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Online challenges

Some SCSD families flee virtual learning after rocky start District preventing spread onsite

SOLON– It’s been a bumpy ride for kindergarten-through-fifth grade families opting for the Solon Community School District’s (SCSD) virtual learning option.
But SCSD Director of Teaching and Learning Josh Lyons reported things improved after lengthy and serious conversations with the third-party provider Edmentum, Inc.
Lyons and Superintendent Davis Eidahl updated Solon school board members on the district’s Return to Learn plan during a Sept. 17 meeting.
Eidahl opened the meeting by noting the district’s success with onsite learning.
A total of four positive COVID-19 cases emerged among students, he said, with a peak of 31 students quarantined. All four cases originated outside the school system, Eidahl added.
“We have done an excellent job in preventing spread within the school buildings,” he observed.
Technology Specialist and District Webmaster Sean Seaton interviewed administrators, Eidahl continued, and will put footage together of district mitigation practices in action, to give a sense of the measure in place to return kids to school safely.
The district continues to work closely with Johnson County Public Health, he said, and made adjustments to prevention strategies during the first two weeks of school.
Then attention turned to the difficulties many families experienced with Edmentum, the online provider of learning programs for elementary and middle school students, featuring live, certified Iowa teachers and an accredited curriculum aligned with state requirements.
Those at the high school level receive online instruction through Apex Learning, a provider previously used by the district for credit recovery.
The pre-recorded lessons, tutorials and assessment from Apex cost $100-150 per student for the year, depending on the number of total licenses purchased, while the price for Edmentum’s live teachers and office hours was previously reported as much higher, $2,700 per child.
Eidahl noted many board members received emails from some of the families using Edmentum, and Lyons responded by spending much of the previous week in Zoom sessions with company officials.
“Edmentum is a much wider challenge because we’re going with an outside vendor and relying on their expertise and technology to help support our families and their service,” Lyons explained to board members.
The number of participants using the kindergarten-through-fifth grade Edmentum option dropped to below 50 just before the meeting, he said, and families were given an extended deadline to Wednesday, Sept. 23, to consider onsite learning. Twenty students switched from online to onsite since the beginning of the year, he noted.
Lyons reported hours and hours with Edmentum representatives, as well as phone calls and hundreds of emails between himself, parents and others involved with the issue.
While Edmentum also provides the district’s sixth-through-eighth grade virtual alternative, Lyons said, the rollout for middle school students went smoothly. A follow-up Zoom meeting offered to parents at that level only attracted a handful, with feedback limited to suggestions for improvement, he said.
“The curriculum is challenging, extremely challenging, but parents are figuring out how they want to do that,” he noted.
The bigger problem was Edmentum’s Calvert Academy Learning Platform, utilized by Lakeview Elementary and Solon Intermediate School students.
“K-5, that’s where we’re working through, still, some glitches, but today was a huge win for us, based off our conversation and feedback with Edmentum earlier this week,” Lyons said.
The company agreed to change its strict hierarchy of learning, which previously required a student to finish one lesson before moving on to another.
“We know our kids are at different levels,” he explained.
The switch provides more flexibility in learning, and already some parents are reporting improvement, Lyons said.
Other initial issues related to Calvert learning were technical in nature, he noted later in an email. “Courses were not loading as they were expected to, login credentials not being recognized, and general glitches in the system as they were related to Internet browsers and related to computer settings,” Lyons wrote. “The glitches made it difficult to access the content and begin to create a learning routine at home.”
Additionally, he reported, there were challenges for parents once in the system related to accessing live lessons provided by assigned virtual teachers, lack of teachers, lack of recording of lessons, and a general frustration due to the challenges of the curriculum.
“I think one of the biggest hurdles, still, is parents are now taking on a huge load as the child’s teacher,” he added at the meeting.
The elementary students are not just sitting in front of a computer eight hours a day, he said. Parents have to engage with their children to make sure they are on track, while middle school students are more independent.
Some parents fled the online option out of frustration, and felt they had no other choice but to move their child onsite, he stated.
Lyons said the issue was serious enough to look at other vendors.
“But I just kept coming to barriers where there were still going to be some challenges, and if we were going to make a switch midstream, I think it would have been even more frustrating.”
The decision to stick with Edmentum did not come without hesitation, he said, but the company eventually came through.
“I was online with some of their executive team members and they were really working with us and providing some additional personalized support for our families that I don’t think that we would ever get with another vendor at this point in time,” Lyons observed.
“They were very responsive,” Eidahl added.
“They knew I was upset with them,” Lyons pointed out. “But at the same time, we have a good working relationship and I think they recognized that and wanted to respond accordingly.”
Moving forward, he said, the Edmentum platform should significantly improve in one way.
“This should be flexible,” he explained. “It should not provoke anxiety. We want this to work for our families who have chosen this route.”
Eidahl indicated the district was in a much different place than it was a week ago thanks to Lyon’s efforts.
The improved service relieved some of the anxiety parents were feeling, he said. In addition, some families returning to onsite learning sent emails reflecting positively on mitigation practices.
Whatever option selected, the district wants to be supportive of all families, he said.
“There’s still some hiccups, I’m not going to pretend that there’s not,” Lyons added. There will still be more communication and feedback relayed to Edmentum to resolve ongoing issues.
Eidahl noted as the district continues to make adjustments and tweaks to onsite mitigation, it will to continue to make adjustments and tweaks to the online experience.
Board member Jami Wolf said she heard from more than a few parents who were initially unhappy with the online option but have since complimented Lyon’s response.
Board member Rick Jedlicka thanked Middle School Principal Mike Herdliska for developing cohorts and pods to isolate groups of students.
“That’s what’s controlling the contract tracing numbers,” Jedlicka suggested. One doesn’t have to look far to find a district with large numbers of students out, he said.
“Just tremendous,” he said. “That wasn’t something you did in 10 minutes.”
Board member Dan Coons had the last comment.
He said he was grateful to know the district was trying to support students and families no matter which learning option they chose.
“These are crazy situations that we’re in, and everybody’s having to turn on a dime, and I appreciate all the effort,” he said.