Pandemic Policy

Parker Adapts to Distance Learning

Upper+School+history+teacher+Kevin+Conlon%E2%80%99s+Economics+and+Society+class+meets+on+Zoom.

Ian Shayne

Upper School history teacher Kevin Conlon’s Economics and Society class meets on Zoom.

By Tess Wayland, Francis W. Parker Junior/High School

Inboxes are piled full of updates on schedules, grading, and extended closures. Students bounce between Google Meets and Zoom. Teachers sift through binders of curriculum and fill up their notebooks with new plans. The city outside their homes is suffering from 1,152 COVID-19 deaths. As the chaos in the outside world begins to seep into digital classrooms, Parker has moved to adopt their remote learning grading policy and schedule with it.

As of March 26, Parker will be grading its students in accordance with the official Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) policy. In their statement, the ISBE acknowledged the mental and physical challenges students face during the pandemic. Their overall recommendation was that schools adopt a non-negative grading policy, a guideline that Middle and Upper School Director of Studies Sven Carlsson has helped to implement at Parker.

Students will receive letter grades on report cards or transcripts that are either higher or the same as their grade before distance learning. Though grades will be recorded normally during the e-learning, if a student ends the semester with a lower grade than they had as of March 13, they’ll receive the grade they had before the school closure. If they leave with a higher grade, they earn that number.

After Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker announced that schools would have to remain closed through the end of the year, Parker added a caveat to this policy. A final grade can be negatively impacted if a student is not trying, not engaged, doesn’t attend classes, misses work, or receives a failing grade. Advisors, parents, and Upper School Head Justin Brandon will be notified of the disconnection before there is a change in the final grade, and exceptions will be made for personal crises or excused absences.

Principal Dan Frank, Assistant Principal Ruth Jurgensen, and Brandon weighed internal concerns about student motivation while considering how colleges would perceive final transcripts. Transcripts will include a brief note on Parker’s grading policy during this time and why they were adopted. “We decided to adopt the state standards, not just because it was the state standard but also because it was embedded in social emotional learning,” Brandon said. 

The later adjustments to the policy were meant to emphasize the school’s continued focus on engagement, as an increasing number of students struggle to replicate participation in online forums. “We’ve asked teachers to continue to write the parent-advisor notification, but to be thoughtful about it,” Brandon said. “Is this something that you would normally see in the student if we were in school, or are you sensing or seeing a shift in behavioral patterns and expectations and communication?” 

Upper School Counselor and Department Chair Binita Donohue has been coaching teachers on how to talk to their disengaged students and accompanying them at meetings. “Someone might be doing that because they’re like, ‘yeah, I actually don’t care,’” Donohue said. “Someone could be doing that because they don’t feel like getting out of bed, and it’s a very different approach then.”

Some teachers have observed that seniors in particular have struggled to remain motivated. “There’s just low energy, lack of motivation, and honestly I don’t blame them,” Senior Gradehead Emma Castaldi said. “We don’t have answers yet. So that’s frustrating, it kind of just numbs you in the process.”

Senior Jared Saef has noticed that he and his friends have had low motivation since e-learning started, which he attributes this to the mental state caused by the cancellation. “The worst part for me is knowing that I won’t be able to return to a school that I’ve called my home for the last four years and return to all the friends I made, and the communities I was a part of, and the teachers who I adored very much,” Saef said.

Upper School Science teacher Leslie Webster has noticed some changes in motivation and participation, but she believes that the policies are giving students the grace they deserve. “I also understand this is an unprecedented time,” Webster said. “That’s what those policies are designed for.”

Concerns about student motivation and engagement were brought up in early discussions about adopting a pass-fail policy as an equalizer when distance learning creates equity issues. Brandon said that ultimately the state guidelines better matched the school’s goals for distance learning. 

One student wishes that the school had gone with pass-fail grading. “There’s so much going on right now, with the pandemic and schoolwork, it doesn’t feel there’s an adequate amount of time for either,” the anonymous submitter of the Student Government resolution “All Hail Pass Fail” said. “Parker prides itself on being a progressive institution where grades don’t matter, it’s antithetical to the school’s mission to not focus on our social-emotional being and instead on grades.”

Saef, on the other hand, is happy with the grading policy as-is. “There’s so many unforeseen circumstances and various reasons why a student may not be able to be as productive than they normally would be in school for mental health reasons and just the stress of living in a pandemic,” Saef said.

Carlsson and Brandon aimed to create a schedule that meets students where they are. Senior Lindsay Carlin advocated for the addition of Flex periods from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. each day. Feedback from faculty has kept classes at two meetings per week to help teachers and students as they balance what Brandon called “academics, home life, and overall pandemic.”

Webster has found the extra time helpful as she schedules additional one-on-one meetings with students and her increased workload is needed to adapt curriculum and adjust to new technologies. Webster has also had to change her Advanced Topics in Chemistry class to fit the new guidelines on AP Tests from the college board. “The thing that’s probably not as obvious is the amount of back work that you have to do to make the lesson go smoothly,” Webster said.

The 9 a.m. start in the schedule was a conscious decision that Brandon considers unique compared to other schools he’s been in contact with. Though students have the opportunity to get more hours of sleep with this starting time, data from student surveys indicates that sleep schedules have been disrupted. 

According to Donohue, irregular sleep creates irregular moods and eating patterns. “The brain actually takes in information differently on the screen than it would live,” Donohue said. “There’s a fatigue that happens, a mental fatigue.”

Senior Jared Saef aims to get eight hours but struggles with routine. “I have been going to bed late some nights like at around one or two and then waking up just a few minutes before my first class, which is really risky,” Saef said. “I even slept through a class this week which was very embarrassing.”

Webster has been doing what she can to make students feel supported and encourage them to engage through fatigue.  “I do things on purpose, to make the situation warm and welcoming,” Webster said. “You know that I’m watching you and I see you.”

Carlsson has talked with teachers like Webster who are less focused on grading than they are on their online classroom culture. “How do I engage my students and how do I build them as thinkers, how do I make them curious, how do I make this fun,” Carlsson said.

The administration is discussing the weighting of the second semester and hope to release guidelines soon. “The conversation that teachers are having is, how can we have an assessment system that feels fair and isn’t disproportionately weighting certain things,” Carlsson said. “How do you get grades that are fair and accurate?”

Both Brandon and Carlsson anticipate that the current schedule and grading policy will remain through the end of the year, even as they address other questions about what May will look like. There will be a modified schedule for the week of Memorial Day, and Finals week will use the same schedule from previous years, though Seniors will not have any classes during that first week of June.

Webster acknowledged that the school is privileged to have flexible policies and scheduling while other schools in the area have trouble implementing online schooling. “For those who have the emotional bandwidth to do school, I think we’re providing an opportunity and we also have the structures in place,” Webster said. “There’s a lot of people that are hurting in our community and that’s okay too. We have structures in place so that they’re not penalized by this experience that they’re having right now.”

This story was originally published on The Weekly on May 13, 2020.