From grades to wi-fi access, ICCSD Superintendent Stephen Murley outlines changes to online learning for high school students

Iowa City Community School District — Adam Burke/Little Village

The Iowa City Community School District sent an email to staff and parents on Friday informing them it is “moving from Voluntary Educational Enrichment Opportunities to Required Learning Opportunities at the high school level.” For younger students, the at-home learning opportunities the district offers will remain voluntary.

The change will go into effect on Monday, April 27.

The district’s email was sent after Gov. Kim Reynolds said on Friday she is ordering Iowa schools to remain closed and continue to offer learning opportunities online through the scheduled end of the school year. ICSSD schools have been closed since the district announced on March 13 it was shutting down its buildings and moving to online, voluntary learning opportunities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In its email, ICCSD said it would provide more information on how online learning will continue for the 2019-2020 school year. But during an interview with Little Village on Thursday, ICCSD Superintendent Stephen Murley discussed the district’s plans.

According to Murley, courses will continue online through synchronous lectures on Zoom and asynchronous video content provided by instructors. Because the district has already issued Chromebooks to all high school students, and those students were already regularly participating in classes through Canvas, a digital learning platform, the district determined that they were best equipped to continue online learning on a required basis.

ICSSD does recognize that not all students have adequate internet connections, so it is working on providing wi-fi to 350 homes. Before schools closed in March, it had already supplied 600 wi-fi hotspots to low-income families.

Before the changes in online learning begin on April 27, high school students can decide which of their classes they want to continue with for credit, Murley said.

If a student currently has a passing grade in a course, they can choose to receive a P entered on their transcript, indicating they have passed. Students choosing this option will not be required to do any further work in that course for the rest of the trimester.

A student who is currently failing a course can either withdraw from it and have a W for the course recorded on their transcript, or work to improve that grade to passing status.

Students can also decide to continue their classes on a standard graded basis, in which case they continue to do all the assigned work for the remainder of the trimester.

“For many students, completing the courses and earning grades is very important for scholarships [or] college admission, and the only way that we can actually give grades for courses is to make it required,” Murley explained. “However, while we obviously want to encourage [students] to continue with their education, we don’t want to penalize them if, for a reason they determine is in their best interest, there’s a course they’re passing at this time that they don’t want to continue.”

Students who continue on a regularly graded basis and receive a passing grade in a course, will have the option at the end of the trimester to replace the final grade they are assigned with a P.

Graduating seniors choosing to take a W, or who fail to make a passing grade for a course needed to meet graduation requirements, can contact their school counselor to request the requirement be waived. Freshmen, sophomores and juniors will have to make up missed requirements for the trimester by taking EDGE online courses or retaking the class in the fall in order to stay on track for graduation.

All of the changes for high school students also apply to any high school courses junior high school students are taking.

Federal law requires schools that have mandatory and graded classes online make sure that students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) or other special needs have their needs addressed in those classes.

The superintendent explained high school students who have IEPs will meet individually with teachers and administrators to re-examine how best to meet goals outlined in their plans. The district is also working with English Language Learning (ELL) students and their families to make sure information is given to them in their home languages.

There are other issues related to online learning the district is still working to resolve.

“If you’re in a pottery class, for instance, that’s going to be a lot harder,” Murley said. “Unless you’ve got a kiln at your house, you can’t fire it.

“Those teachers in the areas that are going to be more problematic are working on creative ways to help students stay engaged and complete those classes, and we’re going to have to think outside the box.”

Murley said ICCSD understands the magnitude of the changes and challenges the district’s families are experiencing, and said he hopes they will be patient as schools adjust to the new circumstances.

“We’re trying to make sure that we’re supporting our kids and meeting their needs, but also meet the needs of our 2,300 staff, many of which are also parents,” Murley said. “We’re trying to make sure that we meet the needs of both our kids and our staff and through doing that, we’re going to provide a really rich, robust educational opportunity for each child in the district.”

According to ICCSD data, approximately 50 percent of the district’s students have participated in its voluntary online learning opportunities. It isn’t possible to compare the district’s participation rate to a statewide average, because the Iowa Department of Education is not collecting that information from districts.

On April 10, ICCSD announced it will not be holding its traditional graduation ceremony in Carver Hawkeye Area this spring. The district has not yet released plans for a substitute ceremony.

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