With the strong possibility that schools will not open for the remainder of the school year, Sacramento-area districts are adjusting their plans and setting up distance learning programs.
Some school districts are ahead of others, having prepared packets and beginning online instruction almost immediately after Sacramento officials closed schools to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Thousands of students began meeting with teachers and classmates via video-based conferencing platforms like Zoom as they await instruction.
But many parents across the region are feeling angst over how late their schools are distributing work to students.
“I don’t know how anyone could even think about putting the brakes on our kids’ education at this time,” said Laure Wolfrey, a Folsom parent whose son is a senior at Vista Del Lago High School.
Wolfrey is concerned whether seniors will be able to fulfill their required credits to graduate.
“They’ll probably be pushed through, which is a detriment to them,” she said.
The challenge with online learning
Many school districts began discussing online learning once closures became imminent. But equity is a factor - many students don’t have access to laptops or reliable internet at home, according to officials in several school districts. In some cases, teacher unions and school districts had to develop memorandums of understanding defining how they would implement distance learning.
And teachers require hours of training on how to use online platforms such as Zoom and Google Classroom to effectively teach students new curriculum.
The Elk Grove Unified School District announced on Monday it will finish the remainder of the school year online. The district, the largest in Northern California, made its announcement to close its schools a week before other Sacramento-area school districts after discovering that a parent of a child who attends a school in the district was ordered into quarantine.
Beginning March 25, teachers will receive training on how to use Synergy, Zoom, Google Apps for Education, Microsoft and Edgenuity to create a new curriculum, according to the announcement.
High school and middle school students will begin instruction on April 16, and elementary aged students will begin on April 20, more than a month after schools closed.
Nearly half of Elk Grove’s elementary aged students are on a year-round calendar system, where students on four different tracks take turns attending school for three months and having a month of break. Some students, those on “D track,” will be out of school for 11 weeks before online classes begin. Students on other tracks that end in June will now end instruction at the end of May along with the rest of Elk Grove Unified’s students.
Delays in learning during COVID-19
For some families, the online education roll out has been too slow.
Renee Webster-Hawkins, who serves on the Sacramento City Unified School District’s Community Advisory Committee for Special Education and the LCAP Parent Advisory Council, said she was “highly disappointed about the abject paralysis that has gripped the district.”
Webster-Hawkins received a robocall from her son’s high school principal announcing parents will receive more information soon. But so far, her son has received little guidance.
On Monday, the district said it was in discussions with the teachers union on how educators will provide instruction and support to students, with plans to implement distance learning. A memorandum of understanding between the district and the union said the district expects to start formal distance learning April 13.
Some teachers in Sacramento City Unified took it upon themselves to communicate with their students. The district told principals to cease communication with staff until official learning plans were established, according to emails from the district.
“It has come to our attention that some of you may be sending out communication regarding student learning, individually from your site and/or through your teachers,” read a statement from the district to principals on March 17. “Please stop this immediately. Our district has sent out numerous communications that any plan for student learning will be sent from our central office.”
C.K. McClatchy High School parent JeVonne Howard said some of her daughter’s teachers have been communicating online since schools have closed.
“I reached out to each of my daughter’s teachers last week,” Howard said. “Three of the six responded. Only two gave assignments or a plan.”
This week, under guidance of the administration, some Sacramento City Unified teachers began reaching out to parents and students to ask about their access to technology and internet as the district prepares for distance learning.
Webster-Hawkins said she continues to wait for a call or email.
“There has been a lot of communication about free lunches, and lots of great social media about that,” she said. “It almost appears that the district’s only service is providing meals.”
School districts provide laptops, Zoom sessions
Some schools, like Eureka Union School District, set up a distance learning website where teachers provide daily assignments and check-ins.
Teachers in other districts, like Robla School District’s Zachary Smith, created their own classroom spaces on YouTube.
Schools in Folsom Cordova Unified and San Juan Unified began distributing Chromebooks to students this week in preparation for distance learning.
San Juan Unified School District officials said they are working to transition to a distance learning model of instruction by April 13, which will allow teachers to provide new assignments to students. Parents in the district largely say their children are already learning material and in contact with teachers.
The district’s teachers are providing virtual office hours, and are available four hours a day to read and review material with students.
“We found that we had a lot to learn and a very short window of time to become proficient,” said Kasey Muraoka, a sixth grade teacher at Del Dayo Elementary School in Carmichael. “Of course this is also something our students and parents were only a bit familiar with, so they too required a lot of hand holding to get going with it.”
Muraoka has already helped her students access Google Docs and they now hold classroom meetings on Zoom.
The early practice allowed Muraoka to be better prepared for San Juan Unified’s upcoming plans to distribute Chromebooks to all students who do not otherwise have access to laptops. The district will work with families to match them with free or reduced-cost internet connectivity.
“We are also working hard to implement support for our teachers and other educators as they make this shift through the use of virtual professional learning and collaborative communities of practitioners,” read a statement from San Juan Unified.
Melissa Benke, a fourth grade teacher at Cambridge Heights Elementary in Citrus Heights, has coordinated with a Sutter’s Fort docent to create a virtual field trip to the historic site since her class trip was canceled.
“Thursday was supposed to be our overnight field trip to Sutter’s Fort, which we had been planning for months,” Benke said. “Instead, we will dress in costume. After (the docent) shows us some off-limit items and answers pre-screened questions, kids will give their oral reports on their characters they have been researching.”
School plans still being finalized
As it becomes evident that students will likely not return to their physical classrooms this school year, school officials say they are still finalizing online platforms for students to use the next few months.
“In the last three days, school and district leaders have been working with staff and families to assess technology needs for working and learning at home, and allowing students and staff to gather materials they will need in the coming weeks,” read a statement from Folsom Cordova Unified.
“Taking this long to go online is beyond unacceptable,” said Folsom parent Andrea Shaw. “There appears to be no sense of urgency and only excuses.”
Some teachers are replying to parent emails, saying they were advised not to provide curriculum just yet. Folsom Cordova Unified plans to launch its online platform on March 30.
“Many of us are beyond frustrated,” Shaw said.