For Todd Dugan, superintendent of Bunker Hill CUSD #8, a small, remote district in southern Illinois, issues surrounding back-to-school COVID-19 style are not abstract but all too real.
Some of the district’s biggest priorities include:
- Rural struggles–and successes–as COVID hit
- Address learning loss that comes with inequity
- As school resumes, freedom of choice
In this conversation with eSchool News, Todd tries to keep the glass half full as he looks to take advantage of these incredible disruptions to education.
eSN: What was your first pandemic-panic moment?
TD: So, we were in the process of implementing a long-term one-to-one strategy when we suddenly had 48 hours to transform. And we did it. But 18 percent of our families do not have access to reliable broadband internet so that was a huge problem.
Being in a rural school district, we have a pretty low budget. Remember, because of COVID, they banned all those E-rate rules on gifts? We called our internet service provider down the road and said, “Listen, it’s a pandemic here. You gotta help us out.”
So they did. They cranked up the internet to one gig into this office until June 30th. We bought an Aruba outdoor access point, mounted it, and then took the passwords off. And then we sent out a massive text and said, “Hey, park in your car, please don’t congregate, and do your homework.” And we had success with that. You just get creative.
eSN: So where is your district right now? Are you in person or are you hybrid or remote?
TD: Right now we are in-person with small cohorts and we also have a free choice to do remote.
In southern Illinois, we have coal miners, oil refinery workers. I mean, these people are tough. They go to work with lung cancer. They’re also all essential workers. So what do they do if we did a hundred percent remote?
But right now, it could still change tomorrow because our governor’s giving a press conference again and today is his education day. So who knows. Nobody can put their kid on a bus and be like, “Okay, I’m a hundred percent guaranteed. My kid won’t catch COVID at school.” No, you’re not. But it’s 89 percent less likely because of all our strict measures. You’re following the protocols. And if you have a kid with health issues, my goodness, don’t send them. It’s not worth it. They won’t be penalized. I mean, we love our kids and learning loss is bad, but keeping your kid alive is way more important.
eSN: When it comes to the topic of learning loss and digital equity, how do you feel things went in the spring?
TD: I think there was a huge slide. And I don’t have the empirical data to back this up, but I would say, the kids who were already doing well—with good support at home, nice situation, good access to internet—they probably maintained or had minimal loss. The kids that normally need the extra resources to where you’re at least on a level playing field with every other kid? All those supports went away overnight. So I bet those were massive learning losses.
eSN: We’re desperately trying to see the glass half full with the coming school year and districts will be able to provide some sort positive experience for the kids. Are we fooling ourselves?
TD: I feel like it could and it should, but I don’t know if it will. I am a half glass full person too. I’ve got various feelings about reopening the school year, but I do know one thing—teaching is hard on a normal year and this year it’s going to be harder. I believe in our teachers; they can do this. And I do believe public education if done right, can emerge from this pandemic as the superhero. But if we do remote learning and kids aren’t getting checked on, and there’s no learning happening; And then they come back and the state wants to give this punitive summary of assessment with standardized tests. What are we going to see with that?
eSN: Do you feel that if we ever go back to normal, all this tech will fade away, or does it become the new standard?
TD: I’ve always felt like the promise of technology is a huge key to providing a good 21st century education. It allows kids no matter where you’re born, no matter how far away you are from a Metro area or any kind of a cultural experience, the technology when it’s used correctly can elevate the learning experience and enrich it for all kids.
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