Sara Foss, a sixth grade teacher at Los Berros Visual and Performing Arts Academy, said one of her favorite work-related tasks each summer is reorganizing her classroom to make it exciting and inviting for each new class of incoming students.
On Tuesday, with less than two weeks until the start of the 2020-21 school year and with the walls of her classroom still lacking their typically vibrant décor, Foss acknowledged what many in and around public education are bracing for: This year will be unlike any other.
Lompoc Unified School District, in response to a mandate from the state amid the COVID-19 pandemic, will open its new school year on Aug. 17 with a distance learning model. That means almost all students will begin the new session by meeting with their classes online while physically away from school campuses.
“That kind of takes away from the [start-of-school] excitement, so now I have to find a way for them to be excited to see me and my background on Zoom every day,” Foss said, referring to the popular video-conferencing service. “I’ll try to figure out an engaging way to do that.”
Despite the many new challenges that educators will face over the course of the upcoming school year, several LUSD teachers and administrators said they were looking forward to navigating their new professional landscape. A key part of succeeding, they said, will be cooperation from parents and families, particularly as standards will not be relaxed in the ways they were for the final months of the 2019-20 school year after the coronavirus outbreak led to widespread shutdowns in March.
“I actually love change, so I think this is a fun, new challenge,” Foss said. “Nobody’s ever done this before, so I feel like we’re the pioneers and we’re going to figure this out and make it work. It’s gonna work because we’re gonna make it work; I’m just curious about what that’s gonna be.”
New-look distance model
LUSD administrators had spent much of the summer preparing to open the new school year with a hybrid learning model that would incorporate some online instruction with physical, on-campus activities.
Those plans were redirected on July 17 when Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a mandate with specific requirements for offering in-person instruction. Santa Barbara County has remained on the state’s coronavirus watch list, so LUSD was required to open with distance learning.
“We spent quite a bit of time working on a hybrid model and consulting with our labor unions so we would be ready when it was time to bring our kids back on campus,” said LUSD Superintendent Trevor McDonald. “We had hoped that would happen in August, but we will be ready when the time comes. In the meantime, we have developed a robust distance learning program to ensure our students continue to learn and grow.”
Among some key aspects of the upcoming school year:
- The California Department of Education did not grant any leniency for the new school year, so it must be 180 days. That is why LUSD restored the start date to Aug. 17 after briefly pushing it back two weeks.
- Daily instructional minute requirements are the same, regardless of whether the instruction is in-person or online.
- Attendance will be taken daily. If a student misses three days, schools will attempt to make contact with that student’s family.
- Grades will matter. Unlike the final months of the 2019-20 school year, students will be graded on their assignments during distance learning.
“Given these significant changes, LUSD has been working on a plan to assist families and staff in transitioning to this more demanding version of distance learning,” said LUSD Executive Director Brian Jaramillo.
As an example, he said, schools will collaborate with families to help them with connectivity issues. Further, sites will be distributing Chromebooks to any family that needs them, and supplies have been purchased for students to use at home. Zoom licenses have also been purchased for all LUSD teachers and students to provide increased security, LUSD reported.
Lynette Martin, a sixth grade teacher at Buena Vista Elementary School, said she was a strong believer in “innovation in the face of adversity” and believed that a lot of great ideas and concepts would emerge from what has been a difficult situation.
“I’m looking forward to reaching students and teaching students in whatever capacity we can do that," she said. "I’m excited about it, as I am every school year. It’s just that there are a lot of other emotions and things at play, but I’m definitely looking forward to seeing what we can do with it and seeing how far we can go with it.”
In the classroom
Some teachers, mainly those who teach older students, said they weren’t overly concerned about the technical aspects of staying connected with their students.
“The actual schoolwork online I’m not worried about,” Foss said. “These kids know more about technology than I do.”
That isn’t the case for those who teach LUSD’s youngest students, however.
Jamin Bean, a TK teacher at La Honda STEAM Academy, noted that she typically meets her new students when they are 4 years old. Transferring lessons online for that age group, she said, can present its own set of challenges.
“Their attention spans are a lot shorter at the beginning of the year, as opposed to the end of the year, so it’ll be interesting to see how to teach cutting from a distance,” she said with a laugh.
“I think also the social-emotional development is going to be hard,” she added, “because at 4 and 5 [years old] they’re still learning how to share. Well, now there’s no sharing. So just teaching them to have empathy for each other and how to show kindness without sharing — that’s going to be another challenge.”
Bean, like many other teachers, has spent a portion of her summer rearranging her classroom in anticipation of an eventual limited return of students.
Because TK students are typically in such close proximity, pieces of furniture were removed from her classroom so as to allow for spaced-out desks. She also removed a rug that had been used for students to sit on, and replaced it with SitSpots, small Velcro circles that stick to the carpet and serve as seat markers for students during group activities.
Bean used a yardstick to carefully measure 6 feet between each spot.
“I’m just trying to think of different things to use, because with the littles, teaching them to stay apart can be challenging,” she said.
Bean and other teachers acknowledged that starting a new year under the distance learning model — without having prior relationships with the students — can be more difficult than simply transitioning online with a group that is already familiar with each other.
“The classroom culture and the community in the classroom — developing that is going to be challenging on Zoom, for sure,” Martin said. “It’s going to take more reaching out, it’s going to take more communication, and it’s going to take lots of feedback.”
Ready to go
In addition to the resources that will be made available for students and families, LUSD reported that it has provided more than 40 professional development sessions to its staff since the spring semester and is planning to offer more this month.
All those sessions are recorded for staff to continuously access, according to LUSD.
Bean said she was grateful to have some experience utilizing distance learning to wrap up the 2019-20 school year.
“I’m glad that our district required us to do face-to-face learning last year,” she said, referring to the transition to online classes after the shutdowns started. “Some districts didn’t. I have a lot of friends in other districts that are just barely starting this process, whereas we have a whole trimester of experience. We know a little bit more about what works and what doesn’t, so that’s nice. In that sense, I’m glad our district was a little forward-thinking.”
Some LUSD teachers will be leading their classes primarily from home, while others will continue utilizing their classrooms. Some will do both.
Foss, who said she is developing activities to try to keep her students engaged and active, said she was thankful to have the option to work from home, particularly since she has a child in the seventh grade and another in the fifth.
“Being able to be home teaching while they’re home in their bedrooms learning from their teachers is the biggest blessing ever,” she said. “I have friends in other school districts who aren’t able to teach from home and they just don’t know what they’re gonna do with their kids.”
Martin said the success of this school year will depend on a lot of factors, though she noted that one will loom especially large.
“One of the key ingredients is going to be good communication with parents and good communication with students,” she said. “That, even more so in this climate, is going to be important.”
LUSD schools plan to begin reaching out to families on Aug. 10 with information about picking up materials, schedules, etc. For more information, contact an individual school site or visit lusd.org.
Willis Jacobson covers the city of Lompoc. Follow him on Twitter @WJacobsonLR.
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