Commissioner's Student Advisory Council Virtual Meeting: April 13, 2021

By Jacqueline Thompson

Members of the Kentucky Department of Education’s (KDE’s) Commissioner’s Student Advisory Council (SAC) shared their thoughts about the highs and lows of remote learning during the pandemic at the council’s April 13 meeting.

Commissioner of Education Jason E. Glass asked the students a series of five questions posed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. The researchers are asking teachers across the country to get input from their students about what this year has been like and what they would like to see for next year, which will be used to create a report about what the next school year could look like.

The first question was, “What are the aspects of remote learning that you’ve appreciated the most and would like to see carried back into in-person schooling?”

Miles McGinnis, a senior at South Oldham High School (Oldham County), said he enjoyed the flexibility with homework due dates, where he could get more than one day to complete and turn in an assignment.

“It gives you flexibility to work things into your schedule, because we do have a lot going on outside of school,” McGinnis said.

Soleila González, a junior at Ballard High School (Jefferson County), said she enjoyed the way her teachers provided a preview of the coming week every Monday, so students were better able to plan out their week.

Logan Justice, a junior at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School (Fayette County), enjoyed having each Wednesday as a “catch-up day,” during which students were given extra time during the day to complete unfinished work or receive extra help on assignments.

“We still got the content covered, but having that day to catch up was really nice,” Justice said.

Another question asked of students was what the hardest thing was about remote learning. Wallace Caleb Bates, a senior at Breathitt County High School, said isolation was the biggest issue he faced.

“That’s really taken a toll on me,” said Bates.

SAC members largely agreed that a lack of interaction with other students and teachers caused their motivation to decrease.

“When we were all virtual, I was unmotivated at home,” said Loren Little, a sophomore at Clinton County High School. “There were also not many students that would show up to the live Google Meets, so there was a lack of participation.”

Another question was, “After this pandemic, what do you hope adults will do to make in-person school better for next year? What do you hope they don’t do to school next year?”

Justice said his school has done a good job at implementing the idea of “compassion over compliance.” Justice explained this is the idea that you may not know what someone is going through behind closed doors, so they should be given some understanding.

“I hope that parents and teachers become more understanding of us,” said Gracie Smith, a sophomore at the Kentucky School for the Blind. “They seem to believe that doing work from home would be the easiest thing in the world, and I really hope that they do find more compassion for us in that regard.”

When asked what they feel they missed out on or lost this year from school because of the pandemic, many students said they missed the connections and relationships with their classmates and teachers.

González said she missed, “not getting to meet new people through small groups or working on projects.

“Having those opportunities is what helps us learn, not only how to interact with different people and be sensitive to diverse groups of people,” she said, “but also it challenges us to think differently.”

Virtual Listening Tour
Glass provided an update on what KDE has been doing to gather input from stakeholders, including the Commissioner’s Virtual Listening Tour.

Many SAC members have acted as facilitators during the virtual sessions.

“We build the future direction based on the voices, perspectives, opinions and aspirations of people all across the state that are part of the education system,” Glass said.

Glass says he hopes to have a published vision document in the fall, based on the information gathered throughout the year.

Sofie Farmer, a senior at Gatton Academy (Danville Independent), said she has noticed in the past how it has been very hard to bring events like the virtual listening tour to marginalized groups, particularly low-income individuals and families, due to lack of access to technology or connectivity.

Glass said that is something that he will be paying attention to as “we round the corner on the pandemic and get to do more in-person meetings, we have to think about we can get to families and communities that haven’t been heard and make sure their voices are represented.” Anastasia Panaretos, a sophomore at South Oldham High School (Oldham County), said she would like to see more students and administrators participating in the virtual tour.

“I’ve heard a lot of parents discussing and a lot of teachers, but I haven’t really heard any administrators,” Panaretos said. “I think they would give a very good viewpoint.”

Students and administrators are encouraged to attend and participate in the virtual listening tour. Registration for the remaining tour dates is available online.

Virtual Learning Waivers
Member of the SAC had helpful reactions about a waiver being offered to districts regarding virtual learning for the 2021-2022 school year.

Glass said because districts only receive funding for a course after a student passes it, schools have been concerned about the funding impact of continuing with non-traditional learning structures, such as virtual learning.

KDE has a created a model to alleviate those concerns by creating a list of guarantees (or assurances) to which schools must agree before their waiver is approved. This includes that virtual and hybrid classes are taught by a certified teacher, appropriately tracking and storing student attendance and that grades are issued appropriately. If schools make that guarantee, they can apply for a waiver to allow for attendance-based virtual learning. The waivers will come from the Kentucky Board of Education. School districts already have begun submitting applications.

Glass said KDE is trying to recognize that while there are students who struggled with virtual learning, “we also had students who succeeded in hybrid and virtual learning options, and we want those options to continue, or at least allow our districts to offer them and smooth out some of the funding struggles that occur.”

“Providing that virtual learning environment allows not only for flexibility, but also security for health issues,” said Wallace Caleb Bates, the senior from Breathitt County.

Bates said that accountability is important to ensure students get the learning option that best supports them.

“Whatever form the learning takes place, it should be some consideration of what’s best for the student,” said Glass.

Supplemental School Year Program
SAC members also heard an update on the Supplemental School Year Program, stemming from the recently signed Senate Bill 128.

Meredith Brewer, KDE’s director of education policy, and Chuck Truesdell, KDE’s director of government relations, provided an overview of the program.

Students have until May 1 to request to participate in the program, while districts have until June 1 to determine if they want to offer a supplemental school year due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. If districts choose to offer the program, students that request to participate can use the 2021-2022 school year as a supplemental year to retake or supplement courses they already have taken.

“The way the bill is written, it’s an all-or-nothing proposition,” Brewer said. “Every student who requests, if the district decides to move forward, they all will be given the supplemental year.”

Districts still can retain students due to academic reasons regardless of whether they choose to participate in the Supplemental School Year Program.

The program also allows students to repeat courses they have taken previously, however, students cannot earn credit twice for the same course.

Commissioner Julian Tackett of the Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA) joined to discuss the implications the Supplemental School Year Program will have on sports.

Tackett said seniors will be allowed to participate in athletics an additional year if they are legally enrolled. Those students must be enrolled in at least four credit hours per day.

“Schools have a tremendous challenge ahead of them in the next three weeks in trying to cobble together a plan to decide what they are going to do with their seniors,” said Tackett.

On April 5, KDE released a guidance document, “Senate Bill 128: Supplemental School Year Program” that outlines the impact the legislation has on assessment and accountability, funding, teaching and learning, special populations, school-based decision making councils, alternative programs and federal program eligibility.