Online learning challenges: Local schools prepare for possibility that students will fall behind

How local schools are planning to adjust after students miss the final fourth of the school year

ROANOKE, Va. – Two weeks after they first closed due to the governor’s order, local K-12 schools are still working on making sure students are learning as much as possible at home during this time.

They’re identifying challenges and making plans in case some students aren’t able to keep up and will need extra help this summer or fall.

10 News heard some of the same comments across the area on Monday: switching to online learning is a difficult process, and it’s not a perfect substitute for in-person classes.

Many local school districts started with review material the last few weeks, using online tools and, in some cases, sending physical materials home for kids who have problems with internet access.

It takes a lot of time for teachers to convert lessons to an online format, according to school leaders around the area. Many are hoping to roll out new material in the next week or two, including in Salem, where leaders say teachers will be focusing on essential knowledge -- on what students need the most to succeed in their next grade.

This tall task has sent staff scrambling.

“There's definitely been a feel of information overload,” said Dr. Curtis Hicks, assistant superintendent in the Salem school district. “We're just trying to make sure we're keeping teachers up to speed with all that, but there's no question that there's a lot of information to digest in a short period of time and that's obviously had its challenges.”

Teachers are also, in many districts, making and taking calls all day, trying to help students and parents with the material.

On Monday, 10 News spoke with officials and staff with the following districts: Roanoke city, Roanoke County, Salem, Botetourt County, Montgomery County, Bedford County, Lynchburg city and Rockbridge County.

Many other school districts didn’t have responses ready on Monday.

Roanoke County leaders are worried some kids may fall behind.

“This shutdown has implications on many levels,” said Don Butzer, the Roanoke County School Board chairman.

He’s worried about the effect the lack of in-person learning will have on the final 9 to 11 weeks of the school year, saying it’s hard to ignore how beneficial that class time would have been.

“There’s a lot of individual attention that can be given. They have a sense of when a kid is falling behind. They see it right away. They know their kids. There’s absolutely no substitute for it,” Butzer said.

He believes learning at home will continue to put a huge strain on already-stressed parents, many of whom are in low-income situations.

“Think about the challenge that that brings. There are some who just don’t have the time because they may be working a couple of jobs. There are many who don’t have the ability and the wherewithal to do it, and I worry about those kids. We’re doing the best we can and our teachers are working very hard to try to minimize the negative impact here,” Butzer said.

For those reasons, and the fact that around 800 students in Roanoke County don’t have reliable access to internet, he thinks there’s going to be a learning gap.

“I’m afraid that when it’s all said and done that we will be behind, that many of our kids will be behind, and some much more than others,” he said.

Butzer expects that more kids than usual will need remediation this summer to get caught up.

That could be a huge help, but that costs money -- for teachers, materials, meals and buses -- and school leaders are already worried about an upcoming drop in state funding as Virginia loses out on tax revenue during the outbreak.

Come the fall, teachers could need to make large adjustments to their curriculum.

“Most of our fall classes will look very different, at least for the first nine weeks, just in terms of having to do some assessment there at the beginning of the first nine weeks to figure out where kids are and then tailor instruction to get them caught up to where they need to be,” said Mike Riley, the executive director of secondary instruction for Roanoke County.

Many school leaders added that the situation is changing week by week and they’re spending a lot of time trying to adapt to new rules and guidelines from the federal and state levels.