Written by Colleen Flanagan, Homeless Liaison, Executive Assistant for Student Support Services, Orting School District, Washington.
In Orting, it was clear back in September that a few of our student groups really needed to come back to in-person learning as soon as possible. We began the work to provide priority for in person learning, focusing on two groups. One was our students with IEPs, specifically those with the most significant disabilities and whose families were struggling at home with online schooling. The other group was our McKinney-Vento students.
Initially, we offered hot spots to anyone without internet, but we found they did not always offer enough connectivity in our rural area. They also did not solve the issue of lack of electricity. For a McKinney-Vento student doing school work in a car, how long would the battery last? Our normal solutions for power or internet connectivity of “go to the library or the teen center” were no longer an option, as those locations also were closed due to COVID-19.
My Executive Director for Student Support Services, Chris Willis, went to our four principals, our Return to Learning Task Force, and our school board to plead for an opportunity to bring in these two groups of students. He talked about the importance of equitable access to learning and the struggling families who really needed our support. By October, a plan was developed, and we took action to start bringing in students in small groups of five, with one paraprofessional or teacher in each room. We were very careful to follow all of the County Health Department guidelines. It was important to keep the lines of communication open with the Health Department, as guidelines change often. We worked very closely with our nursing staff, as well as with our custodial staff for proper and timely cleanings.
At the elementary school level, students were grouped together in resource rooms, coming in for extra help plus time to work on regular classroom assignments. They could come in person two or four days per week. In some cases the parents declined, fearing the risk of COVID-19. In those few cases, the students continued to be offered online learning options. For Orting Middle School and Orting High School, online classes run from 10:00 – 1:30 daily, so we began offering in-person classes with paraprofessional support in small groups from 7:30 – 9:30, with the option to stay in the building to complete the online classes. Students could come to school four days per week from 7:30 – 1:30 and receive both breakfast and lunch.
By December, the counselor or principal had contacted all McKinney-Vento families to offer in-person support. All students in our district with an IEP also had been offered in-person support by their IEP Case Manager. The final group of McKinney-Vento students started attending in-person by January 4, 2021.
In addition to improved attendance, engagement, and achievement, we have seen other benefits from bringing these student into school buildings. We have been able to provide breakfast and lunch, clothing, and even jackets when needed. Throughout the challenges of COVID-19, we were lucky to be able to utilize all of our transportation staff to support this effort to prevent any reduced hours for our staff and provide support to our students with the greatest need. As we bring in more student groups, we are evaluating using a third party vendor for some of the transportation needs.
I wish I could say we have had no risk in this work, but there is a level of risk for our students and staff. We have had a few COVID-19 cases:
We also have an option for students who prefer not to attend any online classroom meetings, but prefer to go at their own pace. This is not a perfect fit for everyone, as it requires self-motivation, but some students love it. We team up the student with a teacher along and an online program. The student needs to be making progress and logging on to complete work, but not on a set schedule. Ideally, students log on daily, but that is not required. The requirement is that the student makes one contact weekly with the teacher, whether by email, a conversation in google meets video, or on the phone. Whatever the method, one check-in meets the requirement for attendance for the week. We are committed to providing every possible option for our McKinney-Vento students to stay engaged in our schools and have what they need to be safe and successful.