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By Susan Landry
Weeks into shelter in place orders, many districts are still reeling as they navigate the new world of distance learning, profoundly adjusting their curricula, confronting student food insecurity and facing issues of technology access, all at hyper speed.
On Wednesday, the Santa Cruz County Office of Education — which initially closed schools on March 16 — announced that facility closures will last through the end of the academic year. The Monterey County Office of Education put out a like statement a day earlier.
“Having to shut down 23 sites and still provide a high quality education virtually is something new, I think, to most everyone.” said PK Diffenbaugh, the Superintendent of Monterey Peninsula Unified School District. “I think many are developing plans as we go.”
As teachers adapt their lessons to the virtual world, districts are moving in equal quickstep to ensure students have the right tools. “Not all of our families have devices and internet access,” said Faris Sabbah, the Santa Cruz County superintendent of schools. “Everyone’s working really hard to get them that access.”
Pajaro Valley Unified School District — which began online instruction on March 23 — distributed 15,000 chromebooks just last week, one for every student in grades 2-12. “We went with the assumption that everyone needed it,” said PVUSD superintendent Michelle Rodriguez.
When students came to collect those chromebooks, the district passed out 750 individual hotspots to families without internet access. An additional 250 families were placed on a waitlist, and are starting receiving those hotspots now, said Rodriguez. Each hotspot comes with a two year contract, meaning they will cost PVUSD $135,000 per year for two years.
Districts are also teaming up with local internet providers like Cruzio, which is offering free service for three months to families in need. “It could take some time before those internet service providers will be able to hook all of those families up,” said Sabbah. In the meantime, many students are using paper packets coupled with teacher assistance over the phone.
Still, the physical technology is only one piece of the puzzle. “You can fling technology at a problem, but some human has to be there to implement the technological solution effectively,” said Joshua Harris, the director of educational technology at Alisal Union School District.
“We could put the most expensive, fancy MacBook and the best broadband connection in every home, if we had those resources, but without the teachers, students and families being prepared for that, it wouldn’t matter,” said Harris. At Alisal, this preparation includes intensive teacher training sessions, an interactive website with instructional guides and as much communication between parents, teachers and staff as possible.
Before COVID-19, every K-6 student at Alisal utilized a chromebook for in-class assignments and homework. Even still, Harris explained that additional supports are crucial. “Doing this much work, requiring this much parent support — as remote instruction does — is pretty new,” said Harris. “It requires a certain sort of flexibility and thinking on everybody’s part to make these changes.”
At the county level, Sabbah said some parents are reporting feeling overwhelmed as they navigate supporting their children through distance learning.
“The feedback that we’re getting from some of our families is that for them, the expectations are really high,” said Sabbah. “The idea that students can generate the same amount of content on their own or with a parent’s support isn’t always true.”
In response, districts are exploring new lesson modalities including project-centered work and portfolio style approaches. “We don’t want kids sitting in front of a screen for eight hours. That’s not what we view as high-quality learning,” said Diffenbaugh.
Instead, MPUSD — where distance learning begins on April 8 — will offer a diversity of lessons including things like exercise, creative art and playtime with siblings, particularly for younger students.
Social Emotional Supports
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, around 15 percent of students at MPUSD qualified as homeless under the McKinney-Vento Act, compared with 10 percent in Monterey County overall. Sources across districts expect these numbers to spike as parents lose jobs and income.
In Santa Cruz County, Sabbah said permanently losing contact with students is also a huge concern. “We’re hearing about families that are in really difficult financial situations. And students are now working in the fields to help supplement the family’s income. Those students can’t focus on their education,” said Sabbah, “That’s one of the things I worry about the most—what about our most vulnerable students? Are we losing them?”
Districts are taking a variety of steps to support these students, including serving breakfast and lunch to supplement meals students typically receive during school hours. “Each of our school districts is working hard to serve breakfast and lunch in walk-up and drive-up locations throughout Monterey County,” said Deneen Guss, the Monterey County superintendent of schools.
In Santa Cruz County, districts are offering a similar approach, providing grab-and-go meals to any young person who shows up at a district site, whether it’s their home district or not. “It’s been working out really great,” said Sabbah, “We’re looking at large numbers of students that are able to access these services across the county.” Maps of meal distribution locations are available online for Monterey County and Santa Cruz County.
MCOE is also working closely with homeless and warming centers, providing hygiene kits to qualified Mckinney-Vento students and instructional supplies, said Guss.
At MPUSD, Diffenbaugh explained that prioritizing care over content is imperative, as levels of isolation, anxiety and depression rise. “A lot of our work now is shifting from the traditional teacher role to more of a social worker approach,” said Diffenbaugh. “We’re going to experience some failures and have to learn from failure. I think that’s hard for people to accept because when your students are going through so much, you want to provide them with everything you have.”
To provide this support, schools across districts are continuing work between students and case managers, while navigating how to set up student meetings with counselors that prioritize the children’s safety and privacy.
Teachers play a key role here, too. “For many, the teacher is the most stable adult influence in their lives, to take that away is devestaging,” said Diffenbaugh. “So, we’re developing ways where teachers interact with our students in real time, whether it’s a read aloud or a virtual class circle to share how they’re feeling.”
Cameron Cox, a biology teacher at Santa Cruz High, explained that while distance learning creates an array of challenges, staying adaptable is key to supporting his 91 students.
“I think keeping the kids in the front of our minds is the most important thing,” said Cox, “So I’m trying to do that. I’m trying to streamline my work, I’m trying to connect with kids, help them change their ideas in a quick and efficient way and I’m just trying to make sure I don’t leave any of them out.”
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