When Illinois schools were ordered to close on March 13, 2020, the community at Queen Bee School District 16 had no idea that it was day one of what would be more than a year of disrupted school. There was no way to predict the impact on student learning. Yet, despite the many challenges brought on by COVID-19, the students at Queen Bee were able to stay on track with their learning — thanks to the digital resources from Savvas and determination of educators, students, and parents. Now, students are back in school, eager to learn.
"I feel like kids are little sponges this year," said Mary Raczek, second grade teacher at Queen Bee. "They're so eager to learn after the last few years. I feel like every drop of knowledge that can be put out there — every experience — they’re soaking up whatever they can from it."
Read about how this small school district, 25 miles outside of Chicago, skillfully handled the shutdown, how its educators and students stayed connected to their learning and each other through quarantine, and how they’re moving learning forward now that they’re back in school.
March 13, 2020 — "The day we hoped would never come."
With 41 percent of the district’s students coming from low-income households, the Queen Bee staff knew that ensuring every child had access to the materials they needed to learn was of the utmost importance. So when schools closed, they worked to get 1,300 Chromebooks and consumable workbooks out to students in just two and half hours.
"So the day that we hoped would never come, we were one district that wasn't photocopying anything," said Dr. Joseph Williams, superintendent of Queen Bee School District.
Then, in the following days, staff members spent hundreds of hours putting together thousands of take-home kits that contained the materials students needed to be able to complete their STEM assignments.
"Our people understood that resource equity was critical," he said. "We put them together because you can't expect families to have these materials in their house."
Then, once the Chromebooks were in the hands of the students, the faculty needed to figure out how to communicate with students and their families to get them their assignments and keep their learning going. Savvas played a critical role in this process, Queen Bee’s educators said.
"What I really liked, which really helped us, was that Google Classroom and Savvas talked to each other," said Nikki Huske, literacy coach for the district, referring to the Savvas Realize learning management system. "It really was nice when teachers were assigning, it would just link right through. Even now, it's nice to have that connection because we're still using Google Classroom as a way to communicate with the students and having it linked with Savvas has been a really wonderful tool."
Second grade teacher Karin Cheesman didn’t realize how many online resources Savvas had to offer — particularly its digital text collections through ReadyGEN — until she needed them, and once she found them she was thrilled. "When we shut down, the kids did not have books. They didn't have their materials," she said. "So we relied solely on Savvas for them to listen to the book and to use books in process-modeling and teaching. We relied solely on Savvas for that."
Also, with educational conferences, workshops, and in-school professional development (PD) sessions being cancelled across the country due to COVID-19, educators missed out on valuable professional learning opportunities. Luckily, teachers had access to training videos through their Savvas resources, such as enVisionmath2.0 Common Core, and they were able to sustain their practice.
"We had first-year teachers teaching during the first year of the pandemic," said Dr. Williams. "They didn't have access to their mentors. But one of the things that drew us to (Savvas) products — the curriculum resources that we partner (with) — was that there's asynchronous PD available. Our teachers were logging on."
Typically reserved for remedial instruction time, Queen Bee decided to open its summer-school program up to all students in the summer of 2021. They ran the program for three weeks and relied on Savvas resources that specifically support summer school instruction and address essential standards. They also included art, music, P.E., and STEM.
"We ran a two-thirds school day for three weeks, and we had about 300 kids come," said Dr. Williams. "Oh, and you know what? They loved it."
Focusing on Students’ Well Being
There was no doubt that students experienced a disruption in their formal education over an 18- to 20-month period. "We normally think about (students with interrupted formal education) for children who are immigrating, or even refugee situations, or people experiencing prolonged homelessness. In this case, no, they didn't experience those things. What they experienced was that they couldn’t go to the one place that's purpose-built for children," said Dr. Williams.
So, for the first weeks at the start of the 2021-22 school year, the Queen Bee staff worked to reintroduce students into a regular routine of learning with an explicit focus on social-emotional development. "Many of our children didn't have the rich and robust access to their peers. So that's what we spent the first six weeks doing for the purposes of getting a really strong picture of where they're functioning," the superintendent said.
While they knew there would be social challenges, he and his staff could take comfort in knowing that because the Savvas resources they were already using prior to the pandemic were easily adaptable to a remote learning setting, there was little impact to the instructional cycle. "We knew once we got them back, we needed to be able to determine where they were at, and one thing we never wondered about was the quality of the resources they were exposed to."
Cheesman, the second-grade teacher, said she has come to rely on SuccessMaker, Savvas Learning Company’s K-8 adaptive personalized program for reading and math, to help address the "extreme" range of skills in her classroom this year. "That has been huge," she said. "Everyone has come into second grade with a different level of experience, and so SuccessMaker has been really helpful to meet students where they're at, whether that's below grade level or above grade level, and for right now, it can fill in some of those gaps as well as enrich them."
Dr. Williams said that many students are logging on to SuccessMaker on their own to improve their skills. "They want to make progress."
The superintendent said he is now seeing more involvement and agency in Queen Bee students. They seem to know that all of the work their teachers have been putting in to keep them learning is for their well-being. Since Queen Bee is a small district, he believes there’s a stronger sense of community, and that was a big help in getting them through these challenging times.
"There's a lot of moral purpose in Queen Bee. The families care," said Dr. Williams.
Teachers are also seeing their students making strides as the 2021-22 school year progresses. Huske, who has been monitoring student progress as the district’s literacy coach, calls it "the great improvement," while math coach Alyssa Kerke is pleasantly surprised by the gains. "Now, in November, I never thought we would get to where we are now," she said. "It’s amazing seeing all of that improvement. It’s just great. Thank goodness."
"All of the teachers and parents worked so hard to support their students. But when we think about the ways that the school community came together, the students played a huge role in making that work. I am still impressed with the students to this day of how much work and effort they put into engaging with their academics when it might have been easier to be like, 'I'm done.' So, when we think of our school community, and how we came together, the students played a huge role in that."
second grade teacher
"We made it through the pandemic and now it's boundless what we can get through with these students and with these families. Any other challenges we're going to be ready for because we went through this together. Twenty years down the road we're going to remember all of these students' names that we had during the pandemic, we're going to remember all these different things. It generates this sense that we're going to look out for each other and we're gonna help each other -- we can make it through this."
first grade teacher
"We had a field test for the Savvas Math Screener and Diagnostic Assessment (MSDA) over the summer and I love how right away you have assignments that the students could work on at home or during an independent time, and it would go through Google Classroom. The screener and the diagnostics are really helpful for differentiation."
"Something that's special about Queen Bee is that you've got some lifers here. I've been here for a really long time and a lot of the teachers stay because we feel good here. I love how diverse it is and I like that the families are appreciative of us and the community. The mayor has even come for our Annual Day of Reading to read to the kids, the police come, and the firemen come -- the community supports us, the families support us, and we also support each other as teachers in this district."
"At the beginning of the shutdown, we had to come up with activities for kindergarten that were a lot more parent-led. I used a lot of screen-sharing or I would record my screen for math and send the links or videos to the parents to help them teach their kids the math that we were doing. It was really amazing to see all of the parents be so on board and willing to help. They were so grateful for any kind of resources, and they were ready and willing to do the work with their kids."