Hope of in-person summer classes shattered

Opening school for July courses was seen as key to helping struggling students but pandemic forces online program
Ozaukee Press staff

The Port Washington-Saukville School District’s hope that students could return to classrooms for summer school  — a move seen as key to helping those who struggled to learn online during the school year — has been shattered by the lingering pandemic. 

The district announced last week that instead of reopening schools that have been shuttered since mid-March it will offer online summer school courses tailored to students who have fallen behind academically during the shutdown.

Supt. Michael Weber said the district’s decision was based on guidance from state education and health officials.

“The decision to offer online classes was made because we did not receive confirming information from Wisconsin Health Services or the Department of Public Instruction that in-person classes would be safe,” he said. “And by the end of May DPI was recommending that we plan for online learning this summer.”

The DPI order that closed schools expires  at the end of June, but with no indication yet of what rules or guidance will follow, the district had to finalize plans and open registration for a summer program that will run from July 6 through July 31, Weber said. 

“Summer school is quite a venture, and to put this all together at the end of June wouldn’t have worked,” he said. 

This year’s summer school program, aside from being online, will be vastly different than the usual plethora of enrichment classes. The focus will be on teaching students what they didn’t learn during the school year in core subjects, although it’s also intended to be a “launch pad” for students who want to stay academically sharp headed into the regular school year, Weber said.

Students in kindergarten through eighth grade will take three academic classes — reading, writing and math — and one enrichment course they can choose from a pared list. 

At the high school, the courses will primarily be remedial with the exception of an in-person physical conditioning course of about 50 students who will be divided into four or five groups and spread out on the high school football field.

The summer school decision comes after a sobering assessment of online education from principals at the end of April.

“I would say about 15% of our students are not as engaged as we’d like them to be,” Port Washington High School Principal Eric Burke told the School Board on April 27. “We’re hunting down these kids one by one and saying, ‘What’s going on? How can we help you?’”

The Port High grading policy was changed to allow students to opt for traditional letter grades or pass/fail marks in all their courses. Burke said 150 of the school’s roughly 800 students chose the pass/fail option. 

Asked this week if he thinks online summer classes can help students learn what they didn’t during the school year, Burke said, “It’s going to be a challenge.”

The school’s student support team will recommend options to students who need to make up for incomplete or failing work and encourage them to enroll in the optional summer classes, which could be one of the most significant challenges, Burke said. 

“For students who just got done with online learning, I don’t know how much incentive there will be to do online learning again during the summer unless parents push their kids to do it,” he said. 

At Thomas Jefferson Middle School, Principal Steve Sukawaty said in April that as many as 20% of students were struggling at the time. While the majority of students were “doing the best they can,” some suffered from the lack of face-to-face support that had helped them succeed academically but is impossible to replicate with online instruction, he said. 

“While we have done our level best to provide that support, it is not the same as face-to-face instruction,” he wrote in a memo to the board. “And the same child who was thriving with consistent, face-to-face support may now be struggling. This is certainly not their fault and it is heartbreaking.”

Sukawaty told the board at the time, “We have some students who we haven’t seen much work from at all.”

When asked this week about the effectiveness of online summer classes, he said, “A lot of the challenges we had during the school year remain.”

The first step is convincing the students who need help to enroll in summer school.

“What we can do is make an appeal to students and parents and say, ‘Hey, I know you struggled with online learning during the school year, so we hope you take advantage of this opportunity in summer,’” Sukawaty said.

The Port Washington-Saukville School District is certainly not alone in dealing with the challenges of online learning. An analysis by the educational research organization NWEA concluded that the average student in America may have lost more than a third of the expected progress in reading and math by the time the new school year starts.

But Sukawaty said that before the school year ended last week, the middle school was able to connect with some students who were struggling and help them make progress.

“We gained a lot of traction during the last few weeks of school,” he said. “We were able to make up some ground, and part of that is because we got better at what we were doing.”

Schools have surveyed parents about online learning and will use the feedback to fine tune teaching strategies.

In addition, there’s hope that online teaching during the summer will be more effective because with fewer students teachers will be able to provide more individualized attention. The program in some regards will be customized to each student, with teachers focusing on the specific learning targets that students did not achieve, administrators said.

“Now if we only knew what was coming in fall,” Sukawaty said, referring to the fact that school districts don’t know whether students will be able to return to schools for the start of the 2020-21 school year in September.

Weber said the district will begin this week planning for the regular school year by looking at the three scenarios presented by DPI — open schools as usual, keep schools closed and offer only online teaching or offer a combination of online and in-person teaching.

“We can use the DPI scenarios as a base, but I think we can be very creative,” he said. “If we can open up, fine, but we have to be prepared to do something different if the pandemic continues.

“Maybe it will be bringing only small groups of students into schools on select days.”

The school calendar will remain essentially the same as usual, Weber said, but if there’s a second wave of the coronavirus that hits after the start of classes, changes may be necessary.

“If we have to go back online for a period of time, we know how to do that,” Weber said. “The best thing we can do is keep a clear head and take each day as it comes.”


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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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