Educating in an Outbreak: California Teachers Adapt to the New Reality of 'Distance Learning'

With schools across California closed because of the coronavirus, teachers and their students are having to quickly shift to online learning.  (Courtesy of San Juan Unified School Distrct)

Mary Vanasit, a third grade teacher in the Fairfield-Suisun Unified School District, is holding class for the first time since her school closed four days ago. On the computer screen in front of her, 21 of her 27 students form a squirming grid, each of them in their own little video chat universe.

Mason is rolling around in bed, Chris and Colton keep walking around, it’s impossible to understand Christian because he sounds like a robot, Kinley appears to be mildly tormenting her cat, and absolutely nobody is adhering to the hands-off-the-face mandate.

From her own box in the upper left corner of the screen, Vanasit does her best to keep the class on task. “Can you hit your speaker button so we don’t hear your background noise?” she asks one student. “Can you minimize your Zoom tab and then open Google Chrome?” she asks another. “If you look in the chat, it has the instructions.”

The students take a quiz using one app, and use another to share computer drawings that depict something they did over the last few days.

“I see someone went on a jog, ooh!” Vanasit tells the class. “Someone watched their baby cousin sleep, someone played video games like Fortnite the whole week. Oh my goodness!”

Meanwhile, the kids occasionally pester each other via Zoom’s chat function or send out anxious missives. “I MISS ISAAC, JAYDEE, AND OLIVIA, AND SHEHBAZ,” Christian types. “LIFE IS NOT THE SAME.” Olivia chimes in, “we might not be in school until august.”

With nearly all the state’s students at home to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s prediction that they won’t be back in classrooms this school year, California’s top education leaders have vowed to keep up instruction.

But teachers and administrators tasked with delivering on that pledge are bumping up against logistical hurdles, murky guidance and uneven resources.

In a letter released Monday, the leaders of the state’s two largest districts — Los Angeles Unified and San Diego Unified — appealed to state lawmakers for guidance and financial support.

“Our schools serve a high portion of students from families living in poverty and their families cannot provide them with digital tools and internet access like more affluent school districts,” the superintendents wrote, appealing to the state for an emergency appropriation of at least $500 per student to cover the costs of making online distance learning more accessible.

The superintendents warned they are currently dipping into district reserves to cover costs. “Said simply, our budgets will not balance for the current fiscal year because of the extraordinary costs associated with responding to the global pandemic.”

They also asked state officials to amend graduation requirements, consider the implications of closure on students’ college prospects and create a coordinated statewide team to unite state and local efforts.

So far, interviews with educators suggest the experiences of the state’s 6.2 million students post-closure vary widely, and the inequities that existed in the classroom may only be exacerbated under the current circumstances.

Vanasit’s experiment, however chaotic, is in some ways a best-case scenario. She and her students have experience working with tech tools in class, plus her kids each have district-issued Chromebooks, which they were allowed to take home. Nearly all of her students also have internet access, and caregivers who can help them navigate the logistics of distance learning.

But in many other districts, not all kids have school-issued laptops, and even some of those who do haven’t been able to take them home. Oakland Unified School District, for instance, was preparing to distribute Chromebooks to students when a shelter-in-place order from the Alameda County Public Health Department temporarily thwarted the effort.

Still, Stephanie Ullman, who teaches sixth grade in Oakland, has found ways to reach students who have access to smartphones. She recorded herself reading texts and had students submit video responses through one familiar app and a written response through another.

“I can't imagine doing it if your kids aren't accustomed to the tech,” she says. “If your kids are unaccustomed or you aren't accustomed it’s super difficult.”

In some districts, though, neither devices nor internet itself are broadly available to students. “Our families don't have access to things that others may,” says Ashley Jones, a fifth grade teacher in the Twin Rivers Unified School District, outside Sacramento. “That's the part where we're a little bit lost, because we don't have like a few kids that need this stuff; it's like hundreds of them.”

School leaders around the state are scrambling to equalize resources. West Contra Costa Unified briefly reopened schools to allow families to pick up Chromebooks, chargers, books and work packets, and also plans to make Wi-Fi hotspots available. In Marysville Joint Unified School District, outside Yuba City, schools have boosted their Wi-Fi signals so families can park outside and access internet-based learning tools.

Los Angeles Unified is promising to put $100 million toward devices and internet access, and train teachers and families in online tools. The district announced Monday it had reached a deal with Verizon to ensure all students get an internet connection.

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But Jones worries that without support at home, all the tech tools in the world won’t even the playing field. “A lot of the kids may not be held accountable to do it,” she says. “So that divide that I see now, I'm worried when we get back that it's going to be even more apparent.”

Some teachers were also able to prepare resources days before the school closures, while others lacked the resources to do so.

One kindergarten teacher described turning to social media days ahead of the shutdown for help pulling together two weeks worth of activities for students, which she made available digitally and in hard copy. Meanwhile, a teacher in another district, where many students lack internet access, said she sent kids home nearly empty-handed because her school didn’t have a working printer.

“We're trying our best to come up with instruction digitally and come up with materials. And we're also trying to be there for our kids, be a safe place for them,” said Vanasit, the Fairfield-Suisun Unified teacher. “But we don’t really have a clear direction.”

In many cases, teachers say expectations are hazy. Is instruction required? Are they supposed to teach new material? Should they be grading kids’ work? What about accommodations for students with special needs?

“We've heard, ‘Be supportive,’ says Oakland kindergarten teacher Serina TomSum. “You know, ‘distance learning,’ but no one's said what it should look like. Everything that I've learned — my master’s — all that has just been thrown out the window.”

Guidance is evolving as districts scramble to wrap their arms around an unprecedented situation, and administrators have had to prioritize basics, like feeding students.

In the interim, teachers have taken instruction into their own hands. Oakland Unified's Ullman spends five hours a day delivering individual reading lessons to students via FaceTime. “I told all of them, ‘Hey, guys, be prepared that you're going to talk to me every day and do the regular lesson.’ ”

Meanwhile, Barbara Jacobson, who teaches fifth grade in Marysville Joint Unified, has turned to YouTube to communicate with students; and Oakland Unified high school teacher LuPaulette Taylor has spent hours on the phone with students laying out expectations and checking on their progress.

But so much of the work teachers do isn’t about curriculum at all. Teachers can be a critical source of support and stability for kids, especially the most vulnerable.

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In between checking in with current students, Taylor has fielded calls from former students, now in college, who are desperate for assistance. She helped get emergency aid to one former student who needed to fly home from Tennessee after her college campus closed, and to another former student who supports her mother and needed help after getting laid off.

Oakland special education teacher Sayuri Sakamoto spent her first days post-closure making sure students’ basic needs were met, delivering food to families in some cases (while taking the proper safety precautions).

Jones, of Twin Rivers Unified, has been thinking a lot about one student she hasn’t been able to reach, a fifth grader who reads at a kindergarten level. “He holds the pencil like he's a 6 year old still trying to figure it out,” she says.

She worries about him falling further behind, but she’s most concerned about something else: He’s often home alone. “He comes to school because he likes having people around. He feels a sense of community and he knows that he's loved there,” Jones said. “I worry he's not going to have that for the rest of the school year.”

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