Education

School closures due to the coronavirus have millions of students out of school nationwide. But teachers are still trying to keep students engaged in learning.

From her apartment in downtown Louisville, Lincoln Elementary Performing Arts teacher KeNiesha Watkins was teaching a writing lesson Thursday afternoon through FaceTime.

“Ok, so we’re going to be working on ‘What is your favorite time of the year?'” Watkins explained to Addison, a fourth grader smiling back at Watkins from her iPhone screen.

Students have been out of school since Monday, when Jefferson County Public Schools and most other Kentucky school districts closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Addison had an idea for a writing prompt Watkins sent home in a big packet of activities, but she wanted some help structuring her essay.

“My favorite time of the year is whenever the holidays start. You know, like Christmas?” Addison said.

“OK! That’s perfect, I love that!” Watkins said.

Like all Kentucky school districts, JCPS is going to Non-Traditional Instruction (NTI), to try to keep kids learning as much as possible while schools are closed. The JCPS board of education approved the district’s NTI plan Thursday night during a virtual meeting.

As part of the plan, JCPS district staff put together a bank of activities for each grade – students are supposed to complete at least five activities a week. Teachers, like Watkins, sent home optional extra work. Watkins spends most of her day answering questions from parents on Facebook and Class DoJo, classroom communication app. But Watkins said it’s not the same as seeing her students each day.

“It doesn’t feel right,” she said. “And I’m just trying to connect with the parents and the kids as much as I can.”

Watkins has a Facebook group for the class, where families have posted photos of students doing work, or just having fun. Watkins makes videos telling her class how much she misses them. She also calls, emails and messages families to check in.

One challenge so far for Watkins, and many teachers, is keeping kids engaged who don’t have a computer or internet. In Thursday night’s school board meeting, JCPS superintendent Marty Pollio warned moving to NTI “could expand the achievement gap.”

“The concern [is] that kids of means end up having computers and access to this quality instruction, and those that don’t have access to computers and connectivity fall farther behind,” Pollio said.

He said the district is planning to gather up 25,000 existing JCPS Chromebooks and distribute them to students in need. But many students also need reliable WiFi, and Pollio said he’s still in conversation with Louisville Metro government and internet providers about solutions.

He said the main challenge is negotiating with companies, “who are trying to make a profit as well.”

At least one company, Charter, has agreed to provide free internet for two months to households of K-12 and college students. But Pollio said they still need more companies to help.

Back in her apartment, Watkins was on a call with another student named Harlow.

Hey buddy, whatcha doing?” Watkins asked.

“Not much. I just had to take the dog out,” he told her. Harlow sounded kind of down, maybe a little bored. When Watkins asked what time of year he wanted to write about for his prompt, he told her Easter.

“I like Easter because me and all my family, like all 14 of the cousins, we all get together and we have a big Easter egg hunt, and we count our eggs,” he said. But then he went on to say he can’t see his cousins right now, because his family is using social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“I bet that’s hard,” Watkins said.

Harlow agreed, it is.

It’s hard for Watkins too. She helped Harlow with his essay intro, then said goodbye, and hung up the phone.

“I miss them so much,” she said.

JCPS schools are tentatively scheduled to reopen April 6. But state leaders still don’t really know how long the closure will last. At Thursday night’s board meeting, Pollio said he thought it was “highly unlikely” students would return on April 6.

A big fear for Watkins is that they won’t come back before the end of the year, and she won’t get to finish out the school-year with her class before they move up to 5th grade.

“It can’t just end like that,” she said.

She was holding out hope they’ll get to come back. But if they don’t, she said, she’ll have some kind of celebration for them: “a real ending,” she said, “with ice cream.”

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.