Administrators in Teton County School District No. 1 aren’t ready for full-time in-person learning but they are improving around the margins of the hybrid learning plan and finding unforeseen bright spots.
“There is a universal agreement or consensus that the four-day schedule is what is best right now,” Colter Elementary School Principal Bo Miller told the school board Oct. 14.
Miller went on to say elementary school teachers aren’t clamoring for a reduction in classroom days, either. They’ve hit their stride, as best they can, with the four-day schedule, and they still don’t have the resources to add in-person instruction on Fridays.
As he has at previous meetings, Miller detailed how integral Fridays are to teachers’ schedules right now. Because of the district’s pod system at the elementary level, teachers have little to no time during in-classroom days for lesson planning or professional development.
“I would say a third of their time is now taken up with supervisory expectations that weren’t there this time last year,” Miller said.
Though many parents (and some school board members) have decried the virtual school days as ineffective, principals across the district are seeing better student involvement the days they are in the classroom. Miller attributed that to smaller class sizes and a general happiness at having some in-class time.
Attendance at the elementary school level has remained remarkably consistent, with an overall 1.4-point drop from 96.4% to 95%, even as entire classrooms have been quarantined due to potential viral exposure.
“Some schools are impacted more than others,” Miller told the board. “It might be the result of that they had three or so classes quarantined, and the entire class was out for four to 14 days.”
Higher attendance isn’t confined to the elementary schools. Jackson Hole Middle School Principal Matt Hoelscher told the board that attendance at his school is also “above average.”
Since the middle school population is split into A and B groups, half of his roughly 700 students attend each day. They’re averaging about 22 absences each day, so less than 50 for the entire student body, which Hoelscher called “pretty good.”
Jackson Hole High School Principal Scott Crisp echoed his counterparts, saying he was seeing a 93% attendance rate.
In addition to kids showing up regularly, there are indications they are more focused and experiencing fewer social problems than in previous years. Standardized assessments have been scattershot since the pandemic began, but Miller said he has heard anecdotal evidence that many students are meeting grade-level standards and did better than expected during the at-home end of last school year.
“I know you’re worried about what students are doing on the virtual Friday,” Miller told the board, “so I would make the case that Monday through Thursday we’re seeing more student engagement and probably a minute-for-minute higher degree of learning and high-quality teaching.”
No conclusive evidence exists yet to back up that anecdotal evidence, and Miller admitted some students, particularly those with less at-home support, are still struggling. But Karen Wattenmaker, the data and assessment coordinator, told the board the district would have more data on student achievement next month.
Students are also getting in trouble less, which may indicate a different atmosphere is contributing to higher engagement. At the elementary school level, office referrals are down 90%, and as of the Oct. 14 meeting that age group had received no bus referrals.
“It is a greater appreciation for school,” Miller said. “But it’s also a more structured environment, it’s a calmer environment.”
Hoelscher, the middle school principal, said he’s seeing the same thing, with fewer than 10 behavioral referrals so far this year.
“I think that just shows that the desire for students to want to be there and really, truly get their work done,” he said.
Despite the silver linings the principals said full-time, in-person learning was the obvious goal. Without that possibility in the near future they are looking for ways to support students who are struggling with virtual learning.
Middle school teachers and administrators have started bringing kids who need more assistance to the school for additional in-person instruction. Though that is just a “small group,” Hoelscher said, he would like to expand it, potentially devising a system in which kids from the A group come in one Friday and students from the B group the next.
At the elementary school level, Miller said, teachers have upped their attendance requirements, checking multiple times a day that kids are engaged in the hope that will keep them from falling behind. Such tweaks and adjustments may be necessary at least through winter break.
The school board trustees didn’t indicate whether they would consider schedule changes at their next meeting, but if it were up to the teachers the district would maintain this schedule for the next couple of months.
“We would like to get to winter break with the four-day schedule and monitor the numbers,” Miller said. “And if the COVID levels in the community go down, we want our kids to be in school five days a week. That’s where they need to be.”