SMSD News: “What will school look like in August?”

A common question many people have is, “What will school look like in August?” That question is one the Shawnee Mission School District (SMSD) is hard at work answering. While plans have not yet been finalized, we can provide an update on progress made to date.

When the pandemic started and schools were locked down, few if any schools were ready to make the immediate shift to a remote learning environment. The sudden shift presented a number of challenges, including trying to provide access to learning in ways that were equitable for all students. Our moment of national crisis exposed limitations in both infrastructure and practice, including home access to the internet for all students.

Lessons learned from the pandemic have allowed SMSD to grow and improve in important ways the past three months. From the outset of the pandemic we placed priority on student, staff, and community safety. We also maintained our focus on the Strategic Plan objectives that were created in partnership with our community. Our strategic plan was and will remain the northstar for all our work.

This Spring, we used surveys and a resource called Thoughtexchange to get a deeper understanding of what worked and didn’t work with remote learning, and what parents, students and staff were thinking about concerning school next year. We learned a lot from these efforts, and are using that learning to shape plans for next year.

One important learning came from a survey related to technology. We heard an expression of clear frustration with the Virtual Private Network (VPN) that we use to keep students safe on the internet. In response, we plan to purchase a cloud-based solution which will allow us to eliminate the VPN. That new system should be in place when school starts in August.

In a Thoughtexchange conducted concerning next school year, we heard a wide variety of viewpoints on what the school experience should look like. Some community members prioritize the health of students and staff, and are concerned that procedures will be in place to keep students and staff safe. Others do not believe that the restrictions that were put in place were necessary, and want students back in school in August. This dichotomy in viewpoint reflects the challenge SMSD, and indeed schools everywhere, face in responding to the complexity COVID-19 presents for society.

Another theme expressed in the thought exchange data was frustration with having to navigate multiple platforms for connecting students and teachers. In addition, many parents said that live, face-to-face interaction between teachers and students is important, both to sustain the connection with teachers and students, and for the social interaction between students. Many parents said that grades and feedback are important to students and that they need to be integrated moving forward to support motivation and learning.

We have listened to all of these voices, and are working hard to integrate these diverse viewpoints into our plans. When schools open in August, we will plan for students and staff to be in school. Guidance from health professionals will help us determine exactly what that looks like. SMSD, like many schools around the country, understands that while in-class instruction for all students is always preferred, we will also have to consider other options such as a hybrid approach (e.g. some in-class, some on-line) or remote learning like we experienced this past Spring. Our planning will allow us to use whichever model is most appropriate for the guidance we receive from health professionals.

To support learning in all three instructional settings (in-class, hybrid, remote) SMSD recently purchased Canvas, a learning management system. Canvas will allow us to streamline both digital tools and content for any learning scenario, to provide a simpler and more connected learning experience. We heard our teachers request additional time for professional development, to adjust to new expectations, and we will provide it. We will have clear expectations for both staff and students, with a clear and ever-present focus on priority standards, with assessments that lead to learning, including grades and required student attendance, and regular connections between teachers and students.

Through it all, our goal will continue to be to provide each student with a personalized learning plan that prepares them for college and careers, with the interpersonal skills they need for life success.

We have teams of teachers, administrators, and staff, hard at work designing what next year will look like, with options for the different scenarios that we might face. We expect to receive guidance from the Kansas Department of Education on July 10, and we plan to release a detailed plan for Shawnee Mission soon after that.

We will be having school in August (either in-person, remotely, or with a hybrid approach) and we will be prepared to provide a high-quality learning experience for all students in the Shawnee Mission School District.

Dr. Mike Fulton