Nebraska Education Commissioner Talks About COVID-19 Impacts on Teaching and Learning

April 8, 2020, 5:45 a.m. ·


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Nebraska schools have been empty for a couple weeks, with COVID-19 forcing a statewide move to remote teaching and learning. NET producer Mike Tobias talks with Nebraska Commissioner of Education Matt Blomstedt about how this is working, and other challenges to delivering education during a pandemic.

Mike Tobias, NET News: How is remote learning working so far?

Matt Blomstedt, Nebraska Commissioner of Education (courtesy photo

CLICK HERE for more NET News COVID-19 reporting and information.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts will answer questions during a one-hour NET News "Speaking of Nebraska" live town hall meeting about COVID-19 and our state’s response: Thursday at 8:30 p.m. CT on NET Television, NET Radio, and streaming online. Ricketts will be joined by Nebraska Director of Economic Development Anthony Goins and Dr. James Lawler, associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Call 800-676-5446 or 402-472-1212 to submit questions during the show, or submit questions in advance HERE.

Matt Blomstedt, Nebraska Commissioner of Education: I think remote learning is probably taking different shapes all over the state, but I know that schools have worked really hard to provide some direction and guidance to students and teachers have also really tried to be active in supporting students in what they really need right now. And I think it's been really a remarkable lift on the part of educators, but also a remarkable lift on the part of families and parents at this moment in time.

Tobias: What are the biggest challenges teachers and schools are running into?

Blomstedt: Our students and families have very different family situations from everything from access to technology to the need obviously for parents to continue working and being in the workplace. So balancing the needs of our unique family situations is a challenge for educators as well. Obviously schools have been working very hard to ensure that ongoing food programs are taking place and finding ways to connect with families through this is has been a critical part of that. Naturally because of the virus itself, everyone has levels of risk if they have to be extremely cautious, and so balancing all those things while really caring about what's happening in a family has been very important.

Tobias: Talk about challenges for families with limited broadband or technology, or have parents working during the day and don’t have as much time to help with teaching and learning as much?

Blomstedt: I think a big part for our efforts are to help parents understand that they aren't necessarily having to replace everything that would happen in a school day for their respective children in these settings. Schools have really tried to provide a lot of guidance and assistance to help folks. Because not everyone has access to necessarily the technology, schools had been working to provide packets and other kinds of meaningful engagements for students. I think it's important for parents to know that students being able to do some of the normal daily chores and being engaged in what's happening in the family, it's a great opportunity for students to know about what day-to-day life in a household can look like as far as participating in all those common chores that we might have and have children do on a regular basis. But everything from engaging in dishwashing, to also be part of maybe helping prepare meals, to helping clean are actually learning experiences for students. And so tying that together with what they've known in school with what happens on a routine basis in our daily lives I think is a really important strategy.

Blomstedt: There are so many folks that get so tied to the technology and the devices that we also want to encourage that folks are thinking about learning in other fashions. So certainly playing games and reading and having students really focus on what is important for them. Having them understand it's okay to focus on things they want to be focused on at this moment in time, while engaging with the learning materials that have been provided by the school. So it's going to take all of us to kind of continue to do that work. But I want parents to especially know, and I think educators would generally feel this way, never in the, probably in our recent history anyway, has it been so important to be a part of your child's education, and again, there's not really wrong things you can do at this moment if you're allowing the student to be engaged, allowing the child to be engaged in day-to-day life.

Tobias: Is it hard to get used to a school day that takes different forms for different people?

Blomstedt: I think it's hard because I think obviously around our educator world, we've had the routines of the bell schedules and people would show up at a given time, but we know that learning takes place 24/7 for our children. We know that there's a lot of things that we give content and deliver content in a traditional school setting, but it's actually their engagement with their world around them that helps embed that learning and understand that. School is beyond the kind of normal content that we think about, but it's actually social interactions and other things as well, and continuing to practice some of things is important as we keep going. I think it's difficult for folks to understand that learning is happening all the time. I truly believe that children will find ways to learn in a lot of different settings.

Blomstedt: Our opportunity I think as parents, as adults and even in the education setting is really around engaging students in what they want to do and what they want to dream about and the things that they want to accomplish in their life and in their learning. It could be this great moment of revelation around how we really engage with students in a more meaningful manner, and how we work with parents and educators in different ways. So I think we're learning a lot. It's a challenge for us to think about running school as school was, it's obviously not as it was. So how do we continue learning while we have a different environment to work in? There's a lot of different tools and resources, using all of those, and not feeling that there's one best way, but a lot of different ways based on a student's needs.

Tobias: What are some of the creative ways you’re seeing teachers deliver content remotely?

Blomstedt: I think it's been interesting to see how teachers deliver content and I've seen a few firsthand, but also just what I witnessed and watched otherwise. You're seeing teachers be very thoughtful about providing learning opportunities, including perhaps a learning opportunity to go outside and build your own little obstacle course or think about how you kind of engage in the world that's around you. And I'm seeing that we're not necessarily introducing a lot of new content at this time of a year normally. It's really about that engagement side. So you're seeing teachers be thoughtful. I've also seen teachers try to connect and call every student, either by video chat or just direct phone calls. Kids care about their teachers. I've seen quite a bit on social media about teachers missing their students and the reverse is true. So those human interactions and those things are really going the extra mile I think with teachers who really do care about the wellbeing of these students. I think those are really positive things that are happening right now.

Tobias: This question was called into our “Speaking of Nebraska” show recently by CJ from Plattsmouth: how are you keeping consistency in education standards across different schools?

Blomstedt: We ask schools to submit continuity of learning plans to the department on how they're going to continue to work on different areas and how they will ensure that some of the approaches that they're using will help us do that. It's not necessarily always the first focus that we end up focusing standard by standard like we might normally see in a classroom environment. But for us to be thoughtful about, we've really introduced a lot of information, a lot of content through the school year. Given the fact that this is actually our normal assessment timeframe in a school year, it gives us a chance to think about these further engagements. And we're not doing state assessments. So really, it's time to really just see if teachers and students can be engaged together.

Blomstedt: We've already received waivers for state assessment and what we're doing on traditional accountability. We built an accountability system in Nebraska that was actually interested in some of the things that we're doing now. How we measure that isn't going to be our first concern, but actually looking for strategies for schools to be using and coming out of this. As we do come out of this, we want to be thoughtful about how can we measure where students are at, not for state assessment purposes or not for state accountability purposes. They're really to have a good sense of where students are at. It's pretty typical in the research and research literature around, there's always been a summer learning loss. So if you think about strategies that we've used in summertime, especially around reading and literacy, it's going to be important for us to continue to have books in front of children, age appropriate books in front of children so they can be engaged with that. This longer period of time in which they won't be engaged in a formal setting for some students will be more of a disadvantage than for others. And so we have to be thoughtful about what that looks like. We have students with disabilities, learning disabilities and physical disabilities, that we're working very hard with our schools to figure out how the best ways are to serve them as well. Again, it's going to take partnerships between parents and teachers and families and all of us really to be able to compensate for some of those things that might be lost in these moments. And again, that's really what we're hoping to be able to continue to shape as a set of strategies statewide that help schools and help parents and help families address those types of challenges.

Tobias: What about services for students with disabilities?

Blomstedt: So what's been a requirement underneath the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, so the Federal law around special ed, as well as our requirements from a state level, is we're asking that every child that has an individual education plan, that their schools are in contact with each one of those parents and be beginning to address the types of challenges that we have. In some cases, we have physical disabilities and things where perhaps students were receiving physical therapy or occupational therapy to help them in these settings. That's a real challenge in this moment in time, and it puts us in a position where we want to ensure that the outreach and the communication between parents and schools is really at an all-time high. In fact in our case in Nebraska, I'm trying to work with disability advocacy groups and talk about strategies to ensure that that communication is happening and we're going to continue to do that work. I'm very proud of how schools are trying to meet those challenge,s but parents also have to be a bit patient if they have a child with a disability to really work with the school. I think everyone wants to come up with strategies in this moment that will make a real difference.

Tobias: Carrie from Omaha called into a recent “Speaking of Nebraska” program to ask about summer school. So what about summer classes and activities?

Blomstedt: We're obviously probably in the perspective right now of anticipating that we'll still have disruptions going into the summer, being thoughtful and starting to have conversations about how summer activities could be modified to hopefully deal with cohorts of students or things if we're in a physical setting and also modified to think about access to ongoing remote learning environment for summer school. Summer school, traditionally, is trying to help with learning loss obviously around reading and other fronts. But it's also an important part of the strategy for working parents that have used summer school as part of their strategy to make sure their students are engaged in meaningful ways. So, I am in the middle of conversations with a lot of school leaders about how we might move that forward. We'll know a little bit more as hopefully these restrictions are starting to change and we'll be able to open up some of those things. But we are really starting to think about the plans that will make summer school an interesting and important activity. But it might have to look different than it has in the past.

Tobias: And what about summer activities?

Blomstedt: We'll have to watch with local and state public health officials about what's going to be safe. We've had ongoing concerns obviously about sporting events as being a place where this virus can spread relatively rapidly with people in close quarters. And so that's going to be something that we'll continue to gauge and watch with health officials. Certainly currently club sports and other things that folks are obviously interested in, I know we're entering baseball season and things like that too. Those right now look to have limitations going into the summer yet. So we'll continue to watch that.

Tobias: What's the role of education in helping students and families deal with the stress of this situation?

Blomstedt: It's really important actually that families and schools are beginning to talk about obviously the stresses that we all feel at this moment. I think it's important for us to be thinking about age appropriate conversations with students and parents certainly can talk to their students about how they're feeling and what their emotions are. I've tweeted out before about watching Mr. Rogers and quality public television programs for age appropriate things is actually a great thing. I certainly myself would have grown up watching Mr. Rogers and actually, I find some comfort in those things, but I think it might be thoughtful for parents to be able to sit down and watch things that talk about behavioral and emotional health of families and students and finding those things that can be helpful for us all. Hardly anyone alive has faced the challenge I think as dramatic is this, and especially when everyone's individual health is at risk in this setting, having decent conversations, engaging in that. I'm going to encourage actually that we continue to look for resources that help folks in those family conversations about emotional wellbeing, and social and emotional health for families. It's absolutely critical and everyone's going through it. You kind of have to hold one another up. And I think that's true even between teachers and families and families and their children is really critical.

Tobias: Your advice for students?

Blomstedt: For students, the interesting part is all those students who would've said, "Hey, look, I don't really want to have to go to school or be part of that." And I think I increasingly see that this has a been a huge disruption for them. Finding their balance where they're really thoughtful about how they can engage in their learning, and be engaged and continue to kind of work together. I know it's also a real loss. There's grief associated with this. For us to talk about those things that we've lost is part of that. But there's also a lot of hope, a lot of hope in the sense that I think kids bring a lot of hope to me, anyway. And I've told folks before, what I probably miss most in this moment in time is being able to visit a school where you get a random hug from an elementary student. And I know that's a tough thing. And remember, they're missing that too. They're missing those opportunities right now. So we'll be thoughtful and look forward to the chances to get back together when this is subsiding and over. I would just say to parents and families and even to students out there: take care of one another. That's our big goal right now is everyone's trying to really work hard to take care of one another in this setting.