Distance learning tests us all

Students, teachers and families come back from spring break to navigate a brand-new model for education

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Distance learning tests us allAs leaders across the state caution the public to get accustomed to a new normal, the “distance learning” model implemented this week gave the public a taste of just how different that might look for education.

Working with guidance from the California and Kern County offices of instruction, Sierra Sands Unified School District shifted into an online curriculum across all grade levels. The consensus from students, parents, teachers and administrators is that with steep learning curves for everyone involved, the new model presents a heavier load on each entity.

SSUSD began building groundwork several weeks ago by conducting a technology survey to determine which families needed devices and internet access. Teachers began ramping up efforts to find ways to wrangle students through remote-only connections while getting up to speed on the new technological interfaces required.

Some parents report that they themselves were unequipped — in terms of time, technology and know-how — to support children in the shift. Many households have since had to contact teachers and principals to request Chromebooks, since not all devices are user-friendly or compatible with the Google Classroom and other software. Others have reached out for training. Others still grapple with how to meet productivity requirements in their jobs while supporting student learning from home.

Engagement itself has been a challenge, many teachers have reported. Walking students through the digital portal to education is not the same as dropping them off at school. There is a long sequence involved in making contact, assessing the need for access, training up families to use the new tools and providing the support necessary for keeping them connected — all of which only builds up to an actual opportunity for instruction.

An underlying concern with those students who are not engaged is a question of their well-being. Teachers and administrators acknowledge that public schools have traditionally served as a safety net for many at-risk youth. It is hard to know how many of these missing students are being neglected.

Challenges aside, SSUSD Superintendent Dr. David Ostash said that the IWV is still ahead of many of their peers across the state who are struggling with the same technological inequities and other hurdles in distance learning.

“Generally speaking, our district, our staff and our families are working as a team through what we all acknowledge are unprecedented times,” said Ostash. “The truth is this is a process. I think we are going to have to expect that it takes time for each of us to work through the many steps involved, and we are going to have to have patience for ourselves and each other.”

He said that the scale-up process involved is not entirely unlike starting a new academic year after summer break. Connections and pathways have to be established between teachers and students, even though they look differently now.

“One thing that we know is that good relationships foster connection, which in turn fosters commitment. And those ultimately lead to success,” said Ostash. “So one of the things that will narrow the gap between traditional and distance learning is relationships.”

The district does not have a way of determining student engagement this early, said Ostash. This reporter conducted an informal poll of a couple dozen local teachers to determine how many students showed up for their first “virtual” day, and the results varied from less than 10 percent to 100 percent.

Based on feedback from teachers, engagement appears to be dependent on a variety of factors — including how strong that relationship with the student was before distance learning, availability of technology, and even grade level. “This is where we see that the ‘relationship’ can be just one spoke in a very complicated wheel,” said Ostash.

For the most part, high school teachers are reporting 80 percent or better attendance. Some have noted that online instruction becomes more common and normalized as you advance in academics. Others note that high school students are more inclined to have a personal investment in making sure they don’t lose time or credit so close to graduation.

Other teachers have reported gratitude of the support they are receiving from their peers. School sites and departments are reporting an all-time-high level of collaboration as teachers share challenges and solutions discovered along the way. Some parents have even formed communities around classrooms, where they can post commonly asked questions and answers where everyone can access them.

For parents and students who are still struggling, administrators encouraged them to contact teachers with their requests for support.

Ostash sent a message Monday through Parent Square underscoring the importance of continued engagement, despite the challenges.

“One thing is for certain — students who do not engage during this period in their educational journey may, from here on forward, experience challenges that could be difficult to overcome,” he said.

“There is a lot of hardship that we wish we could shield our community from. But there are elements in what we are experiencing that have just been utterly awesome to see — the innovation, the can-do spirit, the collaboration, the selflessness, the kindness. Seeing the potential goodness of humanity despite the extreme pressure of our situation is nothing short of inspiring.

“At some point, we know things are going to go back to normal. But I hope we are able to retain some of these qualities.”

Pictured: Shawna Farris (center) helps her children with their school work on the first day of the new “distance learning” model. — Photo by Rebecca Neipp

Story First Published: 2020-04-17