ELKHART — Even as students and parents adjust to a prolonged stretch of online learning, local school officials are breathing a sigh of relief over the governor’s recent announcement to cancel state standardized tests in the wake of the coronavirus.
Gov. Eric Holcomb announced last week that all Indiana schools are closed at least through May 1 to help lessen the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
With the extended closures, schools will not have to administer the federally required ILEARN exam to grades 3-8. Other tests such as IREAD-3 for third-graders and ISTEP 10 for high-schoolers also are canceled. The state has asked for testing forgiveness from the U.S. Department of Education but has not received it yet.
“If by some miracle, we get students back this year, we’ll use that time in class for instruction, not for cramming for tests,” Holcomb said at a news conference.
Holcomb said he spoke with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and informed her of the state’s decision.
In Elkhart County, school officials said they were pleased with the decision and said it allows them more flexibility to direct attention to more needed measures.
“We’ve had really heavy traffic at our food distribution sites and being able to pull off state testing right now would have just been a challenge,” said Mickey Wagner, director of elementary education at Concord Community Schools. “And trying to hold schools accountable for student learning just isn’t important at the moment, so we’re happy for the flexibility that the state has given us.”
School officials at Elkhart, Fairfield and Baugo school corporations shared similar sentiments.
“We’re very relieved that the state has made the right decision to cancel tests for this year,” said Monica Kegerreis, assistant superintendent at Fairfield Community Schools. “It takes some of the elements of planning through and thinking about making sure students are ready for a high-stakes test when we don’t see them on a daily basis was posing a challenge.”
The closures have prompted teachers, students and even parents to adjust to a new normal by switching to remote, online learning.
Many school corporations typically use e-learning as a tool to help students stay current with their studies during events, such as snow days when students aren’t able to make it to school.
Now, it’s become the new standard for educating students.
“In one respect, switching to e-learning has been challenging because we lose that daily personal contact with students being around,” said Steve Thalheimer, superintendent at Elkhart Community Schools, “Losing daily contact diminishes the educational process a bit because it’s crucial in helping develop all of our students as individual people and knowing them and being able to check with them personally as all of our teachers do on a daily basis.”
Byron Sanders, superintendent at Baugo Community Schools, agreed.
“Anytime your kids aren’t in your classrooms where we can control the learning environment, that’s a challenge,” he said. “We certainly know we can focus our attention on high-stakes testing if students were in our classroom, so those are just unknowns.”
For Krista Riblet, a teacher at Elkhart Central High School, the physical absence has been the main challenge for her as she adjusts to the new reality of e-learning.
“I worry about my kids, and wish I could be there to help them through this crisis,” she said. “Sometimes school is a distraction from the social issues that they have to deal with every day. We can’t be there to reassure them that everything is going to be OK.”
Elkhart’s Tanzie Nielsen, a parent of two students who attend Elkhart Community Schools, said she believes extending school closures and canceling state-mandated tests was the right move.
“It’s unfortunate, but I think closing the schools was a necessary step that had to be taken to slow down the spread of this virus and keep everyone as safe as we possibly can,” Nielsen said. “Also, I’ve never been a fan of state-mandated testing anyway, so I’m kind of glad they don’t have to deal with that this year.”
Nielsen is the mother of McKade, 17, who’s a junior at Elkhart Central High School, and Rogan, 14, an eighth-grader at North Side Middle School.
She said her boys are adjusting to the e-learning in strides. McKade said completing assignments online is less time consuming, however, remembering to do them sometimes can be a challenge.
Asked what they miss most about school, both McKade and Rogan replied, “the social interaction.”
“I do fine with learning on my own, but I do miss interacting with friends in school,” said McKade.
Another parent, Patty Gorosieta, also said she believes closing schools was the right move. She is the mother of a sophomore at Concord High School and a third-grader at Concord South Side, part of Concord Community Schools.
“I personally appreciate the decision to close schools because I’m a dialysis patient, so I’m considered high-risk, and knowing that my kids are here at home and that they aren’t bringing any kind of virus gives me a peace of mind,” she said.
She said her children have been doing a good job of staying on top of the workload at home and expressed her appreciation to their teachers for helping to make the transition smooth.
“Nobody prepared the teachers for having to do something like this and having to do e-learning,” she said. “This is something new to them also. We’re trying to adapt to something that’s new for all of us.”
School officials said no decision has been made about graduation ceremonies.