Coronavirus causes schools to move to online learning

Zoe Morgan/Town Crier
Almond School principal Raquel Matteroli works with teachers during a training on remote instruction.

With schools across Santa Clara County closed in response to the expanding coronavirus pandemic, local educators are working to ensure learning continues, even if it can’t be done in the classroom.

Teachers and administrators plan to provide remote instruction using a variety of online tools.

“We have confidence that we have highly qualified teachers who are really committed to delivering the instruction, who will find innovative ways to continue to allow students to engage in the learning process,” said Leyla Benson, associate superintendent of personnel services in the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District.

School officials emphasize that flexibility will be key in making the transition to online education. The exact form the learning will take will differ based on the district, teacher and age of the student, among other factors.

“Instruction’s going to look different. It’s going to look different for every household. There just needs to be some flexibility,” said Ricky Hu, president of the teachers’ union in the Los Altos School District. “We’ll make sure kids aren’t missing out on too much instruction.”

The Santa Clara County Office of Education announced last week that all public schools in the county would be closed from March 16 through April 3. Some local school districts, including the Los Altos School District and MVLA, had spring break scheduled April 6-10 and plan to reopen April 13.

‘No perfect solution’

In the Los Altos School District, teachers planned to spend Monday and Tuesday preparing to start distance learning. Today and Thursday, teachers will work to get students accustomed to learning online, Superintendent Jeff Baier said. Then on Friday, instruction will begin in earnest.

Over in the high school district, students already had Monday and Tuesday off school. The district was closed Monday and Tuesday was a staff work day. Superintendent Nellie Meyer said she expected the rollout of remote instruction to take a couple of days.

“Different teachers will have different timelines as far as what materials they will have available and when,” she said.

According to Benson, at the high school level, there will be a fair amount of autonomy from course to course in how teachers decide to deliver instruction. MVLA teachers’ union president David Campbell said he expects teachers will adapt how they deliver content based on the class. However, he said some classes, such as art and science courses with labs, may be more challenging to move online.

“It’s daunting, and I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all solution,” he said.

Both school districts plan to use tools from Google to teach remotely, including Google Classroom and Hangouts Meet. Two weeks ago, teachers in the Los Altos School District spent time learning how to use the tools.

According to Baier, teachers will be able to interact over live video with students, as well as posting recorded videos. Students also will be able to submit assignments that teachers then return with feedback.

Teachers in the Los Altos School District are being asked to do some type of direct lesson with students each day, as well as assigning work that students complete independently, said Sandra McGonagle, the district’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.

Throughout the week, teachers also will aim to have some kind of personal interaction with students, either over the phone or via video conference. That could occur one-on-one or in small groups, McGonagle said. At the junior high school level, where teachers see more than 100 students, that might take the form of virtual office hours.

Learning will differ based on grade level. According to McGonagle, kindergarten through second grade teachers are being asked to provide two to three hours of work for students each day, while at the junior high level the expectation is more like four to six hours.

Teaching the youngest children over the internet presents specific challenges.

“We know that young students can’t be independent learners completely, so families will have to help them access the instruction part,” McGonagle said. “Thankfully it’s later in the school year – they know their routines.”

Teachers will continue to follow their classroom routines as much as possible, McGonagle said. Despite efforts to make the transition to online learning as smooth as possible, teachers and administrators acknowledge that much is still unknown about how switching to remote instruction will work in practice.

“We have to acknowledge that in a situation like this it’s not ideal, it’s never ideal,” Hu said. “There’s a reason why students come to school every day. They learn best with other students around them, with their teachers present. The expectation is not to have learning be as good as it would be in a classroom, because that’s just not realistic.”

For Los Altos High School junior Soham Bhonagiri, three weeks without in-person classes is raising concerns about how students will prepare for Advanced Placement exams in May. Bhonagiri takes four AP classes.

“I’m not sure how online learning will actively prepare me for it,” Bhonagiri said. “I’m hoping they have a plan to do so, but that’s something I’m worried about.”

He said he hopes teachers use video recordings to continue teaching classes, rather than just having students turn in homework assignments online.

For their part, teachers also have concerns about how remote learning will play out. Some teachers have their own children who will be home from school, meaning they will have to balance child care with teaching their students.

“There’s no perfect solution,” Campbell said. “I think honestly where we’ll end up is some kind of happy medium.”

Uneven impact

School closures have the potential to impact vulnerable children more acutely. Low-income students often rely on schools to provide free or reduced-price lunches through the National School Lunch Program.

MVLA, the Los Altos School District and the Mountain View Whisman School District have banded together to coordinate hubs where students can pick up meals. As of late last week, administrators had not yet finalized where those locations would be.

Remote learning also presents challenges for students who lack access to a computer or the internet at home. Both Los Altos School District and MVLA officials said they plan to provide Wi-Fi hotspots and computers to students in need. The high school district already has a “bring your own device” policy in place and provides Chromebooks to students who don’t have their own digital devices.

For families with a young child and without a parent able to stay home, Baier said the district has been looking into ways of connecting parents with local child care providers or other families who could help out.

“We’re really conscious of the fact that this is going to put a hardship on some families, especially families that really aren’t in positions they can work from home,” he said. “That is certainly one of those impacts that we were concerned about in closing schools.”

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