GDOE: Students risk missing required 180 learning days

GETTING SET UP: D.L. Perez Elementary School second-grade teacher Elizabeth Taijeron sets up an interactive whiteboard on Aug. 12 as she makes final classroom preparations for the first day of school. Dontana Keraskes/The Guam Daily Post

On Monday, public school students across the island will return to the schools for face-to-face instruction but with the current COVID-19 situation in the community, not all students are ready to head back to the classroom.

The Guam Department of Education has a population of 26,000 students in 41 schools across the island. Students had the option this school year to be instructed in school or at home.

Those that opted for the more traditional model of learning, MOL, are now headed back to the classroom after a two-week suspension of in-person instruction as a result of the increase of COVID-19 positive cases in the community.

But some students, like Southern High School 10th grader, Jaymarah Mata, are nervous about going back to school Monday.

“I want to stay online, because there’s a lot of cases on the island. I go to school and I have little brothers at home. I don’t want to go to school and bring it home to them,” Mata said.

During the first two weeks of the new school year, Mata’s parents chose to keep their kids home instead of sending them to school.

“We chose face-to face because I didn’t have what was needed, I didn’t have a laptop or Wi-Fi, so I needed to go face-to-face,” Mata said.

Fernandez said there are 280 outstanding requests from parents to switch from the in-person model of instruction to the online model.

“We are tracking those requests and reviewing them, but, no change in our policy has been made yet,” Fernandez said.

The department is limited in its ability to support face-to-face instruction and the online learning program.

“It has to do with the number of teachers and our teaching shortage at the moment,” Fernandez said.

Guam continues to see triple-digit numbers of COVID-19 cases in the community daily, but the governor, in consultation with GDOE and health officials, made the determination that schools could reopen.

“Evidence shows us that schools can open safely if school-age children are surrounded by vaccinated persons. We can create a safe haven and, ultimately, a safe learning environment for our children, but it will take a community committed to proven mitigation measures,” Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero said.

When school opens Monday, students like Mata have no choice but to return to school.

“It makes me feel scared because there could always be one kid that we don’t know has it. They don’t really separate the kids, outside and in classrooms,” Mata said.

She said since she has no choice, she hopes to see better enforcement of social distancing measures and flexibility given to students who share similar concerns.

An executive order from the governor encouraged flexibility in allowing students to remain in the online model of learning. But GDOE said it has already been as flexible as it can be.

“Part of that flexibility was already exercised when we designed the opportunity to keep students online while also providing instruction for those that returned face-to-face.”

GDOE said transfers between the models of learning would be made at the start of the second semester depending on a school’s ability to accommodate both options. 

But GDOE’s overall goal is to return to full face-to-face instruction. How long it will take to get there, depends on several factors.

“One is a decline of community cases and community positivity levels and we continue to track that and the CDC’s risk assessment framework,” Fernandez said.

Guam continues to be designated as a high-risk transmission area, even as residents 12 and older line up to be vaccinated.

“The other component critical is the vaccination rate particularly at the secondary schools. One of the critical things we wanted to know is the vaccination rate at the student level for those students that are eligible for vaccination,” Fernandez said. "Of course, we want to monitor over the next couple of weeks the operations of our schools in terms of the safety protocols and safety measures in place."

For the next couple of weeks, students will remain in cohorts as GDOE monitors the community situation.

“We will be in active discussion with the Guam Education Board regarding any further decision to return to full five days of instruction,” Fernandez said. “No further change has taken place with regard to the online model of learning, if you were face-to-face coming into the school year, you are expected to return to face-to-face instruction.”

On Monday, half the student population of each school will be on campus to resume in-person instruction.

Each school divided its student population into two groups, cohort A and cohort B, based on the student’s last name.

The cohorts will alternate on an “AB” schedule daily to provide students with five days of instruction over a two-week period.

That means that there will be days during the week that students are not in school. But that doesn’t mean students won’t have homework to keep them busy.

“I would describe it as extended homework,” said Deputy Superintendent Joseph Sanchez. “Hard copy packets are possible, if necessary. We are encouraging again teachers and students to work electronically as much as possible so if they can access the material and resources online that would be preferable.”

Unlike last school year, when a majority of GDOE students were engaged in hard copy learning, Sanchez said teachers are now interacting with students more and have a better opportunity to adjust the assignments to meet the students' need.

“It's a combination of online and hard copy work that’s going to be provided during those days. We are also encouraging the teachers to continue to practice the 'flipped classroom,'" Sanchez said.

A flipped classroom involves teachers pre-recording instructional videos for students to free up time in the classroom. GDOE has encouraged teachers to pre-record lessons and send it to students ahead of class as part of asynchronous learning.

“Then when they come to class, they utilize that time for actual interaction or answering questions or maybe even more guided practice with the teacher there,” Sanchez said. “We still want to promote and encourage use of technology for students.”

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