Has California figured out online school? ‘I forgave them for the spring. I’m not going to figure them for the fall.’ – The Mercury News - Freelance Rack

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Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Has California figured out online school? ‘I forgave them for the spring. I’m not going to figure them for the fall.’ – The Mercury News

Now that the great summer debate has been settled and most California schools will be teaching online instead of opening their classrooms for the fast-approaching school year, parents like Martin Rauchwerk have one request: Reassure us online instruction will be better this time around.

“I forgave them for the spring,” said Rauchwerk, whose younger son will be a junior at San Jose’s Leland High School, “but I’m not going to forgive them for the fall.”

State and local officials say online schooling will look a lot different than in the spring. Districts say they’ll make sure students have computers and check in daily. Those students will also follow a regular bell schedule and be graded, unlike when schools were thrown into chaos after the coronavirus pandemic abruptly shuttered classrooms in March.

New state funding rules require schools to document daily student online participation, keep weekly engagement records, report absences and chronic absenteeism and develop re-engagement strategies for students who do not participate.

“We plan on delivering high quality, equitable instruction to all of our students,” said Lili Smith, spokeswoman for the San Jose Unified School District.

How bad was online learning in the spring? Gov. Gavin Newsom was so worried about “learning loss” from online instruction after classrooms closed for the coronavirus pandemic that in April he initially suggested restarting the new school year as early as this month so students could catch up.

But that was before California’s COVID-19 cases started a summer surge. Last week, after imposing new restrictions on non-essential businesses to slow the outbreak, Newsom mandated most schools start the fall online.

While that was welcome news to teachers and many parents who fear classrooms won’t be safe next month, it means a return to the remote teaching format that left many kids, especially the poorest and most vulnerable, behind.

At Oakland Unified School District, about half of its 50,000 students didn’t even have computers or high-speed internet at home when schools closed in March, spokesman John Sasaki said. The district handed out paper classwork packets to students and was able to get most digitally connected about a month into the shutdown, he said. Even so, data indicate a roughly 10% absence rate district-wide during the spring.

Many students faced other hardships beyond computer connectivity, Sasaki said. At Esperanza Elementary, he said, 80% of student families had a parent who lost a job and 60% had two parents who lost work as state and local leaders forced many businesses to close. He said 70% of district families are “food insecure.”

“They struggle in the best of times,” Sasaki said. “Combine that with shelter in place, where many are losing their jobs, it gets exponentially worse.”

To help overcome Oakland’s digital divide, the district joined with the city and the nonprofit Oakland Public Education Fund, Oakland Promise and Tech Exchange in an Oakland Undivided fundraising effort that has raised some $13 million toward acquiring 25,000 computers and internet hotspots for Oakland families.

Sasaki said the computers are on order but may not be fully distributed by the time school starts Aug. 10, though the district has lent 18,000 computers out to families to tide them over.

“Because of everything we learned in the spring we’re much better prepared now to start the semester in distance learning,” Sasaki said.

In San Jose, the heart of Silicon Valley, 95,000 residents are said to lack access to broadband, including 36% of Latinx families and 47% of Black families. A similar San Jose Digital Inclusion Fund aims to spend $24 million over 10 years equipping families with computers and home internet. Nora Ramirez, a spokeswoman for Mayor Sam Liccardo, said more than 14,000 of 36,000 students in San Jose are still lacking digital resources.

San Jose Unified has ordered computers and hotspot devices for families that need them and video conferencing cameras for every classroom so teachers can provide live instruction. The district is working on developing at-home, learning-specific behavior standards for both students and teachers, teacher training, ensuring it can cover unexpected teacher absences, and testing technologies to ensure uninterrupted remote teaching.

Experiences at other schools during the spring point to the challenges. An extensive report by the Los Angeles Unified School District this month found that while 97% of students “were active at a minimal level” with the online learning platform, only 60% participated daily. It also found lower participation among students identified as either Black, Hispanic, poor, disabled, learning English or in foster care.

And only half of students felt they were given assignments that helped them learn during the spring shutdown, according to an online survey by the nonprofit Youth Truth in English and Spanish of more than 20,000 students in grades 5-12 in May and June at 166 public schools in California and eight other states. It found 20% of Hispanic students and 23% of African American students reported limited or no access to a computer compared with 7% of white and 15% of Asian students.

Parents like Rauchwerk, who also has a son attending the UCLA, say online learning can absolutely be effective and has been at the college level. But many were troubled that K-12 districts this summer hadn’t devoted their full attention to improving remote teaching for the fall as they prepared to reopen classrooms.

“What they need to do now,” Rauchwerk said, “is invest in tools so that teachers can do proper online teaching.”

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