Schools Hit a Few Bumps as Madison Takes On Challenges of Pandemic Learning
School is back in session in Madison and, in a year that’s rife with unpredictability, the first week provided some challenges.
A fire alarm caused by a faulty sensor at Polson Middle School on the very first day of school delayed buses, according to Communications Specialist Zoe Roos, and parents on social media said a number of students were evacuated, risking some of the crowding issues that the new hybrid model has sought to avoid.
The district is also working to adjust to the loss of some number of teachers at Polson Middle School, according to Principal Kathryn Hart, and parents and students have reported both technical hiccups as well as other struggles in adapting to the new hybrid model.
Six total certified staff in the district are not available this year, according to district Human Resources Director Heather Dobson, with two having resigned and four on leave.
Additionally, the schools are still waiting on shipments of Chromebook computers that will allow all students to participate in three days a week of distance learning as prescribed by the hybrid model, with not every student having access to that technology as of right now.
Interim Superintendent of Schools Dr. JeanAnn Paddyfote told The Source that a shipment of 200 Chromebooks is expected by the end of the month, with another 100 ordered, though she said they didn’t know when the second shipment would arrive.
In the meantime, students are being equipped with older model Chromebooks the district had in reserve, according to Paddyfote. She also stopped short of promising that the district was able to provide every single student with a Chromebook, or that the first shipment would give Madison a “1-to-1” ratio of devices to students.
“Most if not all students have a Chromebook. We wanted them to have a newer type of Chromebook, but I think that we’ve taken all the stock that we have. We have everything in the hands of kids,” she said.
Even with these bumps, however, both administration and students said they were grateful to be back in the classrooms after the long absence as Madison aims for an eventual return to some kind of normalcy.
“Everyone’s quite happy to be back in school,” said student liaison Eric Dilner at a recent Board of Education (BOE) meeting. “Even the teachers were ecstatic to actually teach as they used to in the classrooms, to be able to write something up on the board...Everyone’s very excited.”
Daniel Hand High School Principal T.J. Salutari said at the BOE meeting that the district had welcomed about 30 more high school students than they had originally anticipated and that there had been “a little more anxiety” in the first couple days, though students were settling in by early last week.
“I’ve been really impressed with the opening,” Salutari said. “We’ve had a really seamless opening, considering.”
Traffic has been a significant issue, according to Salutari and others, with “minimal bus attendance” and many students being dropped off or driving themselves.
Madison’s elementary school principals—Becky Frost of Jeffrey and Kelly Spooner of Ryerson—both acknowledged there might be no easy answer for traffic issues that clog roads and increase drop-off and pick-up times.
“Thank you to parents for your patience, for the Madison Police Department for your support...I look forward to just improving and tweaking things every day as we go on,” Frost said.
Paddyfote told The Source that some issues have been alleviated as the district has seen a slight uptick in bus-riders since the beginning of school.
“Because buses don’t have a lot of students on them, we’re encouraging parents to let students ride the bus, and/or carpool,” she said.
Paddyfote reiterated that police have been “a wonderful resource,” and said the department would be working with schools on traffic through the end of this month.
Technical issues as students and teachers adapt to new software and the simultaneous distance and in-person learning that includes live-streams into classrooms were common in the first few days, but Hart said at least at Polson, it was “nothing that can’t be resolved.”
“Students are following all of the protocols, staff are enforcing them—things are going very smoothly with that, which is great,” she said.
Hart said they “rolled with the punches” during the opening-day accidental fire alarm, and thanked parents and emergency responders for making sure everything stayed calm and everyone got to where they needed to go.
The BOE’s other student liaison, Isabelle Vagell, said that the distance learning part of the hybrid model was a “net positive” in the first couple days, though she also spoke about the harshness and struggle of “sitting in front of a screen all day.”
“Everyone found it mentally and physically exhausting,” she said. “People’s eyes were getting tired—people were starting to literally cry from staring at a screen all day long. People were having to leave, but getting in trouble for leaving their screen...so there was a lot of stress and anxiety caused by all of that.”
Vagell said students hoped that they could have a consistent, concrete amount of time they had to be on camera in front of the screen in each class so they can “plan and structure their day.”
Some classes have students designated to monitor the list of at-home learners who are viewing classrooms from home to alert the teacher to any issues, and she said she hoped that could become a universal practice at least at higher grade levels.
Assistant Superintendent of Schools Gail Dahling-Hench had previously said that 7th- to 12th-grade students would have a maximum of 5 hours required screen time per day, and grades K to 6 would have a maximum of 4.25 hours.
Paddyfote characterized these numbers as a goal rather than a strict requirement, and said there is “variation” across subject area and grade level. The screen time requirements also explicitly do not apply to high school students taking advanced AP or ECE classes, she said, where the level of content knowledge is higher based on year-end tests.
“[Screen time] is certainly less than the school day,” Paddyfote said, “but a fair amount of time.”
For younger grades, Paddyfote said the “expectation” was that students would have a “to-do” part of every lesson that would not necessarily be in front of screen or live on videoconference, and that it was reasonable to expect that these younger students would “mostly” stay at or under the 4.25 goal.
BOE member Greg DeSantis asked Vagell to return with another update on student experiences with the hybrid model in two weeks.