In March, as the state hunkered down for a pandemic, Kentucky schools launched one of their largest educational experiments ever: remote learning for every child.
It was an unprecedented challenge requiring unprecedented creativity. To reach their students, educators made phone calls and left voicemails, wrote text messages and emails, led Zoom sessions and Google Hangouts, and when all else failed, some made old-fashioned home visits.
State data would suggest that around 90% of Kentucky students participated in this non-traditional instruction, or NTI, a state program for school districts to continue teaching when classes would otherwise be canceled.
But the official metric of participation was more flexible and nebulous than average daily attendance, the standard way districts keep track of students and identify those at risk. The state mandated no standard definition of participation: what counted as participation differed widely across districts, schools and even from teacher to teacher. In some districts, participation standards also changed over time to accommodate the daily difficulties of keeping tabs on students.
Sometimes, participation was a measurement of work completed and turned in. Other times, participation meant a student or their parent had simply talked to a teacher, including by text message, one time over the course of a week.
“Participation is trying to be the equivalent of attendance,” said David Cook, director of innovation for the Kentucky Department of Education. “Participation isn’t designed to say the work that was completed was quality work. It’s just designed to say we have evidence that a student was engaged in instruction.”
But educators across Kentucky said although most students submitted a good faith effort to complete work amid the health emergency, evidence of engagement was often lacking and academic accountability unprioritized.
“We were trying to make sure kids were fed,” said Laura Hartke, an elementary school teacher in Lexington. “We were building a plane as we were flying it.”
Now, as teachers battle burnout and confront the uncertainty of the fall, they are gearing up for what might be many more months of remote work or concerns over whether they will be safe in their classrooms — or should keep teaching at all.
NTI: How a short-term solution has filled the gap
Under NTI, which Kentucky launched in 2011, school districts develop plans for how to teach students via nontraditional methods, including technology, when schools must close for health or safety reasons. Once approved by the state, plans give districts up to 10 NTI days that can be included in the district calendar.
The program was designed for short-term use, such as snow days. In the 2018-19 school year, fewer than half of the state’s 172 school districts had NTI plans. That year, NTI districts averaged 4.8 days of NTI, according to data from the state Department of Education.
“There were districts that had no concept of NTI, and there were some districts that went even further than not knowing. They were the districts that said, ‘I hate NTI,’ ” said Cook.
That was before the pandemic. As schools closed statewide, the state allowed districts to submit an emergency NTI plan. Districts were also allowed to take an unlimited number of NTI days. By April, every district in the state was utilizing an emergency NTI plan — and by then, Kentucky schools had been closed for weeks.
Although the state had no requirement for minimum student participation, “a low student participation number may result in an NTI day not being approved,” according to state guidelines updated in March. Some teachers thought their district faced pressure to keep participation figures high.
But since the state didn’t mandate a particular definition for participation, it’s difficult to ascertain exactly how successful the experiment was.
Under their individual NTI plans, districts have discretion on how to document and measure student participation. KDE recommended teachers connect with their students at least once a week “in whatever way necessary.” Although student attendance is typically measured on a daily basis, participation during the pandemic was tallied on a weekly basis. The switch reflected the reality that most teachers were creating instruction on a weekly and not daily schedule, Cook said.
“The teachers knowing where their kids were was just as valuable as all of that academic stuff,” said Cook.
Whether using online or paper instruction, families were part of the educational process in unprecedented ways. It’s what Hartke, in Lexington, called “one of the huge success stories.”
“I had daily contact with parents I’d been trying to get in contact with for a year,” Hartke said. “Hopefully it’s a partnership that will last. Parents don’t always know where their students are educationally. Through this pandemic they saw what their kid learns — if they can read, if they can count, what they know.”
Accurate attendance counts are also important for district funding. A major component of Support Education Excellence in Kentucky (SEEK) funding, which is the primary funding source for districts, involves the prior year’s average daily attendance.
In March, the Kentucky legislature passed a bill allowing districts to use their 2018-19 attendance data in place of their 2019-20 numbers. On average, participation was lower than attendance: while the state reported 90% participation statewide, the state average for daily attendance is 94%.
But for some districts, the reverse was true. Fourteen districts opted to use their 2019-20 numbers, which incorporated the NTI participation data, according to a spokesperson for KDE. Only one of the districts had an approved NTI plan before the pandemic; the other 13 were districts new to NTI amid the emergency.
“Fourteen districts chose the ‘19-’20 year because they thought their numbers were a little better,” Cook said. “I think most people went back to 18-19 because it was cleaner … Even if in some cases it might’ve been a lesser number than ‘19-’20, it probably was simpler to use that number moving forward.”
Truancy enforcement was also suspended during the pandemic. Students might have missed remote instruction for reasons beyond their control: they had to babysit a sibling or attend work, their internet went out, or they don’t have a reliable device.
Inequities exacerbated remote struggles
When a teacher couldn’t reach a student, schools sent administrators, social workers, or other staff to find the student and evaluate their well-being.
Still, some students fell through the cracks.
After weeks trying to track down a young student who was uncommunicative, one elementary school teacher in Scott County was informed by school administrators that the student had moved out of the district without notice.
That student didn’t count toward the participation metric. But evidence that other students were “participating” wasn’t always stronger.
“It looked like I had 99% participation, but five of my 20 students were me just contacting parents asking how they were doing. I had no evidence that the child was doing any work,” said the teacher, who requested anonymity for fear of professional retribution.
Inequities in participation also existed along racial and socioeconomic lines. In Jefferson County Public Schools, Black students didn’t participate in NTI at nearly twice the rate white students didn’t participate, according to data obtained by KyCIR. Meanwhile, only 4% of students who paid for lunch didn’t participate in NTI, versus 10% of students on free-and-reduced lunch status.
Although the state estimates between 9-16% of students don’t have internet access at home, a recent study from national advocacy group Common Sense Media said 36% of Kentucky students don’t have home internet capable of meeting their online learning needs. Still, internet access wasn’t necessarily a barrier to what qualified as “participation,” since teachers generally prepared both online and paper curricula during NTI. According to educators from across the state, paper packets were disproportionately used by students in large families and in rural areas with poor internet or device access.
It wasn’t always an equal education, as paper packets presented numerous disadvantages. Inherently less social and less responsive than online instruction, paper curriculum often failed to spark student motivation or retain student interest.
Lorraine Leadingham is a 64-year-old teacher in Bath County with chronic lung issues, including a rare and severe form of asthma. During NTI, she would wake up at 3 a.m. in order to photocopy homework packets before early-morning pickup.
“If it were a paper packet, they were just going through and marking things,” she said. “You could tell going through it, they hadn’t read the information, they hadn’t done the work with any kind of quality.”
Cook, at KDE, recognized engagement levels were higher in digital environments.
Still, online learning exposed the challenges for families with fewer resources. Devon Avery is a single mother in Hart County who used her phone as a computer during the first week and a half of NTI while her five children shared a single computer.
She’s also a special ed teacher who tried scheduling online conferences for live instruction, but only a few students would show up. Other students filled out paper homework. For them, even weekly participation was difficult. “Some kids, I wouldn’t see anything from them for weeks, and then suddenly I’d get a stack,” she said. “We had some students who didn’t turn anything in until the very last day.”
Part of the engagement problem was incentives, educators said. Some districts instituted a grade floor: students couldn’t do any worse than their performance before NTI started.
“Once it became apparent that these negative grades aren’t going to impact me or my GPA, students began checking out,” said Brison Harvey, a digital learning coach at Fayette County Public Schools. “Incentives matter in the classroom.”
High-achieving students were motivated to remain engaged for end-of-year Advanced Placement exams, which were modified but not canceled. But state standardized tests were scrapped as a result of the pandemic. Schools often devote weeks to test prep. Although the tests are controversial in their capacity to fairly and accurately measure student abilities, their absence removes a major data point from the evaluation of students and districts.
“There’s a lot of districts where that’s going to hit hard,” said Cook. “They tend to build things around the late fall release of their testing data. That’s how they inform professional development, and how they inform what they’re going to do to give more support to certain kids. And they’re not going to have all that.”
New Regulations For Fall
The State Board of Education has adopted emergency regulations for the coming school year that would allow students to count toward “participation” if they attend in-person class; if they or a parent have a remote one-on-one call or web conference with a teacher; if they participate in a group chat or conference with class; if they engage with digital learning management software toward the completion of assignments; or if they submit paper-based assignments to teachers.
Attendance, or participation, will remain mandatory.
Under the biggest change, teachers will be expected to record student participation daily, even for students completing paper packets. In cases of remote learning, that will likely require that teachers tabulate daily participation retrospectively.
The goal is for participation to reflect work completed or student connectedness to their teacher, not to measure the quality of student performance, Cook said. District participation data will be released publicly in October, December, and July, and will be used to calculate state education funding.
Teachers and state leaders believe the learning curve has mostly passed; the mechanics and logistics of remote learning will be better if there’s a second trial with remote learning in the fall.
“Every lesson we did was new. It was like being a first-year teacher again,” said Michelle Peck Williams, a high school social studies teacher in Lexington. Williams is wary of returning to the classroom, and she hopes remote school continues, even with the challenges that brings.
“Teachers will get it done. We’ll find a way.”
Contact Graham Ambrose at firstname.lastname@example.org.