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Jacqueline O'Reilly, Freelance Reporter
12:18 pm CDT March 21, 2020

Orland School District 135 officials were already getting ready for eLearning; they just did not expect to have to roll it out this soon.

The D135 School Board met March 16 in a special meeting to discuss the district’s first attempt at eLearning amid the international coronavirus pandemic.

As parents, students and faculty face the social distancing made necessary by the outbreak, the district is developing and putting eLearning plans into action 1-2 years before they had planned.

According to David Apps, a member of the D135 Technology Advisory Committee, eLearning for inclement weather days was an item on the Committee’s January agenda.

“At that time, it was anticipated that it would require many discussions over many meetings, and would possibly be implemented in 1-2 years,” Apps said. “I recently spoke to some of my close friends who work in education, and their response to what our team has put together in such a short amount of time has been overwhelmingly positive.”

Superintendent John Bryk explained that the district is using a combination of emergency school days and “act of God” days to allow students the opportunity to spend the week of March 16 at home. Students will not be accountable for school work during the act-of-God days. The week of March 23 is spring break week, and will allow teachers to firm up their eLearning plans.

“The Teaching and Learning Department has put a lot of effort in for the last couple days, along with union leadership, to put together not just a plan but an effective plan,” Bryk said. “I’ve received quite a few emails from parents thanking the staff for their efforts. This could have been a very difficult situation for parents.”

Bryk further stated it is his hope that faculty members will engage with students on a daily basis.

While March 16 was technically the first eLearning day, it is clear that lesson plans are not yet perfect. Lynn Zeder, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, explained that the plans had been put together in record time.

“Today, with deciding what were the appropriate assignments, it’s kind of like Goldilocks,” she said. “Some may have had too much; some too little. Based on feedback from parents, we’re going to go back and look at that,” said.”

Board President Linda Peckham-Dodge indicated that a grade-specific resource page for parents might be helpful in avoiding unequal expectations across the student population.

Students can access eLearning programs through Google Classroom, Seesaw and email.  Access to technology should not present a problem for families, according to Apps, thanks to the recently announced Keep Americans Connected Pledge, introduced by the Federal Communications Commission, and subsequently signed by all telecommunications companies in the area.

The Keep America Connected Pledge states that during the COVID 19 outbreak, providers will not terminate service to any individual or small business customer because of an inability to pay; waive late fees accrued because of economic circumstances; and open Wi-Fi hotspots to any American who needs them. Several telecommunications companies also are increasing network speeds.

The district, through a partnership with Quest Food Management Services, also is to provide lunches for students in need throughout the closure period. Parents have been surveyed so that the district can determine which students qualify for this program. District officials have designated the district’s three junior high schools as curbside pickup locations. Installation of satellite drop-off points through use of school buses has been discussed, but according to Bryk, they are not necessary at this point.

In terms of district staffing levels during the closure, Bryk indicated that the school buildings would always be staffed to a skeletal level, should a parent need assistance. But work-from-home plans for most district staff is to be enacted immediately after spring break and will continue throughout the closure. Should parents or students need to contact a teacher or administrator, the district’s website at www.orland135.org is the place to go.

Bryk said he is confident of D135’s ability to get through this.

“The entire Orland School District 135 staff is prepared for an extended school closure, should the need arise,” he said. “We understand these are unique circumstances, and appreciate everyone's support and assistance in making this remote learning process a success.”