|Fort Thomas Independent Schools will begin Fall Semester digitally on August 31. The plan is to bring students who opted to be on campus this semester onsite on September 28 in keeping with the governor's lastest recommendation.|
By Robin Gee
Only a few hours before the August school board meeting, Fort Thomas Independent Schools received the news of Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear's recommendation to delay in-person instruction until September 28.
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The district had been working over the summer to develop flexible plans for fall as recommended start dates became a moving target. In July, district officials presented a plan to open to those students who opted for on-campus instruction starting August 26. In response to the latest regulations, however, the school announced a digital only start date of August 31 with plans to welcome students onto campus on September 28.
Decision meets some resistance in other districts
The governor’s decision caused some confusion and some defiance as the dust settled over the following days. Most schools, like Fort Thomas, had prepared for all contingencies and were able and committed to adjust to the “digital only” start in keeping with state health guidelines.
While most schools across Kentucky are complying, a few districts chose not to follow the recommendation and to go ahead with plans to open up in-person instruction in the next week or two. The Williamston Independent School District board voted to ignore the recommendation and continue with its plan to hold in-person classes on August 26 for children whose families selected that option in their district.
Other districts are complying with the order but have reached out to Kentucky Interim Education Commissioner Kevin Brown to ask for further discussion of possible alternatives.
In Northern Kentucky, public school districts are complying with the governor’s recommendation, but most notably the Diocese of Covington has issued a statement that they will open schools as planned starting August 17. View the school's letter outlining its August 17 start here.
What will happen to those schools and districts that do not follow the health recommendations? While the recommendation is not a mandate, Brown told the Lexington Herald Leader in an interview today that those districts who defy the order will face consequences.
The first step will be to try to work things out with the district but, if that fails, an order to shut down is a possibility, something state agencies have authority to do.
Advanced planning helps Fort Thomas follow health recommendations
About 20 parents attended the school board meeting, most expressing confusion and concern about the start date and the nature of digital and remote instruction. School Board Chair Karen Allen agreed that the last-minute nature of the change caused concern but assured parents that careful planning had enabled the schools to pivot to temporary digital learning and start school in August as intended.
"We did not know about the change until after 3 p.m. today, but we had talked about the different scenarios, and we were certainly prepared. We will start school August 31 with the goal to be in-person at the end of September. This will have no impact on the number of instructional days ...," she said.
While schools across the state scrambled to adjust schedules, Fort Thomas schools were able to take advantage of a number of non-instructional days already built into the school calendar. The days had been set aside for teachers to use for planning and other purposes. By moving those dates around to the beginning of the semester, school officials were able to keep the same number of instructional hours and teacher contract hours and allow for students to still be able to begin the fall semester on August 31.
Options for fall semester
Earlier this summer, the schools surveyed parents, offering them two choices for the fall semester — full remote learning and in-person instruction on campus in keeping with health and safety guidelines. To make the plan work, families were asked to commit for a full semester in either mode. This allowed for the schools to arrange for safe distances and other health requirements within school buildings.
Ninety-one percent of families chose in-person instruction. In addition to nine percent of students who opted for remote learning, a group of teachers also opted to work remotely. These teachers would be assigned cohorts of remote students to help support instruction.
Built into the plan for in-person learning was the understanding that if things changed, those students who opted for on-campus might be asked to go to an off-campus digital instruction mode known as NTI, or nontraditional instruction. The hope was for NTI to be used temporarily in response to health and safety needs and requirements.
Planning pays off for all
A team of educators, health department officials and community members worked throughout the summer in teams to develop a highly detailed plan and website designed to keep parents, teachers and students informed as the process of returning to school unfolded.
The FTIS Healthy at School website outlines plans and how they align to the most current health and safety guidelines. It also describes the different modes of instruction, and how the district plans to ensure all students receive the same level of quality instruction.
The district developed the return-to-school plan in keeping with advice from state and county health officials but allowed for each school building to customize and build upon the district plan as it pertains to their own school populations. The website provides links to each school building so parents can see how the overall plan fits into each school.
Also on the website are detailed instructions for students, staff and parents about requirements for safety at school as well as specifics on how different health-related issues will be handled. A robust “Frequently Asked Questions” section is maintained to address issues and concerns as they arise.
Working closely with health officials
Assistant Superintendent for Student Services Jamee Flaherty has been leading efforts to develop a strategic plan to address all aspects of the current COVID-19 challenges, especially for in-person contact.
Information is posted on the Healthy at School website that includes details from the cleaning of building, food preparation and service, cleaning supplies and equipment, to the training needed for staff and faculty throughout the crisis.
She has provided a flow chart that is being consistently updated to accommodate new information and data.
Efforts to ensure quality learning for all
In addition to plans for in-person learning, a team has been working specifically on ensuring NTI goes well. While school officials admitted that NTI at the end of last semester was more of a triage effort, they have been working with parents and teachers since that time to improve the instruction in case it was needed.
Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning Bill Bradford said the team is working to ensure consistency throughout the NTI program. They are planning to use Microsoft Teams technology but are examining how other programs, such as Zoom, might be helpful in augmenting the instruction.
New Director of Technology Jody Johnson is working on the technology plan and videoconferencing capabilities of the technology, Bradford said.
Remote learning plans
"Our commitment to remote learning is that we meet students’ academic and social/emotional needs the same as students attending onsite...We have focused on a well-rounded and immersive experience, one that is equitable with in-person instruction," Bradford said.
The goal for the program, he said, is to ensure remote students will be at the same place as in-person students when it comes time for all students to return to campus.
He said programs selected for remote learning underwent an intensive vetting process. The team wanted a high quality learning experience that aligned with Fort Thomas education goals.
They selected two main programs. For k-5th grade, they selected Edgenuity Pathblazer, and for sixth through 12th grades, the program will be Edmentum. The course catalog for Edmentum aligns best with Fort Thomas curriculum and follows the College Board requirements.
These programs are also aligned with Kentucky academic standards, he said.
An important goal of the remote learning experience will be to provide as much social and collaborative learning as possible. Students will be assigned a remote teacher to assist with the self-directed learning portions of the programs. That teacher will be an experienced Fort Thomas teacher who has direct experience to the specific grade levels they are assigned. Much like a homeroom teacher, students will be in that person’s class.
A team of counselors and other support staff will also be on hand to work with the remote students. Every effort will be made, Bradford said, to include remote students in the life of their schools.
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"We recognize that connectedness and community is so important. We want to replicate that for our students...we anticipate a big week as we go back to school as students find out who their teachers will be... I have complete confidence in the teachers who will be working in this capacity. They are ready, willing, able and excited to take on this challenge."
He noted that other programs have been included to augment learning such as IXL that will provide Spanish language instruction for k-5th grade remote learners. The schools plan to engage students in as many extracurricular opportunities online as possible, and will look for ways to bridge connections between on-campus and remote students.
Plans are also in place to accommodate exceptional students, from those who need support and have education plans to those considered gifted who many need additional challenges.
He noted the following logistical points:
- There will be a virtual orientation for parents and students.
- Families have been asked to make a full semester commitment.
- Remote learners are eligible for extracurriculars.
- Remote learners will remain remote even when on-campus students are switched to NTI.
- It is recommended strongly that students stay with the remote program throughout the semester to ensure consistency and to best prepare them for returning to school.