#parent | #kids | ‘Uncharted territory’: How 10 local school districts are tackling the transition to distance learning | News

On March 13, amid a cascade of districts announcing closures, Santa Clara County announced a mandatory three-week closure of all public schools. Many private schools had already planned to close, and as of Monday, the vast majority of children in California are not going to school for the time being.

On Tuesday, March 17, Gov. Gavin Newsom said that he anticipated schools would remain closed through the rest of the school year. While this news had not been made official as of Wednesday morning, March 18, it is putting school districts across the state on notice that the current closures could well last far longer than initially anticipated.

Newsom on Wednesday issued an executive order to waive, pending federal approval, this year’s statewide standardized testing for California’s more than 6 million public school students.

“This time is stressful enough for students, families and educators without the additional burden of annual testing,” Newsom said. “This is an unprecedented time, and our main focus is on supporting the mental and socioemotional health of students, while continuing to provide educational opportunities such as distance learning.”

Amidst constantly-changing mandates, in a matter of days school districts around the region have been tasked with switching their primary mode of learning for thousands of students, instructing teachers in how to use new platforms and ironing out plans to continue to serve their neediest students breakfast and lunch each weekday.

Here’s what we know about what online learning will look like for students, from Mountain View to Palo Alto to Woodside.

Palo Alto Unified

In the first week of distance learning in the Palo Alto Unified School District, students and parents received online resources and assignments of varying degrees and levels, none of which is being graded at this time.

The alternative learning options are more straightforward for elementary and middle students than high schoolers, some of whom have said they are seeing wide variation in assignments from teacher to teacher. The district is reminding students and parents at all grades that none of what’s being provided at the moment is meant to replicate full, in-person instruction — though given comments this week from Newsom that schools will likely not reopen this academic year, districts throughout the state will have to tackle that soon.

The district sent out on Monday common study guidelines for each grade level of elementary school with suggested daily reading, writing and math activities, as well as other resources for access to additional learning and enrichment opportunities. Most of the activities are designed for students to complete independently. Specialists will be checking in with elementary teachers to keep tabs on support of English language learner students, the district said.

Third graders, for example, should read for 25 to 30 minutes each day, practice writing in genres they’ve already been taught for about 20 minutes each day and math problems for 20 to 30 minutes per day. The district also provided online resources — including audiobooks, math games, art lessons, music and Khan Academy videos — for further engagement.

Secondary school students are being asked to complete about one hour of work per class for the week — a number that will increase next week. Teachers are being asked to post their “flexible learning options” on Schoology, the district’s online learning management system, and be available for remote office hours to work with students. The district has said that education specialists will provide support to secondary students on Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) through office hours on Schoology. Staff are working through how to support special-education students and are looking to the state for guidance on how to comply with complex legal requirements for special-education services during extended school closures.

Middle and high school English learner students who are enrolled in in-person support classes will have a flexible learning option posted in Schoology, the district said.

High school students said they’ve mostly received straightforward work, such as assigned reading, essays, worksheets and math problem sets. Some but not all teachers are using video conferencing via Zoom (which all teachers have access to). One JLS Middle School music teacher recorded herself singing sections of a song and sent it out to students in parts for them to sing along. A Palo Alto High School film composition teacher asked students to watch a movie with her on Zoom this Friday.

According to Superintendent Don Austin, more than 100 Palo Alto Unified teachers had used Zoom for lessons or to interact with students as of Tuesday. In an interview he said that he feels “confident” that all Palo Alto Unified students have internet access at home and will continue to check in with needy students while school is closed. Palo Alto Unified is a 1:1 district, meaning each student has access to a Chromebook laptop, which some families have been picking up from the schools this week, Austin said.

Eric Bloom, who teaches history, social science and AP macroeconomics at Palo Alto High, said teachers have not been asked to use Zoom for instruction, though more are starting to use it to meet with each other and familiarize themselves with the platform. The teachers that are using it for instruction now are doing it on their own initiative, he said. He’s thought about what it would take to teach a virtual lesson and the expectations for students learning in that way.

“I’m not cynical in the sense that it’s beyond the capacity but that’s a whole lot of things to do at the same time when we’re not supposed to be 6 feet from each other and (we are) working by ourselves at home,” Bloom said. “Just like having more nurses and more masks, perhaps one of the things that our district should think about is, how can we facilitate distance learning? If that’s a priority, let’s start developing it.”

Some students and parents have voiced concern about the lack of consistency in distance learning at this time, particularly for high school students.

“There does not seem to be any uniformity,” Jade Chao, president of the Palo Alto Council of PTAs, told the school board on Tuesday evening. “We are also seeing unequal methods used by teachers” in homework, materials and communication with students.

Gunn High School senior Claire Cheng, the school’s student board representative, said in an interview that high schoolers are largely being expected to “self-learn,” as they already do in many courses, which leaves getting work done while school is closed to their discretion.

“I’m a relatively motivated student, so I will do things. I’m worried about those students who aren’t as motivated to do this,” she said. “What I’m more worried about is when class even resumes — everyone is hypothetically going to be at different stages, especially in math.”

Other high schoolers said they were most motivated to stay on top of their Advanced Placement classes because of looming AP exams. Those tests remain scheduled for May 4–8 and 11–15 for schools that will be open, which remains a question mark. The College Board, however, is considering allowing students to take the tests at home. (The organization said it will release further information on this by Friday, March 20.)

Two critical exams for upperclassmen preparing to apply to college, the SAT and ACT, have been canceled or postponed. Questions about course completion and graduation requirements for high school seniors across the state remain unanswered. Newsom’s office is open to taking legislative action to create waivers for minimum requirements for graduation, Kevin Gordon, president of Capitol Advisors Group, an education policy and advocacy group, told the Palo Alto school board on Tuesday.

The state has also waived instructional days and minute requirements due to the coronavirus, Gordon said.

The “general theme” of state guidance for K-12 schools at this time has been “do your best but the money’s gonna flow,” Gordon said.

At the Tuesday school board meeting, Austin said the district’s teacher leaders are working now on planning the next phase of instruction for the secondary schools — one that “we can guarantee for students and that we have the capacity to handle.”

In an interview, he said that the district is “on a good path” for remote instruction until spring break the first week of April but beyond that remains uncertain.

“If this extends much beyond that then we’re going to have to really start considering different options,” he said. “I don’t think anyone knows what that will look like with certainty at this point.”

Ravenswood City School District

In the K-8 Ravenswood City School District, which has schools in East Palo Alto and east Menlo Park, elementary school students received take-home bags with books at their reading level, writing prompts, math exercises and login information for online learning programs. Middle schoolers will have access to online learning through the Summit Learning Platform. The Ravenswood Education Foundation worked with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to obtain 300 Wi-Fi hotspots for families in need of internet access, prioritizing middle school students to make sure they can get onto Summit while the schools are closed.

While schools are closed temporarily, students and families in Palo Alto and East Palo Alto will still have access to free meals provided by the public school districts. Both districts are offering daily drive-through meals pickup at designated school sites. Students in Palo Alto Unified’s Voluntary Transfer Program (VTP) who live in East Palo Alto can pick up meals at Ravenswood schools and do not have to go to Palo Alto pickup sites. Palo Alto Unified is also delivering meals to students who live in the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park.

Ravenswood is offering meals to any children 18 years and younger in East Palo Alto, regardless of whether they attend district schools, and is also offering home delivery for families who cannot make it to the schools.

Mountain View Los Altos High School District

The Mountain View Los Altos High School District is starting online learning on March 23, a full week after schools closed March 16.

The district is developing short- and long-term plans, said Superintendent Nellie Meyer when asked how the district might adapt to mandated closures through the end of the school year. “As we received this information just last night, we are working to assess what this means for MVLA,” Meyer said in a March 18 email.

“We are in the process of creating expectations for students and staff at this time,” said Dave Grissom, principal at Mountain View High School. “We are going through uncharted territory right now.”

This week, Meyer said, “We hope that families have taken the time to rest, and take care of themselves and other loved ones. It’s a very challenging time in our community and it’s important to support each other as we navigate alternative learning methods and the restrictions imposed by the shelter in place mandates.”

Meanwhile, teachers and administrators are busy developing flexible learning plans. Many teachers, she added, are parents themselves and must also keep their own children busy and engaged. “It’s not easy but they are pulling it off and sharing tips with each other for telecommuting.”

One Mountain View High School parent is sheltering in place with her son, who is currently a senior at the school.

Minako Walther, who teaches Japanese, said in an email Tuesday that she was planning her own online coursework because she hadn’t seen specific instruction from the superintendent or principal about what would be required. Not all teachers at the school are trained in distance learning, but she added, “I believe that we can adapt.”

One challenge is that some students do need extra assistance and reminders to do their work, she said. At this point, she’s not certain whether to implement assessments and quizzes, and is planning to mainly teach through Google Classroom. Students will be able to submit handwriting and speaking assignments, as well as slides for research projects, but she expects students to lose out on the listening and conversational exercises that took place in her classroom.

The physical separation from her classroom and the students she works with will be hard. “In general, I love my job, (and) being able to meet with my students and classes. School is my happy place to be,” she said. She’s also worried that last week might have been the last chance to see some of her students who will be moving out of state at the end of the school year.

Her son, Jiro, a senior, is dealing with his own set of uncertainties.

He said he wasn’t surprised that his school closed, which seemed overdue after the county banned large gatherings.

“I had always thought of finishing my last semester of high school like any other year does (doing senior events, being on campus and whatnot) but now everything seems up in the air,” he said in an email. “While I am sad that my senior year basically came to a pause, I understand the severity of this issue and am glad that such measures have been taken.”

Events he’s looked forward to have now been canceled or are at risk of cancellation. Battle of the Classes, rallies and musicals are canceled; he’s not sure if his last season on the badminton team will resume or not. Prom and graduation are up in the air, as is a senior trip to Montreal.

College and university closures are also raising uncertainty for Jiro about his future. He has been admitted to Stanford but the university’s annual weekend for admitted students, an event that helps many prospective students decide where to attend college, has been called off. “With admit days/weekends being cancelled at institutions across the nation, it seems that this year students will have to make decisions through virtual tours and internet research instead,” he said.

Los Altos School District

The Los Altos School District had been preparing for several weeks for potential school closures, and was set to start on its distance learning program Wednesday, March 18, according to Superintendent Jeff Baier.

Distance learning for students may have a different cadence, he said.

The district will be using Google Classroom as the backbone for its distance learning offerings, along with Google Meet, a business service the company is offering to schools that allows group videos to be recorded for later use.

Younger students will be expected to spend two or three hours per day watching videos and doing independent work, while older students will have class from four to six hours per day, according to Sandra McGonagle, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.

Case managers for students who have individualized education plans will be in contact with families to monitor student progress toward their goals and will work with general education teachers to work through accommodations needed for distance learning.

The district has surveyed families to see which don’t have Wi-Fi at home, and the district has ordered hotspots that it expected to be delivered this week.

As for who’s on campus, some functions still need to be completed at the district offices, but “it’s more of a skeleton crew,” Baier said.

“We are met with this crisis. We recognize that it’s bigger than us – that it’s a county, state, national and international crisis,” said Baier. “We still believe strongly that we have a duty to educate the kids entrusted to us.”

Bullis Charter School

Distance learning started March 17 at Bullis Charter School and seems to be going smoothly, according to Principal Cynthia Brictson. Students in kindergarten through second grade are using the Seesaw platform, while older students are using Google Classroom.

The school is using Zoom to have small group video conferencing and some one-on-one check-ins between students and teachers. The plan is for teachers in English language arts and math to each set up small group check-ins at least twice a week, so students get four check-ins weekly. For students in grades six and up, the district is running its regular schedule, having students join a different Zoom video conference classroom roughly every hour to take their core classes as well as drama, music, Mandarin, art and physical education.

The first day required working through some technical issues, but Brictson said students so far are engaged and families are grateful.

“The only response I have from parents is how well it’s going,” she said.

Mountain View Whisman School District

The Mountain View Whisman School District started distance learning Wednesday, March 18.

The district has put together grade-level packets for students accessible through the school website, which include reading logs, writing prompts, and information on how to access online instructional materials through Clever.com, i-Ready, Khan Academy or Zearn.

Paper copies of the grade-level packets were distributed Wednesday at schools from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and at the food truck that is distributing to-go lunches and breakfasts to children under 18 at Gabriela Mistral Elementary (505 Escuela Ave.) from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. For families without internet access, the district will provide Chromebooks with connection to Xfinity Wi-Fi, with priority for students at Castro, Mistral and Monta Loma schools.

In addition, the district posted a shared Google Drive with music and PE instruction, as well as “brain break” videos broken into several categories based on the student’s grade level.

Access more information and the grade-level packets here.

San Mateo County

A San Mateo County health department order was issued on March 13, closing transitional kindergarten through 12th grade schools and requiring all schools to dismiss students from regular attendance from March 16 to April 3. It encouraged schools and school districts to implement at-home learning models if feasible.

The county notes that at-home learning might involve online content, paper packets, extended readings and research, at-home projects and other options.

The San Mateo County Office of Education posted on its website that educational institutions are exempt from the March 16 “shelter-at-home” order for purposes of facilitating distance learning or performing essential functions, so teachers and administrators can continue to come on campuses. Facilities may be used by faculty and staff to manage at-home learning efforts, including technology support for students and staff.

Woodside Elementary School District

The Woodside Elementary School District began its distance learning program on March 18. Students were dismissed on March 16 and 17 to give teachers time to prepare distance-learning lessons.

“Daily check-ins will occur so that student progress is monitored,” said Superintendent Steve Frank in a March 12 email to parents. “Our teachers and staff are dedicated to guaranteeing that learning continues.”

For second through eighth grades, district teachers are using the Google Classroom platform, and for students in lower grades – transitional kindergarten through first grade – they are using Seesaw, a shared learning platform that is tailored to younger children, he said.

Menlo Park City School District

The board of the Menlo Park City School District, which has schools in Atherton and Menlo Park, plans to convene for a special meeting at 6 p.m. on Thursday, March 19, to discuss progress on the district’s distance learning efforts, which began this week. District Public Information Officer Parke Treadway said officials will meet over video conference, which the public can view and participate online, given the shelter-in-place order.

The district is loaning students internet-enabled devices for distance learning if they need them, according to a March 13 email to parents. District officials are distributing iPads for kindergarten and first grade students and Chromebooks for grades two through five at each school’s front office. Hillview Middle School students will continue using their assigned iPads.

Students who require temporary internet services in their homes to access the district’s digital learning resources can reach out to the district’s family engagement coordinator.

The district is using several online platforms for distance-learning instruction. For example, in kindergarten through fifth grade, teachers will use Seesaw to share video messages, as well as assignments with their students, a parent guide the district created for distance learning states. Students regularly post evidence of learning in Seesaw, and teachers share feedback with learners there as well.

Second through eighth grade teachers may also use Google Classroom to post lessons, facilitate online discussions and accept student assignment submissions.

Kindergarten through eighth grade teachers may opt to hold video chats over Google Hangout with students to give live instruction, host discussions and to continue to build social-emotional connections with students.

Portola Valley School District

Upper grade teachers in the Portola Valley School District will use Google Classroom to upload content – from podcasts to Khan Academy videos to online textbook assignments, said John Davenport, a social studies instructor who teaches seventh and eighth graders at Corte Madera School. Davenport planned to use Google Meet video conferencing to have live meetings with students as well, and said students will give a lecture to their peers through the platform.

Students in kindergarten through third grade can pick up and drop off assignments at Ormondale School, he said. Pickup and drop-off times are intentionally staggered so there aren’t a lot of people together at one time, he noted.

Each student already has his or her own district-issued Chromebook, which they can use for distance learning, said Davenport.

He added that the transition to distance learning has been smooth. Teachers were given the afternoon of March 13, along with March 16 and 17, to prepare distance-learning materials.

“My sense of things from talking to other teachers (in the district) is everyone is fine with it (distance learning),” he said. “We’re well situated with our access to technology. A lot of it has to do with how the administration handles the transition and they made it a lot easier on the teachers. … It’s interesting to see how quickly, strongly and well this district has made this transition.”

Sequoia Union High School District

The Sequoia Union High School District, which stretches from the southern border of San Mateo County to Belmont and serves nearly 10,000 students, began distance learning on March 16 through an online platform called Canvas, according to an email to district families on March 13.

Last week, the district surveyed students and handed out Chromebooks to students who said they didn’t have devices they could work on at home, according to the district website. Mobile hotspots for internet access also became available to students on March 18.

Students with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) were contacted by their providers regarding how their plans will be implemented this week. The district didn’t provide any further details on how these plans will be carried out with the move to distance learning.

Menlo College

Beginning March 18, all classes moved to online instruction at Menlo College in Atherton.

Bill Widmer, an Atherton City Council member and adjunct professor at the private school who is teaching two sections of operations and supply chain management this semester, said he is now familiarizing himself with Zoom, an online video conferencing service. He will lecture to students using Zoom at the same time and day as they met in person for classes before the shutdown, he said.

Classes will be recorded so students who might be in a different time zone can view them later too, he noted. His office hours will move to video calls.

“It’s a change, but I think that it’s an interesting approach,” he said. “A number of universities are offering online classes, so it’s an excellent learning opportunity for me. … There is a lot of anxiety in the community about the disease. No one seems to know the incubation period and people may not even know they have it and could spread it. At this point in time caution it is probably the best to slow it (the spread) down so we’re not overloading the hospitals.”

Las Lomitas School District

The Las Lomitas Elementary School District was still developing a plan around distance learning as of Tuesday, March 17.

If you’re a Palo Alto parent or student affected by the school closures, we want to hear from you. Send an email to education reporter Elena Kadvany at [email protected].

Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula’s response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and Almanac here.

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