Although some school districts in the state of Arkansas plan to offer some type of virtual instruction for the 2021-22 school year, all Conway Public Schools’ students will return onsite for school next year. We are looking forward to having everyone back in classrooms, with as much normalcy as circumstances and guidelines at the time will allow. For those families who need to remain at home, virtual education is still available through Arkansas Connections Academy and Arkansas Virtual Academy for next school year. Both of these online institutions are dedicated solely to virtual instruction, and have helped virtual learners be successful for many years.
There are many reasons that our administration and our school board have chosen to move back exclusively to face-to-face instruction. The first is academic in nature, and does not come as a surprise to any teacher, parent, or anyone who has observed what school has been like over the last year.
The pandemic has contributed to a significant decline in student learning. Circumstances with COVID-19 have led to instability, fear, and so much unknown. With no fault of their own, schools have been forced to change their methods of instruction, then make changes on top of those changes, all while trying to clearly communicate the changes to parents and students so they can understand what to do and then carry it out on their own, at home.
Besides the lack of consistency over the last year, research shows that students learn better when they are physically present in class, rather than learning online. In-person learning allows for more individualized instruction, progress monitoring, and provides time and opportunity for the teacher to be available if a student needs help or has questions. Teachers have done their best to replicate these things in the virtual environment this year, but it is just not ideal for most students. Certainly, there are students who adapt and learn very well virtually. But we have seen many others struggle with a lack of self-discipline, accountability, and formally-scheduled class time. Many students have worked without continual supervision this year. Learning at its best is reciprocal, where there is a mutual give and take relationship between the teacher and the student.
The social/emotional well-being of students is the second and equally compelling reason we believe they should return to school as soon as possible. The pandemic has had a significant impact on students this year. Isolation is not good for anyone, but it is developmentally harmful for children.
Kids need to play and talk to other kids. The peer interaction school provides is invaluable to student development. Classroom interaction teaches children problem solving, empathy, cooperation and teamwork, how to appreciate similarities and differences, and so much more.
This social component of school is also difficult, if not impossible, to create in a virtual environment, especially if the relationships have not been previously established. Connections are simply harder to make through a screen.
Conway Public Schools is very proud of our Ready for Learning Plan and the virtual instruction platform we have used this year. All of our teachers, K-12, have worked tirelessly to teach both virtual and onsite students in their classes, with students often changing back/forth due to quarantine, illness, or decision by a parent to go virtual or return onsite. The modifications we made to our health and safety and learning procedures have kept students well and kept schools open this year But this plan was never meant to be a long term solution or sustainable model for virtual instruction. It was designed for this particular school year, during the pandemic. It has always been our intention to return to school the way it was before COVID. We have seen cases of COVID-19 decline over the last several weeks, and we are very hopeful that we will continue to see these trends. Everyone is ready for a return to “normal.”
Overall, the district’s decision to return solely to onsite instruction next year centers on the core values of Conway Public Schools. We have six core values that define who we are and what we strive to do every day. The first one is simply, “Students First,” and second is “A Staff Committed to Excellence.” “Students First:” There is much work to do. We know students have missed essential standards and “pieces” of instruction over the last year. Our teachers are determined to meet each and every student exactly where they are and move them forward/catch them up to where they need to be.
Teachers and students need to be here together to do this important work. “Staff Committed to Excellence:” Our teachers and staff miss the students so much! They miss giving hugs and pats on the back. They miss seeing kids’ faces light up with smiles and the interactive moments that come with traditional classroom learning. They feel frustrated when they can’t help students because of technical difficulties or proximity concerns. They want to reach every student. Whatever it takes.
We believe our teachers are the very best and we want to get them back to the business of teaching children without the additional job stresses brought on by the pandemic. We believe our students deserve the best and we want to get them back into our school buildings so they can grow and learn and thrive and become anything they want to be.