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Education vs. COVID-19: The shift to online learning

A student works from home via a computer and online instruction. (Photo: Motortion Films, via Shutterstock)

Schools, parents and children in California are facing a steep learning curve as they switch to remote learning in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Schools shut down abruptly in mid-March, forcing teachers to scramble to come up with online or distance learning materials. Meanwhile, parents had to figure out how to set up home schools while balancing jobs. It’s a gigantic change affecting 6.2 million K-12 public school students and about 500,000 private school students.

Teachers who are parents have a double challenge as they figure out how to serve their students while home schooling their own children.

Some haven’t made the switch. Earlier this month, Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Buetner reported that 15,000 of its high school students were absent online and failed to do any schoolwork. More than 40,000 had not been in daily contact with teachers since the school shut down.

“Even in the best of times, launching a comprehensive online learning program in the nation’s second-largest school district would be a monumental task, akin to landing on the moon,” said Beutner in a statement. “It would take years of careful planning, investment, training and engagement with the entire school community. During extended school closures due to the coronavirus, Los Angeles Unified is doing it in a matter of weeks, because students most in need are counting on us.”

Teachers who are parents have a double challenge as they figure out how to serve their students while home schooling their own children.

Dona Navarro, a teacher in Folsom Cordova Unified School District and a parent of a two boys ages 16 and 11, said managing the transition has been a lot of work.

The first week, she felt overwhelmed by all the emails coming in for her sons from their teachers. “I thought my brain was going to explode-it was information overload,” she said.

“You can only be on the frontlines so long and we have been on the frontline for a while.” –Tom Taylor

While her high school student is able to mostly work independently, her younger son needs assistance with logging in to online platforms and finding and understanding the assignments.

The experience has given Navarro compassion for her students’ parents. “Parents are so overwhelmed right now that less is better,” she said. “We are all in the same boat. We’ve been thrown into a situation that none of us know how to navigate.”

The situation especially hurts school districts that have already faced significant crises, such as Paradise Unified School District, which contended with the devastating Camp Fire a year-and-a-half ago.

“We were still in the healing process and we had not got back to normal when we got hit with this,” said Paradise Superintendent Tom Taylor. “I think our community is tired. You can only be on the frontlines so long and we have been on the frontline for a while.”

“Kids tell me they are sad, they are down and their whole routine of life is upside down.” — John Deasy

Taylor said the teachers are doing the best they can organizing Zoom meetings and setting up Google Classroom work so they can stay connected with students. The school has provided laptops and WiFi hotspots to families that need them and have given paper work packets as well. Meanwhile, the district’s classified staff is working hard continuing to provide lunches for the children.

But he said it’s not the same as the in-person school experience.

“My belief is the most important resource in our education system is a teacher in front of students guiding learning,” he said. “We have just lost that greatest resource. We can’t expect our students to learn at the same rate. We have to back off a little bit.”

John Deasy, superintendent of Stockton Unified School District, said his students are missing being in class. “What I hear is kids are really struggling with the loss of daily contact,” he said. “Kids tell me they are sad, they are down and their whole routine of life is upside down. Markers like traditional graduation and promotions are all up in the air. For young people, this is profoundly dislocating.”

The pandemic has highlighted that there are alternatives to brick and mortar schools.

Deasy said he is grateful that his district start planning for this situation in January when news reports alerted everyone about how much damage COVID-19 was causing in China. He is also grateful that more than a year ago, the school board approved the addition of mental health clinicians and counselors in all schools. Those professionals are essential in helping students deal with the current crisis, he said. “I don’t know where we would be if we hadn’t done that.”

Meanwhile, schools that are already online and have been for years are seeing increased interest in their services.

Jeff Kwitowski, senior vice president of public affairs and policy at K12, a technology company which serves online public schools in California and around the country, said the pandemic has highlighted that there are alternatives to brick and mortar schools.

Online schools K12 works with have graduated 40,000 students who have gone on to college and career. They are often chosen by military families that have to move a lot because their children can stick with the school no matter where they live with a minimum disruption to learning, he said.

“They are models of how this can work,” he said. “It does work but it’s difficult, it’s challenging. There is no doubt about it.”


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