Sherman, Denison schools plan to offer distance learning for the foreseeable future

Michael Hutchins
Herald Democrat
Officials with both Sherman and Denison Independent School Districts said they do not plan to cancel their online and distance learning programs any time in the foreseeable future.

As the fall semester continues on, many Texoma students are continuing their coursework and studies from home.

Officials with the Sherman and Denison Independent School Districts said they plan to continue offering virtual distance learning even though neighboring districts like Van Alstyne and Howe recently ended their programs.

"As of right now, we have no plans to end our distance learning program," SISD Communications Director Kimberly Simpson said, noting the ever-changing public health situation. "That is something that we look at often. We are taking numbers, and at this point in time, we are not looking to end it."

Both districts, along with many schools across the state, transitioned to a distance learning model in mid-March following an outbreak of COVID-19 in the U.S. Under the model, students participated in classes via online coursework, virtual meetings and other methods outside of the classroom.

While both districts have since returned to in-person courses for the fall semester, many students have remained on a distance learning model, officials said.

When courses resumed earlier this fall, about 2,275 — 32 percent of SISD students — began the year under the distance learning model. However, this number has steadily decreased.

As of this week, about 22 percent remain under the distance learning program.

Under Sherman's model students who start on distance learning are asked to commit to nine weeks of remote classes before they can return to the classroom. At that point, some families did choose to return their children to in-person classes.

"At the nine weeks, we let the parents decide if they wanted their child to continue in distance learning or come back to in person," Simpson said. "Some chose to come back, but not all."

Transitions to the distance learning model are being handled on a case-by-case basis, with parents reaching out to individual principals as the point of contact, Simpson said.

The district has been able to move around some of its resources away from virtual learning and back to traditional coursework.

Simpson said that the program varies depending on grade level, but can include virtual classes with teachers using the Internet and virtual meetings. In other cases, students are asked to check in with their teacher each day to report on the progress, assignments and other coursework.

"When we brought students back, that obviously impacted the number of students in the classroom," she said.  '"So we had to transition some of the teachers from virtual teaching to in-person teaching. Then, we have some teachers that are still doing both."

"They either check in daily or have set class times that are virtual," she said. "Depending on what level and what grade level you are in, this can fluctuate."

Some classes, including career and technology course, athletics and band currently require students to meet in person due to the nature of the work, even if students are otherwise studying remotely.

Meanwhile in Denison, about 691 students, or 15 percent of the district, continues to study from home, officials said. Like Sherman, these numbers have decreased over the semester from a high at the beginning of the semester at 1,100 students, or 24 percent of the student population.

"I know when I ran the numbers a few weeks ago it was 819," DISD Director of Instruction Shonda Cannon said.

Unlike Sherman, Denison does allow students to freely transition to the distance learning model at any time rather than on a case-by-case basis.

"If there is a quarantine need or just COVID fears, a family can choose to go remote at any time," Cannon said, noting students need to fill out a application to return to campus.

Students in Denison will meet with their instructors using Zoom virtual meetings, with assignments submitted through the Schoology online learning platform.

Cannon said that the system is based more online-focused than the program that the district adopted in early March for the remainder of the spring semester. At the time, educators were tasked with finding a way to conduct classes remotely with little planning time. Now, however, teachers have had the benefit of months of preparation for the continued online courses.

"In a matter of 48 hours, we learned that school was closing and I think we did an admirable job, but it was a very quick pivot," she said. "We were utilizing paper packets and now it is much more refined so that students are, for lack of a better term, being piped into the classroom.

"It is all because of technology and the technological resources that we have in place that allows us to do a much better job of remote learning at this point."

Despite the benefits of the online courses, Cannon noted that the model does not work for all students. Some, upon transitioning to the online model, learn that they need the physical presence to exceed in the classroom.

"The grade that a student earns is directly related to  the effort that they put forth," she said. "We are seeing some students who are succeeding using remote learning and I think some of the students who returned realized that model wasn't for them."