans on continuing to offer night school as an option post-pandemic.

“This pandemic has challenged the traditional ideals and the traditional schedule because this generation is more technologically sound,” Smalley said. “So how can we use technology for our best benefit moving forward? That’s the question that I think we as a community and as a city have to think about.”

Some parents such as Morris may have to continue their balancing act for the rest of this semester. But their challenges during the pandemic exposed a need that is now being met for future students and parents.

Catherine Hoffman covers community affairs and culture for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.

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